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Later / (by Stephen King, 2021) -

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Later /  (by Stephen King, 2021) -

Later / (by Stephen King, 2021) -

, 2021 . , , . , , . , . . , . , , , , . , . , . ", ".

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Later / (by Stephen King, 2021) -
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2021
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Stephen King
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Seth Numrich
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upper-intermediate
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06:32:40
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Later / :

.doc (Word) stephen_king_-_later.doc [741.5 Kb] (c: 6) .
.pdf stephen_king_-_later.pdf [1.35 Mb] (c: 7) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Later

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Marsdens house came into view. It was like one of those Hollywood Hills mansions you see in the movies: big and jutting out over the drop. The side facing us was all glass. The house that heroin built. Liz sounded vicious. There was one more curve before we came to the paved yard in front of the house. Liz drove around it and I saw a man in front of the double garage where Marsdens fancy cars were. I opened my mouth to say it must be Teddy, the gatekeeper, but then I saw his mouth was gone. And given the red hole where his mouth had been, he hadnt died a natural death. Like I said, this is a horror story HARD CASE CRIME BOOKS BY STEPHEN KING: THE COLORADO KID JOYLAND LATER SOME OTHER HARD CASE CRIME BOOKS YOU WILL ENJOY: THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS by James M. Cain BRAINQUAKE by Samuel Fuller THIEVES FALL OUT by Gore Vidal QUARRY by Max Allan Collins SINNER MAN by Lawrence Block SO NUDE, SO DEAD by Ed McBain THE KNIFE SLIPPED by Erle Stanley Gardner SNATCH by Gregory Mcdonald THE LAST STAND by Mickey Spillane UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH by Charles Willeford CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL by Scott Von Doviak SO MANY DOORS by Oakley Hall A BLOODY BUSINESS by Dylan Struzan THE TRIUMPH OF THE SPIDER MONKEY by Joyce Carol Oates BLOOD SUGAR by Daniel Kraus DOUBLE FEATURE by Donald E. Westlake ARE SNAKES NECESSARY? by Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman KILLER, COME BACK TO ME by Ray Bradbury LATER by Stephen King For Chris Lotts There are only so many tomorrows. MICHAEL LANDON LATER I dont like to start with an apologytheres probably even a rule against it, like never ending a sentence with a preposition but after reading over the thirty pages Ive written so far, I feel like I have to. Its about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in Later on and Later I found out and It was only later that I realized. I know its repetitive, but I had no choice, because my story starts when I still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy (although even at six I had my doubts). Im twenty-two now, which makes this later, right? I suppose when Im in my fortiesalways assuming I make it that farIll look back on what I thought I understood at twenty-two and realize there was a lot I didnt get at all. Theres always a later, I know that now. At least until we die. Then I guess its all before that. My name is Jamie Conklin, and once upon a time I drew a Thanksgiving turkey that I thought was the absolute cats ass. Laterand not much laterI found out it was more like the stuff that comes out of the cats ass. Sometimes the truth really sucks. I think this is a horror story. Check it out. 1 I was coming home from school with my mother. She was holding my hand. In the other hand I clutched my turkey, the ones we made in first grade the week before Thanksgiving. I was so proud of mine I was practically shitting nickels. What you did, see, was put your hand on a piece of construction paper and then trace around it with a crayon. That made the tail and body. When it came to the head, you were on your own. I showed mine to Mom and shes all yeah yeah yeah, right right right, totally great, but I dont think she ever really saw it. She was probably thinking about one of the books she was trying to sell. Flogging the product, she called it. Mom was a literary agent, see. It used to be her brother, my Uncle Harry, but Mom took over his business a year before the time Im telling you about. Its a long story and kind of a bummer. I said, I used Forest Green because its my favorite color. You knew that, right? We were almost to our building by then. It was only three blocks from my school. Shes all yeah yeah yeah. Also, You play or watch Barney and The Magic Schoolbus when we get home, kiddo, Ive got like a zillion calls to make. So I go yeah yeah yeah, which earned me a poke and a grin. I loved it when I could make my mother grin because even at six I knew that she took the world very serious. Later on I found out part of the reason was me. She thought she might be raising a crazy kid. The day Im telling you about was the one when she decided for sure I wasnt crazy after all. Which must have been sort of a relief and sort of not. You dont talk to anybody about this, she said to me later that day. Except to me. And maybe not even me, kiddo. Okay? I said okay. When youre little and its your mom, you say okay to everything. Unless she says its bedtime, of course. Or to finish your broccoli. We got to our building and the elevator was still broken. You could say things might have been different if it had been working, but I dont think so. I think that people who say life is all about the choices we make and the roads we go down are full of shit. Because check it, stairs or elevator, we still would have come out on the third floor. When the fickle finger of fate points at you, all roads lead to the same place, thats what I think. I may change my mind when Im older, but I really dont think so. Fuck this elevator, Mom said. Then, You didnt hear that, kiddo. Hear what? I said, which got me another grin. Last grin for her that afternoon, I can tell you. I asked her if she wanted me to carry her bag, which had a manuscript in it like always, that day a big one, looked like a five-hundred-pager (Mom always sat on a bench reading while she waited for me to get out of school, if the weather was nice). She said, Sweet offer, but what do I always tell you? You have to tote your own burden in life, I said. Correctamundo. Is it Regis Thomas? I asked. Yes indeed. Good old Regis, who pays our rent. Is it about Roanoke? Do you even have to ask, Jamie? Which made me snicker. Everything good old Regis wrote was about Roanoke. That was the burden he toted in life. We went up the stairs to the third floor, where there were two other apartments plus ours at the end of the hall. Ours was the fanciest one. Mr. and Mrs. Burkett were standing outside 3A, and I knew right away something was wrong because Mr. Burkett was smoking a cigarette, which I hadnt seen him do before and was illegal in our building anyway. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair was all crazied up in gray spikes. I always called him mister, but he was actually Professor Burkett, and taught something smart at NYU. English and European Literature, I later found out. Mrs. Burkett was dressed in a nightgown and her feet were bare. That nightgown was pretty thin. I could see most of her stuff right through it. My mother said, Marty, whats wrong? Before he could say anything back, I showed him my turkey. Because he looked sad and I wanted to cheer him up, but also because I was so proud of it. Look, Mr. Burkett! I made a turkey! Look, Mrs. Burkett! I held it up for her in front of my face because I didnt want her to think I was looking at her stuff. Mr. Burkett paid no attention. I dont think he even heard me. Tia, I have some awful news. Mona died this morning. My mother dropped her bag with the manuscript inside it between her feet and put her hand over her mouth. Oh, no! Tell me thats not true! He began to cry. She got up in the night and said she wanted a drink of water. I went back to sleep and she was on the couch this morning with a comforter pulled up to her chin and so I tiptoed to the kitchen and put on the coffee because I thought the pleasant smell would w-w-wake would wake He really broke down then. Mom took him in her arms the way she did me when I hurt myself, even though Mr. Burkett was about a hundred (seventy-four, I found out later). That was when Mrs. Burkett spoke to me. She was hard to hear, but not as hard as some of them because she was still pretty fresh. She said, Turkeys arent green, James. Well mine is, I said. My mother was still holding Mr. Burkett and kind of rocking him. They didnt hear her because they couldnt, and they didnt hear me because they were doing adult things: comforting for Mom, blubbering for Mr. Burkett. Mr. Burkett said, I called Dr. Allen and he came and said she probably had a soak. At least thats what I thought he said. He was crying so much it was hard to tell. He called the funeral parlor. They took her away. I dont know what Ill do without her. Mrs. Burkett said, My husband is going to burn your mothers hair with his cigarette if he doesnt look out. And sure enough, he did. I could smell the singeing hair, a kind of beauty shop smell. Mom was too polite to say anything about it, but she made him let go of her, and then she took the cigarette from him and dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. I thought that was a groady thing to do, extreme litterbugging, but I didnt say anything. I got that it was a special situation. I also knew that talking to Mrs. Burkett any more would freak him out. Mom, too. Even a little kid knows certain basic things if hes not soft in the attic. You said please, you said thank you, you didnt flap your weenie around in public or chew with your mouth open, and you didnt talk to dead folks when they were standing next to living folks who were just starting to miss them. I only want to say, in my own defense, that when I saw her I didnt know she was dead. Later on I got better at telling the difference, but back then I was just learning. It was her nightgown I could see through, not her. Dead people look just like living people, except theyre always wearing the clothes they died in. Meanwhile, Mr. Burkett was rehashing the whole thing. He told my mother how he sat on the floor beside the couch and held his wifes hand till that doctor guy came and again till the mortician guy came to take her away. Conveyed her hence was what he actually said, which I didnt understand until Mom explained it to me. And at first I thought he said beautician, maybe because of the smell when he burned Moms hair. His crying had tapered off, but now it ramped up again. Her rings are gone, he said through his tears. Both her wedding ring and her engagement ring, that big diamond. I looked on the night table by her side of the bed, where she puts them when she rubs that awful-smelling arthritis cream into her hands It does smell bad, Mrs. Burkett admitted. Lanolin is basically sheep dip, but it really helps. I nodded to show I understood but didnt say anything. and on the bathroom sink, because sometimes she leaves them thereIve looked everywhere. Theyll turn up, my mother soothed, and now that her hair was safe, she took Mr. Burkett in her arms again. Theyll turn up, Marty, dont you worry about that. I miss her so much! I miss her already! Mrs. Burkett flapped a hand in front of her face. I give him six weeks before hes asking Dolores Magowan out to lunch. Mr. Burkett was blubbing, and my mother was doing her soothing thing like she did to me whenever I scraped my knee or this one time when I tried to make her a cup of tea and slopped hot water on my hand. Lots of noise, in other words, so I took a chance but kept my voice low. Where are your rings, Mrs. Burkett? Do you know? They have to tell you the truth when theyre dead. I didnt know that at the age of six; I just assumed all grownups told the truth, living or dead. Of course back then I also believed Goldilocks was a real girl. Call me stupid if you want to. At least I didnt believe the three bears actually talked. Top shelf of the hall closet, she said. Way in the back, behind the scrapbooks. Why there? I asked, and my mother gave me a strange look. As far as she could see, I was talking to the empty doorwayalthough by then she knew I wasnt quite the same as other kids. After a thing that happened in Central Park, not a nice thingIll get to itI overheard her telling one of her editor friends on the phone that I was fey. That scared the shit out of me, because I thought she meant she was changing my name to Fay, which is a girls name. I dont have the slightest idea, Mrs. Burkett said. By then I suppose I was having the stroke. My thoughts would have been drowning in blood. Thoughts drowning in blood. I never forgot that. Mom asked Mr. Burkett if he wanted to come down to our apartment for a cup of tea (or something stronger), but he said no, he was going to have another hunt for his wifes missing rings. She asked him if he would like us to bring him some Chinese take-out, which my mother was planning for dinner, and he said that would be good, thank you Tia. My mother said de nada (which she used almost as much as yeah yeah yeah and right right right), then said wed bring it to his apartment around six, unless he wanted to eat with us in ours, which he was welcome to do. He said no, hed like to eat in his place but he would like us to eat with him. Except what he actually said was our place, like Mrs. Burkett was still alive. Which she wasnt, even though she was there. By then youll have found her rings, Mom said. She took my hand. Come on, Jamie. Well see Mr. Burkett later, but for now lets leave him alone. Mrs. Burkett said, Turkeys arent green, Jamie, and that doesnt look like a turkey anyway. It looks like a blob with fingers sticking out of it. Youre no Rembrandt. Dead people have to tell the truth, which is okay when you want to know the answer to a question, but as I said, the truth can really suck. I started to be mad at her, but just then she started to cry and I couldnt be. She turned to Mr. Burkett and said, Wholl make sure you dont miss the belt loop in the back of your pants now? Dolores Magowan? I should smile and kiss a pig. She kissed his cheekor kissed at it, I couldnt really tell which. I loved you, Marty. Still do. Mr. Burkett raised his hand and scratched the spot where her lips had touched him, as if he had an itch. I suppose thats what he thought it was. 2 So yeah, I see dead people. As far as I can remember, I always have. But its not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is. Like being left-handed, or being able to play classical music when youre like three years old, or getting early-onset Alzheimers, which is what happened to Uncle Harry when he was only forty-two. At age six, forty-two seemed old to me, but even then I understood its young to wind up not knowing who you are. Or what the names of things arefor some reason thats what always scared me the most when we went to see Uncle Harry. His thoughts didnt drown in blood from a busted brain vessel, but they drowned, just the same. Mom and me trucked on down to 3C, and Mom let us in. Which took some time, because there are three locks on the door. She said thats the price you pay for living in style. We had a six-room apartment with a view of the avenue. Mom called it the Palace on Park. We had a cleaning woman who came in twice a week. Mom had a Range Rover in the parking garage on Second Avenue, and sometimes we went up to Uncle Harrys place in Speonk. Thanks to Regis Thomas and a few other writers (but mostly good old Regis), we were living high on the hog. It didnt last, a depressing development I will discuss all too soon. Looking back on it, I sometimes think my life was like a Dickens novel, only with swearing. Mom tossed her manuscript bag and purse on the sofa and sat down. The sofa made a farting noise that usually made us laugh, but not that day. Jesus-fuck, Mom said, then raised a hand in a stop gesture. You I didnt hear it, nope, I said. Good. I need to have an electric shock collar or something that buzzes every time I swear around you. Thatd teach me. She stuck out her lower lip and blew back her bangs. Ive got another two hundred pages of Regiss latest to read Whats this one called? I asked, knowing the title would have of Roanoke in it. They always did. Ghost Maiden of Roanoke, she said. Its one of his better ones, lots of selots of kissing and hugging. I wrinkled my nose. Sorry, kiddo, but the ladies love those pounding hearts and torrid thighs. She looked at the bag with Ghost Maiden of Roanoke inside, secured with the usual six or eight rubber bands, one of which always snapped and made Mom give out some of her best swears. Many of which I still use. Now I feel like I dont want to do anything but have a glass of wine. Maybe the whole bottle. Mona Burkett was a prize pain the ass, he might actually be better off without her, but right now hes gutted. I hope to God hes got relatives, because I dont relish the idea of being Comforter in Chief. She loved him, too, I said. Mom gave me a strange look. Yeah? You think? I know. She said something mean about my turkey, but then she cried and kissed him on the cheek. You imagined that, James, she said, but half-heartedly. She knew better by then, Im sure she did, but grownups have a tough time believing, and Ill tell you why. When they find out as kids that Santa Claus is a fake and Goldilocks isnt a real girl and the Easter Bunny is bullshitjust three examples, I could give moreit makes a complex and they stop believing anything they cant see for themselves. Nope, didnt imagine it. She said Id never be Rembrandt. Who is that? An artist, she said, and blew her bangs back again. I dont know why she didnt just cut them or wear her hair a different way. Which she could, because she was really pretty. When we go down there to eat, dont you dare say anything to Mr. Burkett about what you think you saw. I wont, I said, but she was right. My turkey sucks. I felt bad about that. I guess it showed, because she held out her arms. Come here, kiddo. I came and hugged her. Your turkey is beautiful. Its the most beautiful turkey I ever saw. Im going to put it up on the refrigerator and it will stay there forever. I hugged as tight as I could and put my face in the hollow of her shoulder so I could smell her perfume. I love you, Mom. I love you too, Jamie, a million bunches. Now go play or watch TV. I need to roll some calls before ordering the Chinese. Okay. I started for my room, then stopped. She put her rings on the top shelf of the hall closet, behind some scrap-books. My mother stared at me with her mouth open. Why would she do that? I asked her and she said she didnt know. She said by then her thoughts were drownding in blood. Oh my God, Mom whispered, and put her hand to her neck. You should figure out a way to tell him when we have the Chinese. Then he wont worry about it. Can I have General Tsos? Yes, she said. And brown rice, not white. Right right right, I said, and went to play with my Legos. I was making a robot. 3 The Burketts apartment was smaller than ours, but nice. After dinner, while we were having our fortune cookies (mine said A feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air, which makes no sense at all), Mom said, Have you checked the closets, Marty? For her rings, I mean? Why would she put her rings in a closet? A sensible enough question. Well, if she was having a stroke, she might not have been thinking too clearly. We were eating at the little round table in the kitchen nook. Mrs. Burkett was sitting on one of the stools at the counter and nodded vigorously when Mom said that. Maybe Ill check, Mr. Burkett said. He sounded pretty vague. Right now Im too tired and upset. You check the bedroom closet when you get around to it, Mom said. Ill check the one in the hall right now. A little stretching will do me good after all that sweet and sour pork. Mrs. Burkett said, Did she think that up all by herself? I didnt know she was that smart. Already she was getting hard to hear. After awhile I wouldnt be able to hear her at all, just see her mouth moving, like she was behind a thick pane of glass. Pretty soon after that shed be gone. My moms plenty smart, I said. Never said she wasnt, Mr. Burkett said, but if she finds those rings in the front hall closet, Ill eat my hat. Just then my mother said Bingo! and came in with the rings on the palm of one outstretched hand. The wedding ring was pretty ordinary, but the engagement ring was as big as an eyeball. A real sparkler. Oh my God! Mr. Burkett cried. How in Gods name? I prayed to St. Anthony, Mom said, but cast a quick glance my way. And a smile. Tony, Tony, come around! Somethings lost that must be found! And as you see, it worked. I thought about asking Mr. Burkett if he wanted salt and pepper on his hat, but didnt. It wasnt the right time to be funny, and besides, its like my mother always saysnobody loves a smartass. 4 The funeral was three days later. It was my first one, and interesting, but not what youd call fun. At least my mother didnt have to be Comforter in Chief. Mr. Burkett had a sister and brother to take care of that. They were old, but not as old as he was. Mr. Burkett cried all the way through the service and the sister kept handing him Kleenex. Her purse seemed to be full of them. Im surprised she had room for anything else. That night mom and I had pizza from Dominos. She had wine and I had Kool-Aid as a special treat for being good at the funeral. When we were down to the last piece of the pie, she asked me if I thought Mrs. Burkett had been there. Yeah. She was sitting on the steps leading up to the place where the minister and her friends talked. The pulpit. Could you She picked up the last slice, looked at it, then put it down and looked at me. Could you see through her? Like a movie ghost, you mean? Yes. I suppose that is what I mean. Nope. She was all there, but still in her nightgown. I was surprised to see her, because she died three days ago. They dont usually last that long. They just disappear? Like she was trying to get it straight in her mind. I could tell she didnt like talking about it, but I was glad she was. It was a relief. Yeah. What was she doing, Jamie? Just sitting there. Once or twice she looked at her coffin, but mostly she looked at him. At Mr. Burkett. Marty. Right. She said something once, but I couldnt hear. Pretty soon after they die, their voices start to fade away, like turning down the music on the car radio. After awhile you cant hear them at all. And then theyre gone. Yes, I said. There was a lump in my throat, so I drank the rest of my Kool-Aid to make it go away. Gone. Help me clean up, she said. Then we can watch an episode of Torchwood, if you want. Yeah, cool! In my opinion Torchwood wasnt really cool, but getting to stay up an hour after my usual bedtime was way cool. Fine. Just as long as you understand were not going to make a practice of it. But I need to tell you something first, and its very serious, so I want you to pay attention. Close attention. Okay. She got down on one knee, so our faces were more or less level and took hold of me by the shoulders, gently but firmly. Never tell anyone about seeing dead people, James. Never. They wouldnt believe me anyway. You never used to. I believed something, she said. Ever since that day in Central Park. Do you remember that? She blew back her bangs. Of course you do. How could you forget? I remember. I only wished I didnt. She was still on her knee, looking into my eyes. So here it is. People not believing is a good thing. But someday somebody might. And that might get the wrong kind of talk going, or put you in actual danger. Why? Theres an old saying that dead men tell no tales, Jamie. But they can talk to you, cant they? Dead men and women. You say they have to answer questions, and give truthful answers. As if dying is like a dose of sodium pentothal. I had no clue what that was and she must have seen it on my face because she said to never mind that, but to remember what Mrs. Burkett had told me when I asked about her rings. So? I said. I liked being close to my mom, but I didnt like her looking at me in that intense way. Those rings were valuable, especially the engagement ring. People die with secrets, Jamie, and there are always people who want to know those secrets. I dont mean to scare you, but sometimes a scare is the only lesson that works. Like the man in Central Park was a lesson about being careful in traffic and always wearing your helmet when you were on your bike, I thoughtbut didnt say. I wont talk about it, I said. Not ever. Except to me. If you need to. Okay. Good. We have an understanding. She got up and we went in the living room and watched TV. When the show was over, I brushed my teeth and peed and washed my hands. Mom tucked me in and kissed me and said what she always said: Sweet dreams, pleasant repose, all the bed and all the clothes. Most nights that was the last time I saw her until morning. Id hear the clink of glass as she poured herself a second glass of wine (or a third), then jazz turned way down low as she started reading some manuscript. Only I guess moms must have an extra sense, because that night she came back in and sat on my bed. Or maybe she just heard me crying, although I was trying my best to keep it on the down-low. Because, as she also always said, its better to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Whats wrong, Jamie? she asked, brushing back my hair. Are you thinking about the funeral? Or Mrs. Burkett being there? What would happen to me if you died, Mom? Would I have to go live in an orphanage home? Because it sure as shit wouldnt be with Uncle Harry. Of course not, Mom said, still brushing my hair. And its what we call a moot point, Jamie, because Im not going to die for a long time. Im thirty-five years old, and that means I still have over half my life ahead of me. What if you get what Uncle Harrys got, and have to live in that place with him? The tears were streaming down my face. Having her stroke my forehead made me feel better, but it also made me cry more, who knows why. That place smells bad. It smells like pee! The chance of that happening is so teensy that if you put it next to an ant, the ant would look like Godzilla, she said. That made me smile and feel better. Now that Im older I know she was either lying or misinformed, but the gene that triggers what Uncle Harry hadearly-onset Alzheimersswerved around her, thank God. Im not going to die, youre not going to die, and I think theres a good chance that this peculiar ability of yours will fade when you get older. Soare we good? Were good. No more tears, Jamie. Just sweet dreams and Pleasant repose, all the bed and all the clothes, I finished. Yeah yeah yeah. She kissed my forehead and left. Leaving the door open a little bit, as she always did. I didnt want to tell her it wasnt the funeral that had made me cry, and it wasnt Mrs. Burkett, either, because she wasnt scary. Most of them arent. But the bicycle man in Central Park scared the shit out of me. He was gooshy. 5 We were on the 86th Street Transverse, heading for Wave Hill in the Bronx, where one of my preschool friends was having a big birthday party. (Talk about spoiling a kid rotten, Mom said.) I had my present to give Lily in my lap. We went around a curve and saw a bunch of people standing in the street. The accident must have just happened. A man was lying half on the pavement and half on the sidewalk with a twisted-up bicycle beside him. Someone had put a jacket over his top half. His bottom half was wearing black bike shorts with red stripes up the sides, and a knee brace, and sneakers with blood all over them. It was on his socks and legs, too. We could hear approaching sirens. Standing next to him was the same man in the same bike shorts and knee brace. He had white hair with blood in it. His face was caved in right down the middle, I think maybe from where he hit the curb. His nose was like in two pieces and so was his mouth. Cars were stopping and my mother said, Close your eyes. It was the man lying on the ground she was looking at, of course. Hes dead! I started to cry. That man is dead! We stopped. We had to. Because of the other cars in front of us. No, hes not, Mom said. Hes asleep, thats all. Its what happens sometimes when someone gets banged hard. Hell be fine. Now close your eyes. I didnt. The smashed-up man raised a hand and waved at me. They know when I see them. They always do. His face is in two pieces! Mom looked again to be sure, saw the man was covered down to his waist, and said, Stop scaring yourself, Jamie. Just close your Hes there! I pointed. My finger was trembling. Everything was trembling. Right there, standing next to himself! That scared her. I could tell by the way her mouth got all tight. She laid on her horn with one hand. With the other she pushed the button that rolled down her window and started waving at the cars ahead of her. Go! she shouted. Move! Stop staring at him, for Christs sake, this isnt a fucking movie! They did, except for the one right in front of her. That guy was leaning over and taking a picture with his phone. Mom pulled up and bumped his fender. He gave her the bird. My mother backed up and pulled into the other lane to go around. I wish Id also given him the bird, but I was too freaked out. Mom barely missed a police car coming the other way and drove for the far side of the park as fast as she could. She was almost there when I unbuckled my seatbelt. Mom yelled at me not to do that but I did it anyway and buzzed down my window and kneeled on the seat and leaned out and blew groceries all down the side of the car. I couldnt help it. When we got to the Central Park West side, Mom pulled over and wiped off my face with the sleeve of her blouse. She might have worn that blouse again, but if she did I dont remember it. God, Jamie. Youre white as a sheet. I couldnt help it, I said. I never saw anyone like that before. There were bones sticking right out of his no-nose Then I ralphed again, but managed to get most of that one on the street instead of on our car. Plus there wasnt as much. She stroked my neck, ignoring someone (maybe the man who gave us the finger) who honked at us and drove around our car. Honey, thats just your imagination. He was covered up. Not the one on the ground, the one standing beside him. He waved at me. She stared at me for a long time, seemed like she was going to say something, then just buckled my seatbelt. I think maybe we should skip the party. How does that sound to you? Good, I said. I dont like Lily anyway. She sneaky-pinches me during Story Time. We went home. Mom asked me if I could keep down a cup of cocoa and I said I could. We drank cocoa together in the living room. I still had Lilys present. It was a little doll in a sailor suit. When I gave it to Lily the next week, instead of sneaky-pinching me, she gave me a kiss right on the mouth. I got teased about that and never minded a bit. While we were drinking our cocoa (she might have put a little something extra in hers), Mom said, I promised myself when I was pregnant that Id never lie to my kid, so here goes. Yeah, that guy was probably dead. She paused. No, he was dead. I dont think even a bike helmet would have saved him, and I didnt see one. No, he wasnt wearing a helmet. Because if hed been wearing it when he got hit (it was a taxi that did it, we found out), he would have been wearing it as he stood beside his body. Theyre always wearing what they had on when they died. But you only imagined you saw his face, honey. You couldnt have. Someone covered him up with a jacket. Someone very kind. He was wearing a tee-shirt with a lighthouse on it, I said. Then I thought of something else. It was only a little bit cheery, but after something like that, I guess you take what you can get. At least he was pretty old. Why do you say that? She was looking at me oddly. Looking back on it, I think that was when she started to believe, at least a little bit. His hair was white. Except for the parts with the blood in it, that is. I started to cry again. My mother hugged me and rocked me and I went to sleep while she was doing it. I tell you what, theres nothing like having a mother around when youre thinking of scary shit. We got the Times delivered to our door. My mother usually read it at the table in her bathrobe while we ate breakfast, but the day after the Central Park man she was reading one of her manuscripts instead. When breakfast was over, she told me to get dressed and maybe wed ride the Circle Line, so it must have been a Saturday. I remember thinking it was the first weekend the Central Park man was dead in. That made it real all over again. I did what she said, but first I went into her bedroom while she was in the shower. The newspaper was on the bed, open to the page where they put dead folks who are famous enough for the Times. The picture of the Central Park man was there. His name was Robert Harrison. At four I was already reading at a third-grade level, my mother was very proud of that, and there were no tough words in the headline of the story, which was all I read: CEO OF LIGHTHOUSE FOUNDATION DIES IN TRAFFIC ACCIDENT. I saw a few more dead people after thatthe saying about how in life we are in death is truer than most people knowand sometimes I said something to Mom, but mostly I didnt because I could see it upset her. It wasnt until Mrs. Burkett died and Mom found her rings in the closet that we really talked about it again. That night after she left my room I thought I wouldnt be able to sleep, and if I did I would dream about the Central Park man with his split-open face and bones sticking out of his nose, or about my mother in her coffin, but also sitting on the steps to the pulpit, where only I could see her. But so far as I can remember, I didnt dream about anything. I got up the next morning feeling good, and Mom was feeling good, and we joked around like we sometimes did, and she stuck my turkey on the fridge and then put a big smackeroo on it, which made me giggle, and she walked me to school, and Mrs. Tate told us about dinosaurs, and life went on for two years in the good ways it usually did. Until, that is, everything fell apart. 6 When Mom realized how bad things were, I heard her talking to Anne Staley, her editor friend, about Uncle Harry on the phone. Mom said, He was soft even before he went soft. I realize that now. At six I wouldnt have had a clue. But by then I was eight going on nine, and I understood, at least partly. She was talking about the mess her brother had gotten himselfand herinto even before the early-onset Alzheimers carried off his brains like a thief in the night. I agreed with her, of course; she was my mother, and it was us against the world, a team of two. I hated Uncle Harry for the jam we were in. It wasnt until later, when I was twelve or maybe even fourteen, that I realized my mother was also partly to blame. She might have been able to get out while there was still time, probably could have, but she didnt. Like Uncle Harry, who founded the Conklin Literary Agency, she knew a lot about books but not enough about money. She even got two warnings. One was from her friend Liz Dutton. Liz was an NYPD detective, and a great fan of Regis Thomass Roanoke series. Mom met her at a launch party for one of those books, and they clicked. Which turned out to be not so good. Ill get to it, but for now Ill just say that Liz told my mother that the Mackenzie Fund was too good to be true. This might have been around the time Mrs. Burkett died, Im not sure about that, but I know it was before the fall of 2008, when the economy went belly-up. Including our part of it. Uncle Harry used to play racquetball at some fancy club near Pier 90, where the big boats dock. One of the friends he played with was a Broadway producer who told him about the Mackenzie Fund. The friend called it a license to coin money, and Uncle Harry took him seriously about that. Why wouldnt he? The friend had produced like a bazillion musicals that ran on Broadway for a bazillion years, plus also all over the country, and the royalties just poured in. (I knew exactly what royalties wereI was a literary agents kid.) Uncle Harry checked it out, talked to some big bug who worked for the Fund (although not to James Mackenzie himself, because Uncle Harry was just a small bug in the great scheme of things), and put in a bunch of money. The returns were so good that he put in more. And more. When he got the Alzheimersand he went downhill really fastmy mother took over all the accounts, and she not only stuck with the Mackenzie Fund, she put even more money into it. Monty Grisham, the lawyer who helped with contracts back then, not only told her not to put in more, he told her to get out while the getting was good. That was the other warning she got, and not long after she took over the Conklin Agency. He also said that if a thing looked too good to be true, it probably was. Im telling you everything I found out in little driblets and drabletslike that overheard conversation between Mom and her editor pal. Im sure you get that, and Im sure you dont need me to tell you that the Mackenzie Fund was actually a big fat Ponzi scheme. The way it worked was Mackenzie and his merry band of thieves took in mega-millions and paid back big percentage returns while skimming off most of the investment dough. They kept it going by roping in new investors, telling each one how special he or she was because only a select few were allowed into the Fund. The select few, it turned out, were thousands, everyone from Broadway producers to wealthy widows who stopped being wealthy almost overnight. A scheme like that depends on investors being happy with their returns and not only leaving their initial investments in the Fund but putting in more. It worked okay for awhile, but when the economy crashed in 2008, almost everybody in the Fund asked for their money back and the money wasnt there. Mackenzie was a piker compared to Madoff, the king of Ponzi schemes, but he gave old Bern a run for his money; after taking in over twenty billion dollars, all he had in the Mackenzie accounts was a measly fifteen million. He went to jail, which was satisfying, but as Mom sometimes said, Grits aint groceries and revenge dont pay the bills. Were okay, were okay, she told me when Mackenzie started showing up on all the news channels and in the Times. Dont worry, Jamie. But the circles under her eyes said that she was plenty worried, and she had plenty of reasons to be. Heres more of what I found out later: Mom only had about two hundred grand in assets she could put her hands on, and that included the insurance policies on her and me. What she had on the liability side of the ledger, you dont want to know. Just remember our apartment was on Park Avenue, the agency office was on Madison Avenue, and the extended care home where Uncle Harry was living (If you can call that living, I can hear my mother adding) was in Pound Ridge, which is about as expensive as it sounds. Closing the office on Madison was Moms first move. After that she worked out of the Palace on Park, at least for awhile. She paid some rent in advance by cashing in those insurance policies I mentioned, including her brothers, but that would only last eight or ten months. She rented Uncle Harrys place in Speonk. She sold the Range Rover (We dont really need a car in the city anyway, Jamie, she said) and a bunch of first edition books, including a signed Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel. She cried over that one and said she didnt get half of what it was worth, because the rare book market was also in the toilet, thanks to a bunch of sellers as desperate for cash as she was. Our Andrew Wyeth painting went, too. And every day she cursed James Mackenzie for the thieving, money-grubbing, motherfucking, cock-sucking, bleeding hemorrhoid on legs that he was. Sometimes she also cursed Uncle Harry, saying hed be living behind a garbage dumpster by the end of the year and it would serve him right. And, to be fair, later on she cursed herself for not listening to Liz and Monty. I feel like the grasshopper who played all summer instead of working, she said to me one night. January or February of 2009, I think. By then Liz was staying over sometimes, but not that night. That might have been the first time I noticed there were threads of gray in my moms pretty red hair. Or maybe I remember because she started to cry and it was my turn to comfort her, even though I was just a little kid and didnt really know how to do it. That summer we moved out of the Palace on Park and into a much smaller place on Tenth Avenue. Not a dump, Mom said, and the price is right. Also: Ill be damned if Ill move out of the city. That would be waving the white flag. Id start losing clients. The agency moved with us, of course. The office was in what I suppose would have been my bedroom if things hadnt been so fucking dire. My room was an alcove adjacent to the kitchen. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but at least it smelled good. I think it used to be the pantry. She moved Uncle Harry to a facility in Bayonne. The less said about that place the better. The only good thing about it, I suppose, was that poor old Uncle Harry didnt know where he was, anyway; he would have pissed his pants just as much if hed been in the Beverly Hilton. Other things I remember about 2009 and 2010: My mother stopped getting her hair done. She stopped lunching with friends and only lunched with clients of the agency if she really had to (because she was the one who always got stuck with the check). She didnt buy many new clothes, and the ones she did buy were from discount stores. And she started drinking more wine. A lot more. There were nights when she and her friend Lizthe Regis Thomas fan and detective I told you aboutwould get pretty soused together. The next day Mom would be red-eyed and snappy, puttering around in her office in her pajamas. Sometimes shed sing, Crappy days are here again, the skies are fucking drear again. On those days it was a relief to go to school. A public school, of course; my private school days were over, thanks to James Mackenzie. There were a few rays of light in all that gloom. The rare book market might have been in the shithouse, but people were reading regular books againnovels to escape and self-help books because, lets face it, in 2009 and 10, a lot of people needed to help themselves. Mom was always a big mystery reader, and she had been building up that part of the Conklin stable ever since taking over for Uncle Harry. She had ten or maybe even a dozen mystery authors. They werent big-ticket guys and gals, but their fifteen percent brought in enough to pay the rent and keep the lights on in our new place. Plus, there was Jane Reynolds, a librarian from North Carolina. Her novel, a mystery titled Dead Red, came in over the transom, and Mom just raved about it. There was an auction for who would get to publish it. All the big companies took part, and the rights ended up selling for two million dollars. Three hundred thousand of those scoots were ours, and my mother began to smile again. It will be a long time before we get back to Park Avenue, she said, and weve got a lot of climbing to do before we get out of the hole Uncle Harry dug for us, but we just might make it. I dont want to go back to Park Avenue anyway, I said. I like it here. She smiled and hugged me. Youre my little love. She held me at arms length and studied me. Not so little anymore, either. Do you know what Im hoping, kiddo? I shook my head. That Jane Reynolds turns out to be a book-a-year babe. And that the movie of Dead Red gets made. Even if neither of those things happen, theres good old Regis Thomas and his Roanoke Saga. Hes the jewel in our crown. Only Dead Red turned out to be like a final flash of sunlight before a big storm moves in. The movie never got made, and the publishers who bid on the book got it wrong, as they sometimes do. The book flopped, which didnt hurt us financiallythe money was paidbut other stuff happened and that three hundred grand vanished like dust in the wind. First, Moms wisdom teeth went to hell and got infected. She had to have them all pulled. That was bad. Then Uncle Harry, troublesome Uncle Harry, still not fifty years old, tripped in the Bayonne care facility and fractured his skull. That was a lot worse. Mom talked to the lawyer who helped her with book contracts (and took a healthy bite of our agency fee for his trouble). He recommended another lawyer who specialized in liability and negligence suits. That lawyer said we had a good case, and maybe we did, but before the case got anywhere near a courtroom, the Bayonne facility declared bankruptcy. The only one who made money out of that was the fancy slip-and-fall lawyer, who banked just shy of forty thousand dollars. Those billable hours are a bitch, Mom said one night when she and Liz Dutton were well into their second bottle of wine. Liz laughed because it wasnt her forty thousand. Mom laughed because she was squiffed. I was the only one who didnt see the humor in it, because it wasnt just the lawyers bills. We were on the hook for Uncle Harrys medical bills as well. Worst of all, the IRS came after Mom for back taxes Uncle Harry owed. He had been putting off that other uncleSamso he could dump more money into the Mackenzie Fund. Which left Regis Thomas. The jewel in our crown. 7 Now check this out. Its the fall of 2009. Obama is president, and the economy is slowly getting better. For us, not so much. Im in the third grade, and Ms. Pierce has me doing a fractions problem on the board because Im good at shit like that. I mean I was doing percentages when I was sevenliterary agents kid, remember. The kids behind me are restless because its that funny little stretch of school between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The problem is as easy as soft butter on toast, and Im just finishing when Mr. Hernandez, the assistant principal, sticks his head in. He and Ms. Pierce have a brief murmured conversation, and then Ms. Pierce asks me to step out into the hall. My mother is waiting out there, and shes as pale as a glass of milk. Skim milk. My first thought is that Uncle Harry, who now has a steel plate in his skull to protect his useless brain, has died. Which in a gruesome way would actually be good, because it would cut down on expenses. But when I ask, she says Uncle Harryby then living in a third-rate care home in Piscataway (he kept moving further west, like some fucked-up brain-dead pioneer)is fine. Mom hustles me down the hall and out the door before I can ask any more questions. Parked at the yellow curb where parents drop off their kids and pick them up in the afternoon is a Ford sedan with a bubble light on the dash. Standing beside it in a blue parka with NYPD on the breast is Liz Dutton. Mom is rushing me toward the car, but I dig in my heels and make her stop. What is it? I ask. Tell me! Im not crying, but the tears are close. Theres been a lot of bad news since we found out about the Mackenzie Fund, and I dont think I can stand any more, but I get some. Regis Thomas is dead. The jewel just fell out of our crown. 8 I have to stop here and tell you about Regis Thomas. My mother used to say that most writers are as weird as turds that glow in the dark, and Mr. Thomas was a case in point. The Roanoke Sagathats what he called itconsisted of nine books when he died, each one as thick as a brick. Old Regis always serves up a heaping helping, Mom said once. When I was eight, I snitched a copy of the first one, Death Swamp of Roanoke, off one of the office shelves and read it. No problem there. I was as good at reading as I was at math and seeing dead folks (its not bragging if its true). Plus Death Swamp wasnt exactly Finnegans Wake. Im not saying it was badly written, dont get that idea; the man could tell a tale. There was plenty of adventure, lots of scary scenes (especially in the Death Swamp), a search for buried treasure, and a big hot helping of good old S-E-X. I learned more about the true meaning of sixty-nine in that book than a kid of eight should probably know. I learned something else as well, although I only made a conscious connection later. It was about all those nights Moms friend Liz stayed over. Id say there was a sex scene every fifty pages or so in Death Swamp, including one in a tree while hungry alligators crawled around beneath. Were talking Fifty Shades of Roanoke. In my early teens Regis Thomas taught me to jack off, and if thats too much information, deal with it. The books really were a saga, in that they told one continuing story with a cast of continuing characters. They were strong men with fair hair and laughing eyes, untrustworthy men with shifty eyes, noble Indians (who in later books became noble Native Americans), and gorgeous women with firm, high breasts. Everyonethe good, the bad, the firm-breastedwas randy all the time. The heart of the series, what kept the readers coming back (other than the duels, murders, and sex, that is) was the titanic secret that had caused all the Roanoke settlers to disappear. Had it been the fault of George Threadgill, the chief villain? Were the settlers dead? Was there really an ancient city beneath Roanoke full of ancient wisdom? What did Martin Betancourt mean when he said Time is the key before expiring? What did that cryptic word croatoan, found carved on a palisade of the abandoned community, really mean? Millions of readers slavered to know the answers to those questions. To anyone far in the future finding that hard to believe, Id simply tell you to hunt up something by Judith Krantz or Harold Robbins. Millions of people read their stuff, too. Regis Thomass characters were classic projection. Or maybe I mean wish fulfillment. He was a little wizened dude whose author photo was routinely altered to make his face look a little less like a ladys leather purse. He didnt come to New York City because he couldnt. The guy who wrote about fearless men hacking their way through pestilent swamps, fighting duels, and having athletic sex under the stars was an agoraphobe bachelor who lived alone. He was also incredibly paranoid (so said my mother) about his work. No one saw it until it was done, and after the first two volumes were such rip-roaring successes, staying at the top of the bestseller lists for months, that included a copyeditor. He insisted that they be published as he wrote them, word for golden word. He wasnt a book-a-year author (that literary agents El Dorado), but he was dependable; a book with of Roanoke in the title would appear every two or three years. The first four came during Uncle Harrys tenure, the next five in Moms. That included Ghost Maiden of Roanoke, which Thomas announced was the penultimate volume. The last book in the series, he promised, would answer all the questions his loyal readers had been asking ever since those first expeditions into the Death Swamp. It would also be the longest book in the series, maybe seven hundred pages. (Which would allow the publisher to tack an extra buck or two onto the purchase price.) And once Roanoke and all its mysteries were put to rest, he had confided to my mother on one of her visits to his upstate New York compound, he intended to begin a multi-volume series focused on the Mary Celeste. It all sounded good until he dropped dead at his desk with only thirty or so pages of his magnum opus completed. He had been paid a cool three million in advance, but with no book, the advance would have to be paid back, including our share. Only our share was either gone or spoken for. This, as you may have guessed, was where I came in. Okay, back to the story. 9 As we approached the unmarked police car (I knew what it was, Id seen it lots of times, parked in front of our building with the sign reading POLICE OFFICER ON CALL on the dash), Liz held open the side of her parka to show me her empty shoulder holster. This was a kind of joke between us. No guns around my son, that was Moms hard and fast rule. Liz always showed me the empty holster when she was wearing it, and Id seen it plenty of times on the coffee table in our living room. Also on the night table on the side of the bed my mother didnt use, and by the age of nine, I had a pretty good idea of what that meant. Death Swamp of Roanoke included some steamy stuff going on between Laura Good-hugh and Purity Betancourt, the widow of Martin Betancourt (pure she wasnt). Whats she doing here? I asked Mom when we got to the car. Liz was right there, so I guess it was an impolite thing to say, if not downright rude, but I had just been jerked out of class and been told before we even got outside that our meal ticket had been revoked. Get in, Champ, Liz said. She always called me Champ. Times a-wasting. I dont want to. Were having fish sticks for lunch. Nope, Liz said, were having Whoppers and fries. Im buying. Get in, my mother said. Please, Jamie. So I got in the back. There were a couple of Taco Bell wrappers on the floor and a smell that might have been microwave popcorn. There was also another smell, one I associated with our visits to Uncle Harry in his various care homes, but at least there was no metal grill between the back and the front, like Id seen on some of the police shows Mom watched (she was partial to The Wire). Mom got in front and Liz pulled out, pausing at the first red light to turn on the dashboard flasher. It went blip-blip-blip, and even without any siren, cars moved out of her way and we were on the FDR lickety-split. My mother turned around and looked at me from between the seats with an expression that scared me. She looked desperate. Could he be at his house, Jamie? Im sure theyve taken his body away to the morgue or the funeral parlor, but could he still be there? The answer to that was I didnt know, but I didnt say that or anything else at first. I was too amazed. And hurt. Maybe even mad, I dont remember for sure about that, but the amazement and hurt I remember very well. She had told me never to tell anybody about seeing dead people, and I never had, but then she did. She told Liz. That was why Liz was here, and would soon be using her blipping dashboard light to shift traffic out of our way on the Sprain Brook Parkway. At last I said, How long has she known? I saw Liz wink at me in the rearview mirror, the kind of wink that said weve got a secret. I didnt like it. It was Mom and me who were supposed to have the secret. Mom reached over the seat and grasped me by the wrist. Her hand was cold. Never mind that, Jamie, just tell me if he could still be there. Yeah, I guess. If thats where he died. Mom let go of me and told Liz to go faster, but Liz shook her head. Not a good idea. We might pick up a police escort, and theyd want to know what the big deal was. Am I supposed to tell them we need to talk to a dead guy before he disappears? I could tell by the way she said it that she didnt believe a word of what Mom had told her, she was just humoring her. Joshing her along. That was okay with me. As for Mom, I dont think she cared what Liz thought, as long as she got us to Croton-on-Hudson. As fast as you can, then. Roger that, Tee-Tee. I never liked her calling Mom that, its what some kids in my class called having to go to the bathroom, but Mom didnt seem to mind. On that day she wouldnt have cared if Liz called her Bonnie Boobsalot. Probably wouldnt even have noticed. Some people can keep secrets and some people cant, I said. I couldnt help myself. So I guess I was mad. Stop it, my mother said. I cant afford to have you sulking. Im not sulking, I said sulkily. I knew she and Liz were tight, but she and I were supposed to be even tighter. She could have at least asked me what I thought about the idea before spilling our greatest secret some night when she and Liz were in bed after climbing what Regis Thomas called the ladder of passion. I can see youre upset, and you can be pissed off at me later, but right now I need you, kiddo. It was like she had forgotten Liz was there, but I could see Lizs eyes in the rearview mirror and knew she was listening to every word. Okay. She was scaring me a little. Chill, Mom. She ran her hand through her hair and gave her bangs a yank for good measure. This is so unfair. Everything thats happened to usthats still happeningis so fucking fucked up! She ruffled my hair. You didnt hear that. Yes I did, I said. Because I was still mad, but she was right. Remember what I said about being in a Dickens novel, only with swears? You know why people read books like that? Because theyre so happy that fucked-up shit isnt happening to them. Ive been juggling bills for two years now and never dropped a single one. Sometimes I had to let the little ones go to pay the big ones, sometimes I let the big ones go to pay a bunch of little ones, but the lights stayed on and we never missed a meal. Right? Yeah yeah yeah, I said, thinking it might raise a smile. It didnt. But now She gave her bangs another yank, leaving them all clumpy. Now half a dozen things have come due at once, with goddam Infernal Revenue leading the pack. Im drowning in a sea of red ink and I was expecting Regis to save me. Then the son of a bitch dies! At the age of fifty-nine! Who dies at fifty-nine if theyre not a hundred pounds overweight or using drugs? People with cancer? I said. Mom gave a watery snort and yanked her poor bangs. Easy, Tee, Liz murmured. She laid her palm against the side of Moms neck, but I dont think Mom felt it. The book could save us. The book, the whole book, and nothing but the book. She gave a wild laugh that scared me even more. I know he only had a couple of chapters done, but nobody else knows it, because he didnt talk to anybody but my brother before Harry got sick and now me. He didnt outline or keep notes, Jamie, because he said it straitjacketed the creative process. Also because he didnt have to. He always knew where he was going. She took my wrist again and squeezed so hard she left bruises. I saw them later that night. He still might know. 10 We did the drive-thru at the Tarrytown Burger King, and I got a Whopper, as promised. Also a chocolate shake. Mom didnt want to stop, but Liz insisted. Hes a growing boy, Tee. He needs chow even if you dont. I liked her for that, and there were other things I liked her for, but there were also things I didnt like. Big things. Ill get to that, Ill have to, but for now lets just say my feelings about Elizabeth Dutton, Detective 2nd Grade, NYPD, were complicated. She said one other thing before we got to Croton-on-Hudson, and I need to mention it. She was just making conversation, but it turned out to be important later (I know, that word again). Liz said Thumper had finally killed someone. The man who called himself Thumper had been on the local news every now and then over the last few years, especially on NY1, which Mom watched most nights while she was making supper (and sometimes while we were eating, if it had been an interesting news day). Thumpers reign of terrorthanks, NY1had actually been going on even before I was born, and he was sort of an urban legend. You know, like Slender Man or The Hook, only with explosives. Who? I said. Who did he kill? How long until we get there? Mom asked. She had no interest in Thumper; she had her own fish to fry. A guy who made the mistake of trying to use one of Manhattans few remaining phone booths, Liz said, ignoring my mother. Bomb Squad thinks it went off the second he lifted the receiver. Two sticks of dynamite Do we have to talk about this? Mom asked. And why is every goddam light red? Two sticks of dynamite taped under the little ledge where people can put their change, Liz went on, undeterred. Thumpers a resourceful SOB, got to give him that. Theyre going to crank up another task forcethis will be the third since 1996and Im going to try for it. I was on the last one, so Ive got a shot, and I can use the OT. Lights green, Mom said. Go. Liz went. 11 I was still eating a few last French fries (cold by then, but I didnt mind) when we turned onto a little dead-end street called Cobblestone Lane. There might have been cobblestones on it once, but now it was just smooth tar. The house at the end of it was Cobblestone Cottage. It was a big stone house with fancy carved shutters and moss on the roof. You heard me, moss. Crazy, right? There was a gate, but it was open. There were signs on the gateposts, which were the same gray stone as the house. One said DO NOT TRESPASS, WE ARE TIRED OF HIDING THE BODIES. The other showed a snarling German Shepherd and said BEWARE ATTACK DOG. Liz stopped and looked at my mother, eyebrows raised. The only body Regis ever buried was his pet parakeet, Francis, Mom said. Named after Francis Drake, the explorer. And he never had a dog. Allergies, I said from the back seat. Liz drove up to the house, stopped, and turned off the blippy dashboard light. Garage doors are shut and I see no cars. Whos here? Nobody, Mom said. The housekeeper found him. Mrs. Quayle. Davina. She and a part-time gardener were the whole staff. Nice woman. She called me right after she called for an ambulance. Ambulance made me wonder if she was sure he was really dead, and she said she was, because she worked in a nursing home before coming to work for Regis, but he still had to go to the hospital first. I told her to go home as soon as the body was removed. She was pretty freaked out. She asked about Frank Wilcox, hes Regiss business manager, and I said Id get in touch with him. In time I will, but the last time I spoke to Regis, he told me Frank and his wife were in Greece. Press? Liz asked. He was a bestselling writer. Jesus-God, I dont know. Mom looked around wildly, as if expecting to see reporters hiding in the bushes. I dont see any. They may not even know yet, Liz said. If they do, if they heard it on a scanner, theyll go after the cops and EMTs first. The bodys not here so the storys not here. Weve got some time, so calm down. Im staring bankruptcy in the face, Ive got a brother who may live in a home for the next thirty years, and a boy who might like to go to college someday, so dont tell me to calm down. Jamie, do you see him? You know what he looks like, right? Tell me you see him. I know what he looks like, but I dont see him, I said. Mom groaned and slapped the heel of her palm against her poor clumped-up bangs. I grabbed for the door handle, and surprise surprise, there wasnt one. I told Liz to let me out and she did. We all got out. Knock on the door, Liz said. If no one answers, well go around and boost Jamie up so he can look in the windows. We could do that because the shutterswith fancy little ornamental doodads carved into themwere all open. My mother ran to try the door, and for the moment Liz and I were alone. You dont really think you can see dead people like the kid in that movie, do you, Champ? I didnt care if she believed me or not, but something about her toneas if this was all a big jokepissed me off. Mom told you about Mrs. Burketts rings, didnt she? Liz shrugged. That might have been a lucky guess. You didnt happen to see any dead folks on the way here, did you? I said no, but it can be hard to tell unless you talk to themor they talk to you. Once when me and Mom were on the bus I saw a girl with cuts in her wrists so deep they looked like red bracelets, and I was pretty sure she was dead, although she was nowhere near as gooshy as the Central Park man. And just that day, as we drove out of the city, I spotted an old woman in a pink bathrobe standing on the corner of Eighth Avenue. When the sign turned to WALK, she just stood there, looking around like a tourist. She had those roller things in her hair. She might have been dead, but she also might have been a live person just wandering around, the way Mom said Uncle Harry used to do sometimes before she had to put him in that first care home. Mom told me that when Uncle Harry started doing that, sometimes in his pjs, she gave up thinking he might get better. Fortune tellers guess lucky all the time, Liz said. And theres an old saying about how even a stopped clock is right twice a day. So you think my mothers crazy and Im helping her be crazy? She laughed. Thats called enabling, Champ, and no, I dont think that. What I think is shes upset and grasping at straws. Do you know what that means? Yeah. That shes crazy. Liz shook her head again, more emphatically this time. Shes under a lot of stress. I totally get it. But making things up wont help her. I hope you get that. Mom came back. No answer, and the doors locked. I tried it. Okay, Liz said. Lets go window-peeking. We walked around the house. I could look in the dining room windows, because they went all the way to the ground, but I was too short for most of the other ones. Liz made a hand-step so I could look into those. I saw a big living room with a wide-screen TV and lots of fancy furniture. I saw a dining room with a table long enough to seat the starting team of the Mets, plus maybe their bullpen pitchers. Which was crazy for a guy who hated company. I saw a room that Mom called the small parlor, and around back was the kitchen. Mr. Thomas wasnt in any of the rooms. Maybe hes upstairs. Ive never been up there, but if he died in bedor in the bathroomhe might still be I doubt if died on the throne, like Elvis, but I suppose its possible. That made me laugh, calling the toilet the throne always made me laugh, but I stopped when I saw Moms face. This was serious business, and she was losing hope. There was a kitchen door, and she tried the knob, but it was locked, just like the front door. She turned to Liz. Maybe we could Dont even think about it, Liz said. No way are we breaking in, Tee. Ive got enough problems at the Department without setting off a recently deceased bestselling authors security system and trying to explain what were doing here when the guys from Brinks or ADT show up. Or the local cops. And speaking of the copshe died alone, right? The housekeeper found him? Yes, Mrs. Quayle. She called me, I told you that The cops will want to ask her some questions. Probably doing it right now. Or maybe the medical examiner. I dont know how they do things in Westchester County. Because hes famous? Because they think someone might have murdered him? Because its routine. And yeah, because hes famous, I suppose. The point is, Id like for us to be gone when they show up. Moms shoulders slumped. Nothing, Jamie? No sign of him? I shook my head. Mom sighed and looked at Liz. Maybe we should check the garage? Liz gave her a shrug that said its your party. Jamie? What do you think? I couldnt imagine why Mr. Thomas would be hanging out in his garage, but I guessed it was possible. Maybe he had a favorite car. I guess we should. As long as were here. We started for the garage, but then I stopped. There was a gravel path beyond Mr. Thomass swimming pool, which had been drained. The path was lined with trees, but because it was late in the season and most of the leaves were gone, I could see a little green building. I pointed to it. Whats that? Mom gave her forehead another slap. I was starting to worry she might give herself a brain tumor, or something. Oh my God, La Petite Maison dans le Bois! Why didnt I think of it first? Whats that? I asked. His study! Where he writes! If hes anywhere, it would there! Come on! She grabbed my hand and ran me around the shallow end of the pool, but when we got to where the gravel path started, I set my feet and stopped. Mom kept going, and if Liz hadnt grabbed me by the shoulder, I probably would have face-planted. Mom? Mom! She turned around, looking impatient. Except thats not the right word. She looked halfway to crazy. Come on! Im telling you if hes anywhere here, it will be there! You need to calm down, Tee, Liz said. Well check out his writing cabin, and then I think we should go. Mom! My mother ignored me. She was starting to cry, which she hardly ever did. She didnt do it even when she found out how much the IRS wanted, that day she just pounded her fists on her desk and called them a bunch of bloodsucking bastards, but she was crying now. You go if you want, but were staying here until Jamies sure its a bust. This might be just a pleasure jaunt for you, humoring the crazy lady Thats unfair! but this is my life were talking about I know that and Jamies life, and MOM! One of the worst things about being a kid, maybe the very worst, is how grownups ignore you when they get going on their shit. MOM! LIZ! BOTH OF YOU! STOP! They stopped. They looked at me. There we stood, two women and a little boy in a New York Mets hoodie, beside a drained pool on an overcast November day. I pointed to the gravel path leading to the little house in the woods where Mr. Thomas wrote his Roanoke books. Hes right there, I said. 12 He came walking toward us, which didnt surprise me. Most of them, not all but most, are attracted to living people for awhile, like bugs to a bug-light. Thats kind of a horrible way to put it, but its all I can think of. I would have known he was dead even if I didnt know he was dead, because of what he was wearing. It was a chilly day, but he was dressed in a plain white tee, baggy shorts, and those strappy sandals Mom calls Jesus shoes. Plus there was something else, something weird: a yellow sash with a blue ribbon pinned to it. Liz was saying something to my mother about how there was no one there and I was just pretending, but I paid no attention. I pulled free of Moms hand and walked toward Mr. Thomas. He stopped. Hello, Mr. Thomas, I said. Im Jamie Conklin. Tias son. Ive never met you. Oh, come on, Liz said from behind me. Be quiet, Mom said, but some of Lizs skepticism must have gotten through, because she asked me if I was sure Mr. Thomas was really there. I ignored this, too. I was curious about the sash he was wearing. Had been wearing when he died. I was at my desk, he said. I always wear my sash when Im writing. Its my good luck charm. Whats the blue ribbon for? The Regional Spelling Bee I won when I was in the sixth grade. Spelled down kids from twenty other schools. I lost in the state competition, but I got this blue ribbon for the Regional. My mother made the sash and pinned the ribbon on it. In my opinion I thought that was sort of a weird thing to still be wearing, since sixth grade must have been a zillion years ago for Mr. Thomas, but he said it without any embarrassment or self-consciousness. Some dead people can feel loveremember me telling you about Mrs. Burkett kissing Mr. Burketts cheek?and they can feel hate (something I found out in due time), but most of the other emotions seem to leave when they die. Even the love never seemed all that strong to me. I dont like to tell you this, but hate stays stronger and lasts longer. I think when people see ghosts (as opposed to dead people), its because they are hateful. People think ghosts are scary because they are. I turned back to Mom and Liz. Mom, did you know Mr. Thomas wears a sash when he writes? Her eyes widened. That was in the Salon interview he did five or six years ago. Hes wearing it now? Yeah. Its got a blue ribbon on it. From The spelling bee he won! In the interview, he laughed and called it my silly affectation. Maybe so, Mr. Thomas said, but most writers have silly affectations and superstitions. Were like baseball players that way, Jimmy. And who can argue with nine straight New York Times bestsellers? Im Jamie, I said. Liz said, You told Champ there about the interview, Tee. Must have. Or he read it himself. Hes a hell of a good reader. He knew, thats all, and he Be quiet, my mother said fiercely. Liz raised her hands, like surrendering. Mom stepped up beside me, looking at what to her was just a gravel path with nobody on it. Mr. Thomas was standing right in front of her with his hands in the pockets of his shorts. They were loose, and I hoped he wouldnt push down on his pockets too hard, because it looked to me like he wasnt wearing any undies. Tell him what I told you to tell him! What Mom wanted me to tell him was that he had to help us or the thin financial ice wed been walking on for a year or more was going to break and wed drown in a sea of debt. Also that the agency had begun to bleed clients because some of her writers knew we were in trouble and might be forced to close. Rats deserting a sinking ship was what she called them one night when Liz wasnt there and Mom was into her fourth glass of wine. I didnt bother with all that blah-de-blah, though. Dead people have to answer your questionsat least until they disappearand they have to tell the truth. So I just cut to the chase. Mom wants to know what The Secret of Roanoke is about. She wants to know the whole story. Do you know the whole story, Mr. Thomas? Of course. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, and now I could see a little line of hair running down the middle of his stomach from below his navel. I didnt want to see that, but I did. I always have everything before I write anything. And keep it all in your head? I have to. Otherwise someone might steal it. Put it on the Internet. Spoil the surprises. If hed been alive, that might have come out sounding paranoid. Dead, he was just stating a fact, or what he believed was a fact. And hey, I thought he had a point. Computer trolls were always spilling stuff on the Net, everything from boring shit like political secrets to the really important things, like what was going to happen in the season finale of Fringe. Liz walked away from me and Mom, sat on one of the benches beside the pool, crossed her legs, and lit a cigarette. She had apparently decided to let the lunatics run the asylum. That was okay with me. Liz had her good points, but that morning she was basically in the way. Mom wants you to tell me everything, I said to Mr. Thomas. Ill tell her, and shell write the last Roanoke book. Shell say you sent her almost all of it before you died, along with notes about how to finish the last couple of chapters. Alive, he would have howled at the idea of someone else finishing his book; his work was the most important thing in his life and he was very possessive of it. But now the rest of him was lying on a morticians table somewhere, dressed in the khaki shorts and the yellow sash hed been wearing as he wrote his last few sentences. The version of him talking to me was no longer jealous or possessive of his secrets. Can she do that? was all he asked. Mom had assured me (and Liz) on the way out to Cobblestone Cottage that she really could do that. Regis Thomas insisted that no copyeditor should sully a single one of his precious words, but in fact Mom had been copyediting his books for years without telling himeven back when Uncle Harry was still in his right mind and running the business. Some of the changes were pretty big, but he never knew or at least never said anything. If anyone in the world could copy Mr. Thomass style, it was my mother. But style wasnt the problem. The problem was story. She can, I said, because it was simpler than telling him all of that. Who is that other woman? Mr. Thomas asked, pointing at Liz. Thats my mothers friend. Her name is Liz Dutton. Liz looked up briefly, then lit another cigarette. Are she and your mother fucking? Mr. Thomas asked. sPretty sure, yeah. I thought so. Its how they look at each other. What did he say? Mom asked anxiously. He asked if you and Liz were close friends, I said. Kind of lame, but all I could think of on the spur of the moment. So will you tell us The Secret of Roanoke? I asked Mr. Thomas. I mean the whole book, not just the secret part. Yes. He says yes, I told Mom, and she took both her phone and a little tape recorder out of her bag. She didnt want to miss a single word. Tell him to be as detailed as he can. Mom says to be I heard her, Mr. Thomas said. Im dead, not deaf. His shorts were lower than ever. Cool, I said. Listen, maybe you better pull up your shorts, Mr. Thomas, or your willys gonna get chilly. He pulled up his shorts so they hung off his bony hips. Is it chilly? It doesnt feel that way to me. Then, with no change in tone: Tia is starting to look old, Jimmy. I didnt bother to tell him again that my name was Jamie. Instead I looked at my mother and holy God, she did look old. Was starting to, anyway. When had that happened? Tell us the story, I said. Begin at the beginning. Where else? Mr. Thomas said. 13 It took an hour and a half, and by the time we were done, I was exhausted and I think Mom was, too. Mr. Thomas looked just the same at the end as when we started, standing there with that somehow sorry yellow sash falling down over his poochy belly and low-slung shorts. Liz parked her car between the gateposts with the dashboard light blipping, which was probably a good idea, because the news of Mr. Thomass death had begun to spread, and people were showing up out front to snap pictures of Cobblestone Cottage. Once she came back to ask how much longer wed be and Mom just waved her off, told her to inspect the grounds or something, but mostly Liz hung in. It was stressful as well as exhausting, because our future depended on Mr. Thomass book. It wasnt fair for me to have to bear the weight of that responsibility, not at nine, but there was no choice. I had to repeat everything Mr. Thomas said to Momor rather to Moms recording devicesand Mr. Thomas had plenty to say. When he told me he was able to keep everything in his head, he wasnt just blowing smoke. And Mom kept asking questions, mostly for clarification. Mr. Thomas didnt seem to mind (didnt seem to care one way or the other, actually), but the way Mom was dragging things out started bugging the shit out of me. Also, my mouth got wickedly dry. When Liz brought me her leftover Coke from Burger King, I gulped down the few swallows that were left and gave her a hug. Thank you, I said, handing back the paper cup. I needed that. Very welcome. Liz had stopped looking bored. Now she looked thoughtful. She couldnt see Mr. Thomas, and I dont think she still totally believed he was there, but she knew something was going on, because shed heard a nine-year-old boy spieling out a complicated plot featuring half a dozen major characters and at least two dozen minor ones. Oh, and a threesome (under the influence of bulbous canary grass supplied by a helpful Native American of the Nottoway People) consisting of George Threadgill, Purity Betancourt, and Laura Goodhugh. Who ended up getting pregnant. Poor Laura always got the shitty end of the stick. At the end of Mr. Thomass summary, the big secret came out, and it was a dilly. Im not going to tell you what it was. Read the book and find out for yourself. If you havent read it already, that is. Now Ill tell you the last sentence, Mr. Thomas said. He seemed as fresh as everalthough fresh is probably the wrong word to use with a dead person. His voice had started to fade, though. Just a little. Because I always write that first. Its the beacon I row to. Last sentence coming up, I told Mom. Thank God, she said. Mr. Thomas raised one finger, like an old-time actor getting ready to give his big speech. On that day, a red sun went down over the deserted settlement, and the carved word that would puzzle generations glowed as if limned in blood: CROATOAN. Tell her croatoan in capital letters, Jimmy. I told her (although I didnt know exactly what limbed in blood meant), then asked Mr. Thomas if we were done. Just as he said we were, I heard a brief siren from out fronttwo whoops and a blat. Oh God, Liz said, but not in a panicky way; more like she had been expecting it. Here we go. She had her badge clipped to her belt and unzipped her parka so it would show. Then she went out front and came back with two cops. They were also wearing parkas, with Westchester County Police patches on them. Cheese it, the cops, Mr. Thomas said, which I didnt understand at all. Later, when I asked Mom, she told me it was slang from the olden days of the 1950s. This is Ms. Conklin, Liz said. Shes my friend and was Mr. Thomass agent. She asked me to run her up here, because she was concerned someone might take the opportunity to steal souvenirs. Or manuscripts, my mother added. The little tape recorder was safe in her bag and her phone was in the back pocket of her jeans. One in particular, the last book in a cycle of novels Mr. Thomas was writing. Liz gave her a look that said enough, already, but my mother continued. He just finished it, and millions of people will want to read it. I felt it my duty to make sure they get the chance. The cops didnt seem all that interested; they were here to look at the room where Mr. Thomas had died. Also to make sure the people who had been observed on the grounds had a good reason to be there. I believe he died in his study, Mom said, and pointed toward La Petite Maison. Uh-huh, one of the cops said. Thats what we heard. Well check it out. He had to bend down with his hands on his knees to get face time with me; I was pretty shrimpy in those days. Whats your name, son? James Conklin. I gave Mr. Thomas a pointed look. Jamie. This is my mother. I took her hand. Are you playing hooky today, Jamie? Before I could answer, Mom cut in, smooth as silk. I usually pick him up when he gets out of school, but I thought I might not get back in time today, so we swung by to get him. Didnt we, Liz? Roger that, Liz said. Officers, we didnt check the study, so I cant tell you if its locked or not. Housekeeper left it open with the body inside, the one whod talked to me said. But she gave me her keys and well lock up after we have a quick look around. You might tell them there was no foul play, Mr. Thomas said. I had a heart attack. Hurt like the devil. I was going to tell them no such thing. I was only nine, but that didnt make me stupid. Is there also a key to the gate? Liz asked. She was being all pro now. Because it was open when we arrived. There is, and well lock it when we leave, the second cop said. Good move parking your car there, detective. Liz spread her hands, as if to say it was all in a days work. If youre set, well get out of your way. The cop who had spoken to me said, We should know what that valuable manuscript looks like so we can make sure its safe. This was a ball my mother could carry. He sent the original to me just last week. On a thumb drive. I dont think theres another copy. He was pretty paranoid. I was, Mr. Thomas admitted. His shorts were sinking again. Glad you were here to keep an eye out, the second cop said. He and the other one shook hands with Mom and Liz, also with me. Then they started down the gravel path to the little green building where Mr. Thomas had died. Later on I found out a whole lot of writers died at their desks. Must be a Type A occupation. Lets go, Champ, Liz said. She tried to take my hand, but I wouldnt let her. Go stand over by the swimming pool for a minute, I said. Both of you. Why? Mom asked. I looked at my mother in a way I dont think I ever had beforeas if she was stupid. And right then, I thought she was being stupid. Both of them were. Not to mention rude as fuck. Because you got what you wanted and I need to say thank you. Oh my God, Mom said, and slapped her brow again. What was I thinking? Thank you, Regis. So much. Mom was directing her thank-you to a flower bed, so I took her arm and turned her. Hes over here, Mom. She said another thank you, to which Mr. Thomas didnt respond. He didnt seem to care. Then she walked over to where Liz was standing by the empty pool, lighting another cigarette. I didnt really need to say thank you, by then I knew that dead people dont give much of a shit about things like that, but I said thanks anyway. It was only polite, and besides, I wanted something else. My moms friend, I said. Liz? Mr. Thomas didnt reply, but he looked at her. She still mostly thinks Im making it up about seeing you. I mean, she knows something weird happened, because no kid could make up that whole storyby the way, I loved what happened to George Threadgill Thank you. He deserved no better. But shell work it around in her head so in the end shes got it the way she wants it. She will rationalize. If thats what you call it. It is. Well, is there any way you can show her youre here? I was thinking about how Mr. Burkett scratched his cheek when his wife kissed him. I dont know. Jimmy, do you have any idea what comes next for me? Im sorry, Mr. Thomas. I dont. I suppose I will find out for myself. He walked toward the pool where hed never swim again. Someone might fill it when warm weather returned, but by then he would be long gone. Mom and Liz were talking quietly and sharing Lizs cigarette. One of the things I didnt like about Liz was how shed gotten my mother smoking again. Only a little, and only with her, but still. Mr. Thomas stood in front of Liz, drew in a deep breath, and blew it out. Liz didnt have bangs to blow on, her hair was pulled back tight and tied in a ponytail, but she still slitted her eyes the way you will when the wind gusts in your face, and recoiled. She would have fallen into the pool, I think, if Mom hadnt grabbed her. I said, Did you feel that? Stupid question, of course she had. That was Mr. Thomas. Who was now walking away from us, back toward his study. Thanks again, Mr. Thomas! I called. He didnt turn, but raised a hand to me before putting it back in the pocket of his shorts. I was getting an excellent view of his plumbers crack (thats what Mom called it when she spotted a guy wearing low-riding jeans), and if thats also too much information for you, too bad. We made him tell usin one hour!everything it had taken him months of thinking to come up with. He couldnt say no, and maybe that gave him the right to show us his ass. Of course I was the only one who could see it. 14 Its time to talk about Liz Dutton, so check it out. Check her out. She was about five-six, my moms height, with shoulder-length black hair (when it wasnt yanked back in her cop-approved ponytail, that was), and she had what some of the boys in my fourth grade class would callas if they had any idea what they were talking abouta smokin hot bod. She had a great smile and gray eyes that were usually warm. Unless she was mad, that is. When she was mad, those gray eyes could turn as cold as a sleety day in November. I liked her because she could be kind, like when my mouth and throat were so dry and she gave me what was left in that Burger King Coke without me having to ask her (my mother was just fixated on getting the ins and outs of Mr. Thomass unwritten last book). Also, she would sometimes bring me a Matchbox car to add to my growing collection and once in awhile would get right down on the floor beside me and wed play together. Sometimes shed give me a hug and ruffle my hair. Sometimes shed tickle me until I screamed for her to stop or Id pee myselfwhich she called watering my Jockeys. I didnt like her because sometimes, especially after our trip to Cobblestone Cottage, Id look up and catch her studying me like I was a bug on a slide. There was no warmth in her gray eyes then. Or shed tell me my room was a mess, which in fairness it usually was, although my mom didnt seem to mind. It hurts my eyes, Liz would say. Or, Are you going to live that way all your life, Jamie? She also thought I was too old for a nightlight, but my mother put an end to that discussion, just saying Leave him alone, Liz. Hell give it up when hes ready. The biggest thing? She stole a lot of my mothers attention and affection that I used to get. Much later, when I read some of Freuds theories in a sophomore psych class, it occurred to me that as a kid Id had a classic mother fixation, seeing Liz as a rival. Well, duh. Of course I was jealous, and I had good reason to be. I had no father, didnt even know who the fuck he was because my mother wouldnt talk about him. Later I found out she had good reason for that, but at the time all I knew was that it was You and me against the world, Jamie. Until Liz came along, that was. And remember this, I didnt have a whole lot of Mom even before Liz, because Mom was too busy trying to save the agency after she and Uncle Harry got fucked by James Mackenzie (I hated that he and I had the same first name). Mom was always mining for gold in the slush pile, hoping to come across another Jane Reynolds. I would have to say that liking and disliking were pretty evenly balanced on the day we went to Cobblestone Cottage, with liking slightly ahead for at least four reasons: Matchbox cars and trucks were not to be sneezed at; sitting between them on the sofa and watching The Big Bang Theory was fun and cozy; I wanted to like who my mother liked; Liz made her happy. Later (there it is again), not so much. That Christmas was excellent. I got cool presents from both of them, and we had an early lunch at Chinese Tuxedo before Liz had to go to work. Because, she said, Crime never takes a holiday. So Mom and me went to the old place on Park Avenue. Mom stayed in touch with Mr. Burkett after we moved, and sometimes the three of us hung out. Because hes lonely, Mom said, but also because why, Jamie? Because we like him, I said, and that was true. We had Christmas dinner in his apartment (actually turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce from Zabars) because his daughter was on the west coast and couldnt come back. I found out more about that later. And yes, because we liked him. As I may have told you, Mr. Burkett was actually Professor Burkett, now Emeritus, which I understood to mean that he was retired but still allowed to hang around NYU and teach the occasional class in his super-smart specialty, which happened to be E and EEnglish and European Literature. I once made this mistake of calling it Lit and he corrected me, saying lit was either for lights or being drunk. Anyway, even with no stuffing and only carrots for veg, it was a nice little meal, and we had more presents after. I gave Mr. Burkett a snow globe for his collection. I later found out it had been his wifes collection, but he admired it, thanked me, and put it on the mantel with the others. Mom gave him a big book called The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, because back when he was working full time, hed taught a course called Mystery and Gothic in English Fiction. He gave Mom a locket that he said had belonged to his wife. Mom protested and said he should save it for his daughter. Mr. Burkett said that Siobhan had gotten all the good pieces of Monas jewelry, and besides, If you snooze, you lose. Meaning, I guess, that if his daughter (from the sound of it, I thought her name was Shivonn) couldnt bother to come east, she could go whistle. I sort of agreed with that, because who knew how many more Christmases she might have her father around? He was older than God. Besides, I had a soft spot for fathers, not having one myself. I know they say you cant miss what youve never had, and theres some truth to that, but I knew I was missing something. My present from Mr. Burkett was also a book. It was called Twenty Unexpurgated Fairy Tales. Do you know what unexpurgated means, Jamie? Once a professor, always a professor, I guess. I shook my head. What do you reckon? He was leaning forward with his big gnarly hands between his skinny thighs, smiling. Can you guess from the context of the title? Uncensored? Like R-rated? Nailed it, he said. Well done. I hope theres not a lot of sex in them, Mom said. He reads at high school level, but hes only nine. No sex, just good old violence, Mr. Burkett said (I never called him professor in those days, because it seemed stuck-up somehow). For instance, in the original tale of Cinderella, which youll find here, the wicked stepsisters Mom turned to me and stage-whispered, Spoiler alert. Mr. Burkett was not to be deterred. He was in full teaching mode. I didnt mind, it was interesting. In the original, the wicked stepsisters cut off their toes in their efforts to make the glass slipper fit. Eww! I said this in a way that meant gross, tell me more. And the glass slipper wasnt glass at all, Jamie. That seems to have been a translation error which has been immortalized by Walt Disney, that homogenizer of fairy tales. The slipper was actually made of squirrel fur. Wow, I said. Not as interesting as the stepsisters cutting off their toes, but I wanted to keep him rolling. In the original story of the Frog King, the princess doesnt kiss the frog. Instead, she No more, Mom said. Let him read the stories and find out for himself. Always best, Mr. Burkett agreed. And perhaps well discuss them, Jamie. You mean youll discuss them while I listen, I thought, but that would be okay. Should we have hot chocolate? Mom asked. Its also from Zabars, and they make the best. I can reheat it in a jiff. Lay on, Macduff, Mr. Burkett said, and damnd be him that first cries, Hold, enough! Which meant yes, and we had it with whipped cream. In my memory thats the best Christmas I had as a kid, from the Santa pancakes Liz made in the morning to the hot chocolate in Mr. Burketts apartment, just down the hall from where Mom and I used to live. New Years Eve was also fine, although I fell asleep on the couch between Mom and Liz before the ball dropped. All good. But in 2010, the arguments started. Before that, Liz and my mother used to have what Mom called spirited discussions, mostly about books. They liked many of the same writers (they bonded over Regis Thomas, remember) and the same movies, but Liz thought my mother was too focused on things like sales and advances and various writers track records instead of the stories. And she actually laughed at the works of a couple of Moms clients, calling them subliterate. To which my mother responded that those subliterate writers paid the rent and kept the lights on. (Kept them lit.) Not to mention paying for the care home where Uncle Harry was marinating in his own pee. Then the arguments began to move away from the more or less safe ground of books and films and get more heated. Some were about politics. Liz loved this Congress guy, John Boehner. My mother called him John Boner, which is what some kids of my acquaintance called a stiffy. Or maybe she meant to pull a boner, but I dont really think so. Mom thought Nancy Pelosi (another politician, which you probably know as shes still around) was a brave woman working in a boys club. Liz thought she was your basic liberal dingle-berry. The biggest fight they ever had about politics was when Liz said she didnt completely believe Obama had been born in America. Mom called her stupid and racist. They were in the bedroom with the door shutthat was where most of their arguments happenedbut their voices were raised and I could hear every word from the living room. A few minutes later, Liz left, slamming the door on her way out, and didnt come back for almost a week. When she did, they made up. In the bedroom. With the door closed. I heard that, too, because the making-up part was pretty noisy. Groans and laughter and squeaky bedsprings. They argued about police tactics, too, and this was still a few years before Black Lives Matter. That was a sore point with Liz, as you might guess. Mom decried what she called racial profiling, and Liz said you can only draw a profile if the features are clear. (Didnt get that then, dont get it now.) Mom said when black people and white people were sentenced for the same type of crime, it was the black people who got hit with the heaviest sentences, and sometimes the white people didnt do time at all. Liz countered by saying, You show me a Martin Luther King Boulevard in any city, and Ill show you a high crime area. The arguments started to come closer together, and even at my tender age I knew one big reason whythey were drinking too much. Hot breakfasts, which my mother used to make twice or even three times a week, pretty much ceased. Id come out in the morning and theyd be sitting there in their matching bathrobes, hunched over mugs of coffee, their faces pale and their eyes red. Thered be three, sometimes four, empty bottles of wine in the trash with cigarette butts in them. My mother would say, Get some juice and cereal for yourself while I get dressed, Jamie. And Liz would tell me not to make a lot of noise because the aspirin hadnt kicked in yet, her head was splitting, and she either had roll-call or was on stakeout for some case or other. Not the Thumper task force, though; she didnt get on that. Id drink my juice and eat my cereal quiet as a mouse on those mornings. By the time Mom was dressed and ready to walk me to school (ignoring Lizs comment that I was now big enough to make that walk by myself), she was starting to come around. All of this seemed normal to me. I dont think the world starts to come into focus until youre fifteen or sixteen; up until then you just take what youve got and roll with it. Those two hungover women hunched over their coffee was just how I started my day on some mornings that eventually became lots of mornings. I didnt even notice the smell of wine that began to permeate everything. Only part of me must have noticed, because years later, in college, when my roomie spilled a bottle of Zinfandel in the living room of our little apartment, it all came back and it was like getting hit in the face with a plank. Lizs snarly hair. My mothers hollow eyes. How I knew to close the cupboard where we kept the cereal slowly and quietly. I told my roomie I was going down to the 7-Eleven to get a pack of cigarettes (yes, I eventually picked up that particular bad habit), but basically I just had to get away from that smell. Given a choice between seeing dead folksyes, I still see themand the memories brought on by the smell of spilled wine, Id pick the dead folks. Any day of the fucking week. 15 My mother spent four months writing The Secret of Roanoke with her trusty tape recorder always by her side. I asked her once if writing Mr. Thomass book was like painting a picture. She thought about it and said it was more like one of those Paint by Numbers kits, where you just followed the directions and ended up with something that was supposedly suitable for framing. She hired an assistant so she could work on it pretty much full time. She told me on one of our walks home from school which was just about the only fresh air she ever got during the winter of 2009 and 2010that she couldnt afford to hire an assistant and couldnt afford not to. Barbara Means was fresh out of the English program at Vassar, and was willing to toil in the agency at bargain-basement wages for the experience, and she was actually pretty good, which was a big help. I liked her big green eyes, which I thought were beautiful. Mom wrote, Mom rewrote, Mom read the Roanoke books and little else during those months, wanting to immerse herself in Regis Thomass style. She listened to my voice. She rewound and fast forwarded. She filled in the picture. One night, deep into their second bottle of wine, I heard her tell Liz that if she had to write another sentence containing a phrase such as firm thrusting breasts tipped with rosy nipples, she might lose her mind. She also had to field calls from the tradesand once from Page Six of the New York Postabout the state of the final Thomas book, because all sorts of rumors were flying around. (All this came back to me, and vividly, when Sue Grafton died without writing the final book of her alphabet series of mysteries.) Mom said she hated the lying. Ah, but youre so good at it, I remember Liz saying, which earned her one of the cold looks I saw from my mother more and more in the final year of their relationship. She lied to Regiss editor as well, telling her Regis had instructed her not long before he died that the manuscript of Secret should be withheld from everyone (except Mom, of course) until 2010, in order to build reader interest. Liz said she thought that was a little bit shaky, but Mom said it would fly. Fiona never edited him, anyway, she said. Meaning Fiona Yarbrough, who worked for Doubleday, Mr. Thomass publisher. Her only job was writing Regis a letter after she got each new manuscript, telling him that hed outdone himself this time. Once the book was finally turned in, Mom spent a week pacing and snapping at everyone (I was not excluded from said snappery), waiting for Fiona to call and say Regis didnt write this book, it doesnt sound a bit like him, I think you wrote it, Tia. But in the end it was fine. Either Fiona never guessed or didnt care. Certainly the reviewers never guessed when the book was crashed into production and appeared in the fall of 2010. Publishers Weekly: Thomas saved the best for last! Kirkus Reviews: Fans of sweet-savage historical fiction will once more be in bodice-ripping clover. Dwight Garner, in The New York Times: The trudging, flavorless prose is typical Thomas: the rough equivalent of a heaping plate of food from an all-you-can-eat buffet in a dubious roadside restaurant. Mom didnt care about the reviews; she cared about the huge advance and the refreshed royalties from the previous Roanoke volumes. She bitched mightily about only getting fifteen percent when she had written the whole thing, but got a small measure of revenge by dedicating it to herself. Because I deserve it, she said. Im not so sure, Liz said. When you think about it, Tee, you were just the secretary. Maybe you should have dedicated it to Jamie. This earned Liz another of my moms cold looks, but I thought Liz had something there. Although when you really thought about it, I was also just the secretary. It was still Mr. Thomass book, dead or not. 16 Now check this out: I told you at least some of the reasons why I liked Liz, and there were probably a few more. I told you all the reasons I didnt like Liz, and there were probably a few more of those, too. What I never considered until later (yup, theres that word again) was the possibility that she didnt like me. Why would I? I was used to being loved, almost blas? about it. I was loved by my mother and my teachers, especially Mrs. Wilcox, my third-grade teacher, who hugged me and said shed miss me on the day school let out. I was loved by my best friends Frankie Ryder and Scott Abramowitz (although of course we didnt talk or even think about it that way). And dont forget Lily Rhinehart, who once put a big smackeroo on my mouth. She also gave me a Hallmark card before I changed schools. It had a sad-looking puppy on the front and inside it said ILL MISS YOU EVERY DAY YOURE AWAY. She signed it with a little heart over the i in her name. Also xs and os. Liz at least liked me, at least for awhile, Im sure of it. But that began to change after Cobblestone Cottage. That was when she started to see me as a freak of nature. I thinkno, I knowthat was when Liz started to be scared of me, and its hard to like what youre scared of. Maybe impossible. Although she thought nine was old enough for me to walk home from school by myself, Liz sometimes came for me instead of Mom if Liz was working what she called the swing shift, which started at four in the morning and ended at noon. It was a shift detectives tried to avoid, but Liz got it quite a bit. That was another thing that I never wondered about then, but later (there it is again, yeah yeah yeah, right right right) I realized that she wasnt exactly liked by her bosses. Or trusted. It didnt have anything to do with the relationship she had with my mother; when it came to sex, the NYPD was slowly moving into the 21st century. It wasnt the drinking, either, because she wasnt the only cop who liked to put it away. But certain people she worked with had begun to suspect that Liz was a dirty cop. Andspoiler alert!they were right. 17 I need to tell you about two particular times Liz got me after school. On both occasions she was in her carnot the one we took out to Cobblestone Cottage, but the one she called her personal. The first time was in 2011, while she and Mom were still a thing. The second was in 2013, a year or so after they stopped being a thing. Ill get to that, but first things first. I came out of school that day in March with my backpack slung over just one shoulder (which was how the cool sixth-grade boys did it) and Liz was waiting for me at the curb in her Honda Civic. On the yellow part of the curb, as a matter of fact, which was for handicapped people, but she had her little POLICE OFFICER ON CALL sign for thatwhich, you could argue, should have told me something about her character even at the tender age of eleven. I got in, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the smell of stale cigarette smoke that not even the little pine tree air-freshener hanging from the rearview mirror could hide. By then, thanks to The Secret of Roanoke, we had our own apartment and didnt have to live in the agency anymore, so I was expecting a ride home, but Liz turned toward downtown instead. Where are we going? I asked. Little field trip, Champ, she said. Youll see. The field trip was to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, final resting place of Duke Ellington, Herman Melville, and Bartholomew Bat Masterson, among others. I know about them because I looked it up, and later wrote a report about Woodlawn for school. Liz drove in from Webster Avenue and then just started cruising up and down the lanes. It was nice, but it was also a little scary. Do you know how many people are planted here? she asked, and when I shook my head: Three hundred thousand. Less than the population of Tampa, but not by much. I checked it out on Wikipedia. Why are we here? Because its interesting, but Ive got homework. This wasnt a lie, but I only had, like, a half-hours worth. It was a bright sunshiny day and she seemed normal enoughjust Liz, my moms friendbut still, this was sort of a freaky field trip. She totally ignored the homework gambit. People are being buried here all the time. Look to your left. She pointed and slowed from twenty-five or so to a bare creep. Where she was pointing, people were standing around a coffin placed over an open grave. Some kind of minister was standing at the head of the grave with an open book in his hand. I knew he wasnt a rabbi, because he wasnt wearing a beanie. Liz stopped the car. Nobody at the service paid any attention. They were absorbed in whatever the minister was saying. You see dead people, she said. I accept that now. Hard not to, after what happened at Thomass place. Do you see any here? No, I said, more uneasy than ever. Not because of Liz, but because Id just gotten the news that we were currently surrounded by 300,000 dead bodies. Even though I knew the dead went away after a few daysa week at mostI almost expected to see them standing beside their graves or right on top of them. Then maybe converging on us, like in a fucking zombie movie. Are you sure? I looked at the funeral (or graveside service, or whatever you call it). The minister must have started a prayer, because all the mourners had bowed their heads. All except one, that was. He was just standing there and looking unconcernedly up at the sky. That guy in the blue suit, I said finally. The one whos not wearing a tie. He might be dead, but I cant be sure. If theres nothing wrong with them when they die, nothing that shows, they look pretty much like anyone else. I dont see a man without a tie, she said. Well okay then, hes dead. Do they always come to their burials? Liz asked. How should I know? This is my first graveyard, Liz. I saw Mrs. Burkett at her funeral, but I dont know about the graveyard, because me and Mom didnt go to that part. We just went home. But you see him. She was staring at the funeral party like she was in a trance. You could go over there and talk to him, the way you talked to Regis Thomas that day. Im not going over there! I dont like to say I squawked this, but I pretty much did. In front of all his friends? In front of his wife and kids? You cant make me! Mellow out, Champ, she said, and ruffled my hair. Im just trying to get it straight in my mind. How did he get here, do you think? Because he sure didnt take an Uber. I dont know. I want to go home. Pretty soon, she said, and we continued our cruise of the cemetery, passing tombs and monuments and about a billion regular gravestones. We passed three more graveside ceremonies in progress, two small like the first one, where the star of the show was attending sight unseen, and one humungous one, where about two hundred people were gathered on a hillside and the guy in charge (beanie, checkplus a cool-looking shawl) was using a microphone. Each time Liz asked me if I could see the dead person and each time I told her I didnt have a clue. You probably wouldnt tell me if you did, she said. I can tell youre in a pissy mood. Im not in a pissy mood. You are, though, and if you tell Tee I brought you out here, well probably have a fight. I dont suppose you could tell her we went for ice cream, could you? We were almost back to Webster Avenue by then and I was feeling a little better. Telling myself Liz had a right to be curious, that anyone would be. Maybe if you actually bought me one. Bribery! Thats a Class B felony! She laughed, gave my hair a ruffle, and we were pretty much all right again. We left the cemetery and I saw a young woman in a black dress sitting on a bench and waiting for her bus. A little girl in a white dress and shiny black shoes was sitting beside her. The girl had golden hair and rosy cheeks and a hole in her throat. I waved to her. Liz didnt see me do it; she was waiting for a break in traffic so she could make her turn. I didnt tell her what I saw. That night Liz left after dinner to either go to work or go back to her own place, and I almost told my mother. In the end I didnt. In the end I kept the little girl with the golden hair to myself. Later I would think that the hole in her throat was from the little girl choking on food and they cut into her throat so she could breathe but it was too late. She was sitting there beside her mother and her mother didnt know. But I knew. I saw. When I waved to her, she waved back. 18 While we were eating our ice cream at Lickety Split (Liz phoned my mother to tell her where we were and what we were up to), Liz said, It must be so strange, what you can do. So weird. Doesnt it freak you out? I thought of asking her if it freaked her out to look up at night and see the stars and know they go on forever and ever, but didnt bother. I just said no. You get used to marvelous things. You take them for granted. You can try not to, but you do. Theres too much wonder, thats all. Its everywhere. 19 Ill tell you about the other time Liz picked me up from school very soon, but first I have to tell you about the day they broke up. That was a scary morning, believe me. I woke up that day even before my alarm clock went off, because Mom was yelling. Id heard her mad before, but never that mad. You brought it into the apartment? Where I live with my son? Liz answered something, but it was little more than a mumble and I couldnt hear. Do you think that matters to me? Mom shouted. On the cop shows thats what they call serious weight! I could go to jail as an accessory! Dont be dramatic, Liz said. Louder now. There was never any chance of That doesnt matter! Mom yelled. It was here! It still is here! On the fucking table beside the fucking sugar bowl! You brought drugs into my house! Serious weight! Would you stop saying that? This isnt an episode of Law and Order. Now Liz was also getting loud. Getting mad. I stood with one ear pressed against my bedroom door, barefoot and dressed in my pajamas, my heart starting to pound. This wasnt a discussion or even an argument. This was more. Worse. If you hadnt been going through my pockets Searching your stuff, is that what you think? I was trying to do you a favor! I was going to take your extra uniform coat to the cleaners along with my wool skirt. How long has it been there? Only a little while. The guy it belongs to is out of town. Hes going to be back tomor How long? Lizs reply was again too low for me to hear. Then why bring it here? I dont understand that. Why not put it in the gun safe at your place? I dont She stopped. Dont what? Dont actually have a gun safe. And there have been break-ins in my building. Besides, I was going to be here. We were going to spend the week together. I thought it would save me a trip. Save you a trip? To this Liz made no reply. No gun safe in your apartment. How many other things have you been lying to me about? Mom didnt sound mad anymore. At least not right then. She sounded hurt. Like she wanted to cry. I felt like going out and telling Liz to leave my mother alone, even if my mother had started it by finding whatever shed foundthe serious weight. But I just stood there, listening. Trembling, too. Liz mumbled some more. Is this why youre in trouble at the Department? Are you using as well asI dont know couriering the stuff? Distributing the stuff? Im not using and Im not distributing! Well, youre passing it on! Moms voice was rising again. That sounds like distributing to me. Then she went back to what was really troubling her. Well, not the only thing, but the one that was troubling her the most. You brought it into my apartment. Where my son is. You lock your gun in your car, I always insisted on that, but now I find two pounds of cocaine in your spare jacket. She actually laughed, but not the way people do when something is funny. Your spare police jacket! Its not two pounds. Sounding sulky. I grew up weighing meat in my fathers market, Mom said. I know two pounds when Ive got it in my hand. Ill get it out, she said. Right now. You do that, Liz. Posthaste. And you can come back to get your things. By appointment. When Im here and Jamies not. Otherwise never. You dont mean that, Liz said, but even through the door I could tell she didnt believe what she was saying. I absolutely do. Im going to do you a favor and not report what I found to your watch captain, but if you ever show your face here againexcept for that one time to pick up your shitI will. Thats a promise. Youre throwing me out? Really? Really. Take your dope and fuck off. Liz started to cry. That was horrible. Then, after she was gone, Mom started to cry and that was even worse. I went out into the kitchen and hugged her. How much of that did you hear? Mom asked, and before I could answer: All of it, I imagine. Im not going to lie to you, Jamie. Or gloss it over. She had dope, a lot of dope, and I never want you to say a word about it, okay? Was it really cocaine? I had also been crying, but didnt realize it until I heard my voice come out all husky. It was. And since you already know so much, I might as well tell you I tried it in college, just a couple of times. I tasted what was in the Baggie I found, and my tongue went numb. It was coke, all right. But its gone. She took it. Moms know what kids are scared of, if theyre good moms. A critic might call that a romantic notion, but I think its just a practical fact. She did and were fine. It was a nasty way to start the day, but its over. Well draw a line under it and move on. Okay, butis Liz really not your friend anymore? Mom used a dishtowel to wipe her face. I dont think shes been my friend for quite awhile now. I just didnt know it. Now get ready for school. That night while I was doing my homework, I heard a glug-glug-glug coming from the kitchen and smelled wine. The smell was a lot stronger than usual, even on nights when Mom and Liz put away a lot of vino. I came out of my room to see if shed spilled a bottle (although there had been no crash of glass) and saw Mom standing over the sink with a jug of red wine in one hand and a jug of white in the other. She was pouring it down the drain. Why are you throwing it away? Did it go bad? In a manner of speaking, she said. I think it started to go bad about eight months ago. Its time to stop. I found out later that my mother went to AA for awhile after she broke up with Liz, then decided she didnt need it. (Old men pissing and moaning about a drink they took thirty years ago, she said.) And I dont think she quit completely, because once or twice I thought I smelled wine on her breath when she kissed me goodnight. Maybe from dinner with a client. If she kept a bottle in the apartment, I never knew where she stashed it (not that I looked very hard). What I do know is that in the years that followed, I never saw her drunk and I never saw her hungover. That was good enough for me. 20 I didnt see Liz Dutton for a long time after that, a year or maybe a little more. I missed her at first, but that didnt last long. When the feeling came, I just reminded myself she screwed my mom over, and bigtime. I kept waiting for Mom to have another sleepover friend, but she didnt. Like ever. I asked her once, and she said, Once burned, twice shy. Were okay, thats the important thing. And we were. Thanks to Regis Thomas27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller listand a couple new clients (one of them discovered by Barbara Means, who was by then full-time and actually ended up getting her name on the door in 2017), the agency was back on a firm footing. Uncle Harry returned to the care home in Bayonne (same facility, new management), which wasnt great but better than it had been. Mom was no longer cross in the morning and she got some new clothes. Have to, she told me once that year. Ive lost fifteen pounds of wine-weight. I was in middle school by then, which sucked in some respects, was okay in others, and came with one excellent perk: student athletes with no class during the last period of the day could go to the gym, the art room, the music room, or sign out. I only played JV basketball, and the season was over, but I still qualified. Some days I checked out the art room, because this foxy chick named Marie OMalley occasionally hung out there. If she wasnt working on one of her watercolors, I just went home. Walked if it was nice (on my own, it should go without saying), took the bus if it was nasty. On the day Liz Dutton came back into my life, I didnt even bother looking for Marie, because Id gotten a new Xbox for my birthday and I wanted to hit it. I was all the way down the walk and shouldering my backpack (no more one-armed tote for me; sixth grade was in the prehistoric past) when she called to me. Hey, Champ, what the haps, bambino? She was leaning against her personal, legs crossed at the ankles, wearing jeans and a low-cut blouse. It was a blazer over the blouse instead of a parka, but it still had NYPD on the breast and she flapped it open in the old way to show me her shoulder holster. Only this time it wasnt empty. Hi, Liz, I mumbled. I looked down at my shoes and made a right turn onto the street. Hold on, I need to talk to you. I stopped, but I didnt turn back to her. Like she was Medusa and one look at her snaky head would turn me to stone. I dont think I should. Mom would be mad. She doesnt need to know. Turn around, Jamie. Please. Looking at nothing but your back is just about killing me. She sounded like she really felt bad, and that made me feel bad. I turned around. The blazer was closed again, but I could see the bulge of her gun just the same. I want you to take a ride with me. Not a good idea, I said. I was thinking of this girl named Ramona Sheinberg. She was in a couple of my classes at the beginning of the year, but then she was gone and my friend Scott Abramowitz told me her father snatched her during a custody suit and took her to someplace where there was no extradition. Scott said he hoped it was at least a place with palm trees. I need what you can do, Champ, she said. I really do. I didnt reply to that, but she must have seen I was wavering, because she gave me a smile. It was a nice one that lit up those gray eyes of hers. They werent a bit sleety that day. Maybe it will come to nothing, but I want to try. I want you to try. Try what? She didnt answer, not then, just held out a hand to me. I helped your mother when Regis Thomas died. Wont you help me now? Technically, I was the one who helped my mother that day, Liz just gave us a quick ride up the Sprain Brook Parkway, but she had stopped to buy me a Whopper when Mom just wanted to push on. And she gave me the rest of her Coke when my mouth was so dry from talking. So I got in the car. I didnt feel good about it, but I did it. Adults have power, especially when they beg, and thats what Liz was doing. I asked Liz where we were going, and she said Central Park to start with. Maybe a couple of other places after that. I said if I didnt get home by five, Mom would be worried. Liz told me shed try to get me back before then, but this was very important. Thats when she told me what it was about. 21 The guy who called himself Thumper set his first bomb in Eastport, a Long Island town not all that far from Speonk, one-time home of Uncle Harrys Cabin (literary joke). This was in 1996. Thumper dropped a stick of dynamite hooked up to a timer in a trash can outside the restrooms of the King Kullen Supermarket. The timer was nothing but a cheap alarm clock, but it worked. The dynamite went off at 9 PM, just as the supermarket was closing. Three people were hurt, all store employees. Two of them suffered only superficial injuries, but the third guy was coming out of the mens when the bomb blew. He lost an eye and his right arm up to the elbow. Two days later, a note came in to the Suffolk County Police Department. It was typed on an IBM Selectric. It said, How do you like my work so far? More to come! THUMPER. Thumper set nineteen bombs before he actually killed anybody. Nineteen! Liz exclaimed. And it wasnt as if he wasnt trying. He set them all over the five boroughs, and a couple in New JerseyJersey City and Fort Leefor good measure. All dynamite, Canadian manufacture. But the score of the maimed and wounded was high. It had been closing in on fifty when he finally killed the man who picked the wrong Lexington Avenue pay phone. Every kaboom was followed by a note to the police responsible for the area where said kaboom occurred, and the notes were always the same: How do you like my work so far? More to come! THUMPER. Before Richard Scalise (that was the pay phone mans name), a long period of time went by before each new explosion. The two closest were six weeks apart. The longest delay was close to a year. But after Scalise, Thumper sped up. The bombs became bigger and the timers more sophisticated. Nineteen explosions between 1996 and 2009twenty, counting the pay phone bomb. Between 2010 and the pretty May day in 2013 when Liz came back into my life, he set ten more, wounding twenty and killing three. By then, Thumper wasnt just an urban legend, or an NY1 staple; by then he was nationwide. He was good at avoiding security cameras, and those he couldnt avoid just showed a guy in a coat, sunglasses, and a Yankees cap pulled down low. He kept his head low, too. Some white hair showed around the sides and back of the cap, but that could have been a wig. Over the seventeen years of his reign of terror, three different task forces were organized to catch him. The first one disbanded during a long break in his reign, when the police assumed he was finished. The second disbanded after a big shakeup in the department. The third started in 2011, when it became clear Thumper had gone into overdrive. Liz didnt tell me all this on our way to Central Park; I found it out later, as I did so many other things. Finally, two days ago, they got the break in the case theyd been waiting and hoping for. Son of Sam was caught by a parking ticket. Ted Bundy got caught because he forgot to put his headlights on. Thumperreal name Kenneth Alan Therriaultwas nailed because a building super had a minor accident on trash day. He was wheeling a dolly loaded with garbage cans down an alley to the pickup point out front. He hit a pothole and one of the cans spilled. When he went to clean up the mess, he found a bundle of wires and a yellow scrap of paper with CANACO printed on it. He might not have called the police if that had been all, but it wasnt. Attached to one of the wires was a Dyno Nobel blasting cap. We got to Central Park and parked with a bunch of regular cop cars (another thing I found out later is that Central Park has its own precinct, the 22nd). Liz put her little cop sign on the dashboard and we walked down 86th Street for a little while before turning onto a path that led to the Alexander Hamilton Monument. Thats one thing I didnt find out later; I just read the fucking sign. Or plaque. Whatever. The super took a picture of the wires, the scrap of paper, and the blasting cap with his phone, but the task force didnt get it until the next day. Yesterday, I said. Right. As soon as we saw it, we knew we had our guy. Sure, because of the blasting cap. Yeah, but not just that. The scrap of paper? Canaco is a Canadian company that manufactures dynamite. We got a list of all the buildings tenants, and eliminated most of them without any fieldwork, because we knew we were looking for a male, probably single, and probably white. There were only six tenants who checked all those boxes, and only one guy whod ever worked in Canada. Googled em, right? I was getting interested. Right you are. Among other things, we found Kenneth Therriault has dual citizenship, U.S. and Canada. He worked all sorts of construction jobs up there in the great white north, plus fracking and oil shale sites. He was Thumper, pretty much had to be. I only got a quick look at Alexander Hamilton, just enough to read the sign and note his fancy pants. Liz had me by the hand and was leading me toward a path a little way beyond the statue. Pulling me, actually. We went in with a SWAT team, but his crib was empty. Well, not empty empty, all his stuff was there, but he was gone. The super didnt keep his big discovery to himself, unfortunately, although he was told to. He blabbed to some of the residents, and the word spread. One of the things we found in the apartment was an IBM Selectric. Thats a typewriter? She nodded. Those babies used to come with different type elements for different fonts. The one in the machine matched Thumpers notes. Before we get to the path and the bench that wasnt there, I need to tell you some other stuff I found out later. She was telling the truth about how Therriault finally tripped over his dick, but she kept talking about we. We this and we that, but Liz wasnt a part of the Thumper task force. She had been part of the second task force, the one that ended in the big departmental shakeup when everybody was running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but by 2013 all Liz Dutton had left in the NYPD was a toehold, and only that much because cops have a kickass union. The rest of her was already out the door. Internal Affairs was circling like buzzards around fresh roadkill, and on the day she picked me up from school, she wouldnt have been put on a task force dedicated to catching serial litterbugs. She needed a miracle, and I was supposed to be it. By today, she went on, every cop in the boroughs had Kenneth Therriaults name and description. Every way out of the city was being monitored by human eyeballs as well as camerasand as Im sure you know, theres plenty of cameras. Nailing this guy, dead or alive, became our number one priority, because we were afraid he might decide to go out in a blaze of glory. Maybe setting off a bomb in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, or in Grand Central. Only he did us a favor. She stopped and pointed at a spot beside the path. I noticed the grass was beaten down, as if a lot of people had been standing there. He came into the park, he sat down on a bench, and he blew his brains out with a Ruger .45 ACP. I looked at the spot, awestruck. The bench is at the NYPD Forensics Lab in Jamaica, but this is where he did it. So heres the big question. Do you see him? Is he here? I looked around. I had no clue what Kenneth Alan Therriault looked like, but if hed blown his brains out, I didnt think I could miss him. I saw some kids throwing a Frisbee for their dog to chase (the dog was off his leash, a Central Park no-no), I saw a couple of lady runners, a couple of boarders, and a couple of old guys further down the path reading newspapers, but I didnt see any guy with a hole in his head, and I told her that. Fuck, Liz said. Well, all right. Weve got two more chances, at least that I can see. He worked as an orderly at City of Angels Hospital on 70thquite a comedown from his construction days, but he was in his seventiesand the apartment building where he lived is in Queens. Which do you think, Champ? I think I want to go home. He might be anyplace. Really? Didnt you say they hang around places where they spent time when they were alive? Before they, I dont know, pop off for good? I couldnt remember if Id said that to her, exactly, but it was true. Still, I was feeling more and more like Ramona Sheinberg. Kidnapped, in other words. Why bother? Hes dead, right? Case closed. Not quite. She bent down to look me in the eye. She didnt have to bend so far in 2013, because I was getting taller. Nowhere near the six feet I am now, but a couple of inches. There was a note pinned to his shirt. It said, Theres one more, and it is a big one. Fuck you and see you in hell. It was signed THUMPER. Well, that kind of changed things. 22 We went to City of Angels first, because it was closer. There was no guy with a hole in his head out front, just some smokers, so we went in through the Emergency Room entrance. A lot of people were sitting around in there, and one guy was bleeding from the head. The wound looked like a laceration to me rather than a bullet hole, and he was younger than Liz said Kenneth Therriault was, but I asked Liz if she could see him, just to be sure. She said she could. We went to the desk, where Liz showed her badge and identified herself as an NYPD detective. She asked if there was a room where the custodians put their stuff and changed their clothes for their shifts. The lady at the desk said there was, but the other police had already been there and cleaned out Therriaults locker. Liz asked if they were still there and the lady said no, the last of them left hours ago. Id like to grab a quick peek, anyway, Liz said. Tell me how to get there. The lady said to take the elevator down to B level and turn right. Then she smiled at me and said, Are you helping your mom in her investigations today, young man? I thought of saying Well, shes not my mom, but I guess I am helping because she hopes that if Mr. Therriault is still hanging around, Ill see him. Of course that wouldnt fly, so I was stuck. Liz wasnt. She explained that the school nurse thought I might have mono, so this seemed like a chance to get me checked out and visit Therriaults place of work at the same time. Two birds with one stone type of deal. Youd probably do better with your own doctor, the desk lady said. This place is a madhouse today. Youll wait for hours. Thats probably best, Liz agreed. I thought how natural she sounded, and what a smooth liar she was. I couldnt decide if I was grossed out or admiring. I guess a little of both. The desk lady leaned forward. I was fascinated by how her extremely large bazams shoved her papers forward. It made me think of an icebreaker boat Id seen in a movie. She lowered her voice. Everyone was shocked, let me tell you. Ken was the oldest of all the orderlies, and the nicest. Hardworking and willing to please. If someone asked him to do something, he was always happy to do it. And with a smile. To think we were working with a killer! Do you know what it proves? Liz shook her head, clearly impatient for us to be on our way. That you never know, the desk lady said. She spoke like someone whos imparting a great truth. You just never know! He was good at covering up, all right, Liz said, and I thought, It takes one to know one. In the elevator, I asked, If youre on a task force, how come youre not with the task force? Dont be dumb, Champ. Was I supposed to take you to the task force? Having to make up a story about you at the desk was bad enough. The elevator stopped. If anyone asks about you, remember why youre here. Mono. Right. But there was no one to ask. The custodians room was empty. It had yellow tape saying POLICE INVESTIGATION KEEP OUT across the door. Liz and I ducked under it, her holding my hand. There were benches, a few chairs, and about two dozen lockers. Also a fridge, a microwave, and a toaster oven. There was an open box of Pop Tarts by the toaster oven, and I thought I wouldnt have minded a Pop Tart just then. But there was no Kenneth Therriault. The lockers had names stuck to them in DymoTape. Liz opened Therriaults, using a handkerchief because of the leftover fingerprint powder. She did it slowly, like she expected him to be hiding inside like the boogeyman in a kids closet. Therriault was sort of a boogeyman, but he wasnt in there. It was empty. The cops took everything. Liz said fuck again. I looked at my phone to check the time. It was twenty past three. I know, I know, she said. Her shoulders were slumped, and although I resented the way shed just scooped me up and taken me away, I couldnt help feeling a little sorry for her. I remembered Mr. Thomas saying my mom looked older, and now I thought my moms lost friend looked older, too. Thinner. And I had to admit I also felt some admiration, because she was trying to do the right thing and save lives. She was like the hero of a movie, the lone wolf who means to solve the case on her own. Maybe she did care about the innocent people who might be vaporized in Thumpers last bomb. Probably she did. But I know now she was also concerned with saving her job. I dont like to think it was her major concern, but in light of what happened laterIll get to itI have to think it was. Okay, one more shot. And stop looking at your dumb phone, Champ. I know what time it is, and no matter how much trouble youre in if I dont get you home before your mother shows up, Ill be in more. Shell probably take Barbara out for a drink before she goes home, anyway. Barbara works for the agency now. I dont know why I said that, exactly. Because I also wanted to save innocent lives, I suppose, although that seemed rather academic to me, because I didnt think we were going to find Kenneth Therriault. I think it was because Liz looked so beaten down. So backed into a corner. Well, thats a lucky break, Liz said. All we need is one more. 23 The Frederick Arms was twelve or fourteen stories high, gray brick, with bars on the windows of the first- and second-floor apartments. To a kid who grew up in the Palace on Park, it looked more like that Shawshank Redemption prison than an apartment building. And Liz knew right away that we were never going to get inside, let alone to Kenneth Therriaults apartment. The place was swarming with cops. Lookie-loos were standing in the middle of the street, as close to the police sawhorse barricades as they could get, snapping photos. TV news vans were parked on both sides of the block with their antennas up and cables snaking everywhere. There was even a Channel 4 helicopter hovering overhead. Look, I said. Stacy-Anne Conway! Shes on NY1! Ask me if I give a shit, Liz said. I didnt. We had been lucky not to run into reporters at Central Park or City of Angels, and I realized the only reason we hadnt was because they were all here. I looked at Liz and saw a tear trickling down one of her cheeks. Maybe we can go to his funeral, I said. Maybe hell be there. Hell probably be cremated. Privately, at the citys expense. No relatives. He outlived them all. Ill take you home, Champ. Sorry to drag you all this way. Thats okay, I said, and patted her hand. I knew Mom wouldnt like me doing that, but Mom wasnt there. Liz pulled a U-turn and headed back toward the Queens-boro bridge. A block away from the Frederick Arms, I glanced at a little grocery on my side and said, Oh my God. There he is. She snapped a wide-eyed glance at me. Are you sure? Are you sure, Jamie? I leaned forward and vomited between my sneakers. That was all the answer she needed. 24 I cant really say if he was as bad as the Central Park man, that was a long time ago. He could have been worse. Once youve seen what can happen to a human body thats suffered an act of violenceaccident, suicide, murdermaybe it doesnt even matter. Kenneth Therriault, alias Thumper, was bad, okay? Really bad. There were benches on either side of the grocerys door, so people could eat the snacks they bought, I suppose. Therriault was sitting on one of them with his hands on the thighs of his khaki pants. People were passing by, headed for whatever they were headed for. A black kid with a skateboard under his arm went into the store. A lady came out with a steaming paper cup of coffee. Neither of them glanced at the bench where Therriault was sitting. He must have been right-handed, because that side of his head didnt look too bad. There was a hole in his temple, maybe the size of a dime, maybe a little smaller, surrounded by a dark corona that was either bruising or gunpowder. Probably gunpowder. I doubt if his body had time to muster enough blood to make a bruise. The real damage was on the left, where the bullet exited. The hole on that side was almost as big as a dessert plate and surrounded by irregular fangs of bone. The flesh on his head was swelled, like from a gigantic infection. His left eye had been yanked sideways and bulged from its socket. Worst of all, gray stuff had dripped down his cheek. That was his brain. Dont stop, I said. Just keep going. The smell of puke was strong in my nose and the taste of it was in my mouth, all slimy. Please, Liz, I cant. She swerved to the curb in front of a fire hydrant near the end of the block instead. You have to. And I have to. Sorry, Champ, but we have to know. Now pull yourself together so people dont stare at us and think Ive been abusing you. But you are, I thought. And you wont stop until you get what you want. The taste in my mouth was the ravioli Id eaten in the school caff. As soon as I realized that I opened the door, leaned out, and puked some more. Like on the day of the Central Park man, when I never made it to Lilys birthday party at fancy-shmancy Wave Hill. That was d?j? vu I could have done without. Champ? Champ! I turned to her and she was holding out a wad of Kleenex (show me a woman without Kleenex in her purse and Ill show you no one at all). Wipe your mouth and then get out of the car. Try to look normal. Lets get this done. I could see she meant itwe werent going to leave until she had what she wanted. Man up, I thought. I can do this. I have to, because lives are at stake. I wiped my mouth and got out. Liz put her little sign on the dashboardthe police version of Get Out of Jail Freeand came around to where I was standing on the sidewalk, staring into a laundromat at a woman folding clothes. That wasnt very interesting, but at least it kept me from looking at the ruined man up the street. For the time being, anyway. Soon Id have to. Worseoh GodId have to talk to him. If he even could talk. I held out my hand without thinking. Thirteen was probably too old to be holding hands with a woman the people passing by would assume was my mother (if they bothered thinking about us at all), but when she took it, I was glad. Glad as hell. We started back to the store. I wished wed had miles to walk, but it was only half a block. Where is he, exactly? she asked in a low voice. I risked a look to make sure he hadnt moved. Nope, he was still on the bench, and now I could look directly into the crater where there had once been thoughts. His ear was still on, but it was crooked and I found myself remembering a Mr. Potato Head Id had when I was four or five. My stomach clenched again. Get it together, Champ. Dont call me that anymore, I managed to say. I hate it. Duly noted. Where is he? Sitting on the bench. The one on this side of the door, or This side, yeah. I was looking at him again, we were close now so I couldnt help it, and I saw an interesting thing. A man came out of the store with a newspaper under his arm and a hot dog in one hand. The hot dog was in one of those foil bags thats supposed to keep them hot (believe that and youll believe the moon is made of green cheese). He started to sit down on the other bench, already pulling his hot dog out of the bag. Then he stopped, looked either at me and Liz or the other bench, and walked on down the block to eat his pup somewhere else. He didnt see Therriaulthe would have run if he had, most likely screaming his head offbut I think he felt him. No, I dont just think it, I know it. I wish Id paid more attention at the time, but I was upset, as Im sure you understand. If you dont, youre an idiot. Therriault turned his head. It was a relief because the move hid the worst of the exit wound. It wasnt a relief because his face was normal on one side and all bloated out of shape on the other, like that guy Two-Face in the Batman comics. Worst of all, now he was looking at me. I see them and they know I do. Its always been that way. Ask him where the bomb is, Liz said. She was speaking from the corner of her mouth, like a spy in a comedy. A woman with a baby in a Papoose carrier came up the sidewalk. She gave me a distrustful glance, maybe because I looked funny or maybe because I smelled of puke. Maybe both. I was past the point of caring. All I wanted was to do what Liz Dutton had brought me here to do, then get the fuck out. I waited until the woman with the baby went inside. Wheres the bomb, Mr. Therriault? The last bomb? At first he didnt reply and I was thinking okay, his brains are blown out, hes here but he cant talk, end of story. Then he spoke up. The words didnt exactly match the movements of his mouth and it came to me that he was talking from somewhere else. Like on a time-delay from hell. That scared the shit out of me. If Id known that was when something awful came into him and took him over, it would have been even worse. But do I know that? Like for sure? No, but I almost know it. I dont want to tell you. That stunned me to silence. I had never gotten such a reply from a dead person before. True, my experience was limited, but up until then I would have said they had to tell you the truth first time, every time. What did he say? Liz asked. Still talking from the corner of her mouth. I ignored her and spoke to Therriault again. Since there was no one around, I spoke louder, enunciating every word the way you would for a person who was deaf or only had a shaky grasp on English. Whereisthe lastbomb? I also would have said that the dead cant feel pain, that they are beyond it, and Therriault certainly did not seem to be suffering from the cataclysmic self-inflicted wound in his head, but now his half-bloated face twisted as if I were burning him or stabbing him in the belly instead of just asking him a question. Dont want to tell you! What did he Liz began again, but then the lady with the baby came back out. She had a lottery ticket. The baby in the Papoose had a Kit-Kat finger which he was smearing all over his face. Then he looked at the bench where Therriault was sitting and started crying. The mom must have thought her kid was looking at me, because she gave me another glance, mega distrustful this time, and hurried on her way. ChampJamie, I mean Shut up, I said. Then, because my mother would have hated me talking to any grownup like that, Please. I looked back to Therriault. His grimace of pain made his ruined face look more ruined than ever, and all at once I decided I didnt care. He had maimed enough people to fill a hospital ward, he had killed people, and if the note hed pinned to his shirt wasnt a lie, he had died trying to kill even more. I decided I hoped he was suffering. Whereis ityoumotherfucker? He clasped his hands around his middle, bent over like he had cramps, groaned. Then he gave it up. King Kullen. The King Kullen Supermarket in Eastport. Why? Seemed right to finish where I started, he said, and drew a circle in the air with one finger. Complete the circle. No, why do it at all? Why set all those bombs? He smiled, and the way it kind of squelched the bloated side of his face? I still see that, and Ill never be able to unsee it. Because, he said. Because what? Because I felt like it, he said. 25 When I told Liz everything Therriault had said, she was excited and nothing else. I could understand that, she wasnt the one looking at a man whod pretty much blown off one whole side of his head. She told me she had to go into the store and get some stuff. And leave me here with him? No, go back down the street. Wait by the car. Ill only be a minute. Therriault was sitting there looking at me with the eye that was more or less regular and the one that was all stretched out. I could feel his gaze. It made me think of the time I went to camp and got fleas and had to have this special stinky shampoo like five times before they were all gone. Shampoo wouldnt fix the way Therriault made me feel, only getting away from him would do that, so I did what Liz said. I walked as far as the laundromat and looked in at the woman who was still folding clothes. She saw me and gave me a wave. That brought back the little girl with the hole in her throat, and how she had waved to me, and for one horrible moment I thought the laundromat lady was also dead. Only a dead person wouldnt be folding clothes, they only stood around. Or sat around, like Therriault. So I gave her a return wave. I even tried to smile. Then I turned back to the store. I told myself it was to see if Liz was coming out yet, but that wasnt why. I was looking to see if Therriault was still looking at me. He was. He raised one hand, palm up, three fingers tucked into his palm, one finger pointing. He curled it once, then twice. Very slowly. Come here, boy. I walked back, my legs seeming to move of their own accord. I didnt want to, but couldnt seem to help myself. She doesnt care about you, Kenneth Therriault said. Not a fig. Not one single fig. Shes using you, boy. Fuck you, were saving lives. There was no one passing by, but even if somebody had been, he or she wouldnt have heard me. He had stolen all of my voice but a whisper. What shes saving is her job. You dont know that, youre just some random psycho. Still only a whisper, and I felt on the verge of peeing myself. He didnt say anything, only grinned. That was his answer. Liz came out. She had one of those cheap plastic bags they gave you in stores like that back then. She looked at the bench, where the ruined man she couldnt see was sitting, and then at me. What are you doing here, ChaJamie? I told you to go to the car. And before I could answer, quick and harsh, like I was a perp in a TV cop show interrogation room: Did he tell you something else? That you only care about saving your job, I thought of saying. But maybe I already knew that. No, I said. I want to go home, Liz. We will. We will. As soon as I do one more thing. Two, actually, Ive also got to get your mess out of my car. She put an arm around my shoulders (like a good mom would) and walked me up past the laundromat. I would have waved to the clothes-folding lady again, but her back was turned. I set something up. I didnt really think Id have a chance to use it, but thanks to you When we were next to her car, she took a flip-phone out of the store bag. It was still in its blister pack. I leaned against the window of a shoe repair place and watched her fiddle with it until she got it working. It was now quarter past four. If Mom went for a drink with Barbara, we could still get back before she came homebut could I keep the afternoons adventures to myself? I didnt know, and right then it didnt seem that important. I wished Liz could at least have driven around the corner, I thought she could have smelled my puke for that long after what Id done for her, but she was too wound up. Plus, there was the bomb to consider. I thought of all the movies Id seen where the clock is counting down to nothing and the hero is wondering whether to cut the red wire or the blue one. Now she was calling. Colton? Yes, this is mshut up, just listen. Its time to do your thing. You owe me a favor, a big one, and this is it. Im going to tell you exactly what to say. Record it, thenshut up, I said! She sounded so vicious that I took a step back. Id never heard Liz like that, and realized that I was seeing her for the first time in her other life. The police life where she dealt with scumbuckets. Record it, then write it down, then call me back. Do it right away. She waited. I snuck a look back at the store. Both benches were empty. That should have been a relief, but somehow I didnt feel relieved. Ready? Okay. Liz closed her eyes, shutting out everything but what she wanted to say. She spoke slowly and carefully. If Ken Therriault was really Thumper Ill break in there and say I want to record this. You wait until I say Go ahead, start again. Got that? She listened until Coltonwhoever he wassaid he got it. You say, If Ken Therriault was really Thumper, he was always talking about finishing where he started. Im calling you because we talked in 2008. I kept your card. You got that? Another pause. Liz nodding. Good. Ill say who is this, and you hang up. Do it right away, this is time-sensitive. Screw it up and Ill fuck you big-time. You know I can. She ended the call. She paced around on the sidewalk. I snuck another look at the benches. Empty. Maybe Therriault whatever remained of himwas heading back home to check out the scene at the good old Frederick Arms. The drumbeat intro to Rumor Has It came from the pocket of Lizs blazer. She took out her real phone and said hello. She listened, then said, Hold on, I want to record this. She did that, then said, Go ahead, start again. Once the script was played out, she ended the call and put her phone away. Its not as strong as Id like, she said. But will they care? Probably not, once they find the bomb, I said. Liz gave a little start, and I realized she had been talking to herself. Now that Id done what she wanted, I was just baggage. She had a roll of paper towels and a can of air freshener in the bag. She cleaned up my puke, dropped it in the gutter (hundred-dollar fine for littering, I found out later), and then sprayed the car with something that smelled like flowers. Get in, she told me. Id been turned away so I didnt have to look at what remained of my lunchtime ravioli (as far as cleaning up the mess went, I thought she owed me that), but when I turned back to get in the car, I saw Kenneth Therriault standing by the trunk. Close enough to reach out and touch me, and still grinning. I might have screamed, but when I saw him I was between breaths and my chest wouldnt seem to expand and grab another one. It was as if all the muscles had gone to sleep. Ill be seeing you, Therriault said. The grin widened and I could see a cake of dead blood between his teeth and cheek. Champ. 26 We only drove three blocks before she stopped again. She took out her phone (her real one, not the burner), then looked at me and saw I was shaking. I maybe could have used a hug then, but all I got was a pat on the shoulder, presumably sympathetic. Delayed reaction, kiddo. Know all about it. Itll pass. Then she made a call, identified herself as Detective Dutton, and asked for Gordon Bishop. She must have been told he was on the job, because Liz said, I dont care if hes on Mars, patch me through. This is Priority One. She waited, tapping the fingers of her free hand on the steering wheel. Then she straightened up. Its Dutton, Gordono, I know Im not, but you need to hear this. I just got a tip about Therriault from someone I interviewed when I was on itno, I dont know who. You need to check out the King Kullen in Eastportwhere he started, right. It makes a degree of sense if you think about it. Listening. Then: Are you kidding? How many people did we interview back then? A hundred? Two hundred? Listen, Ill play you the message. I recorded it, assuming my phone worked. She knew it had; shed checked it on our short three-block drive. She played it for him and when it was done, she said, Gordo? Did youshit. She ended the call. He hung up. Liz gave me a grim smile. He hates my guts, but hell check. He knows itll be on him if he doesnt. Detective Bishop did check, because by then theyd had time to start digging into Kenneth Therriaults past, and theyd found a nugget that stood out in light of Lizs anonymous tip. Long before his career in construction and his post-retirement career as an orderly at City of Angels, Therriault had grown up in the town of Westport, which is, natch, next door to Eastport. As a high school senior, hed worked as a bag boy and shelf stocker at King Kullen. Where he was caught shoplifting. The first time he did it, Therriault was warned. The second time he got canned. But stealing, it seemed, was a hard habit to break. Later in life he moved on to dynamite and blasting caps. A good supply of both was later found in a Queens storage locker. All of it old, all of it from Canada. I guess the border searches were a lot less thorough in those days. Can we go home now? I asked Liz. Please? Yes. Are you going to tell your mother about this? I dont know. She smiled. It was a rhetorical question. Of course you will. And thats okay, doesnt bother me in the slightest. Do you know why? Because nobody would believe it. She patted my hand. Thats right, Champ. Hole in one. 27 Liz dropped me off on the corner and sped away. I walked down to our building. My mother and Barbara hadnt gone for that drink after all, Barb had a cold and said she was going home right after work. Mom was on the steps with her phone in her hand. She flew down the steps when she saw me coming and grabbed me in a panicky hug that squeezed the breath out of me. Where the fuck were you, James? She only called me that when she was super-pissed, which you might have already guessed. How could you be so thoughtless? Ive been calling everyone, I was starting to think youd been kidnapped, I even thought of calling She quit hugging and held me at arms length. I could see she had been crying and was starting to again and that made me feel really bad, even though none of it had been my fault. I think only your mother can truly make you feel lower than whale shit. Was it Liz? And without waiting for an answer: It was. Then, in a low and deadly voice: That bitch. I had to go with her, Mom, I said. I really had to. Then I started to cry, too. 28 We went upstairs. Mom made coffee and gave me a cup. My first, and Ive been a fool for the stuff ever since. I told her almost everything. How Liz had been waiting outside school. How she told me lives depended on finding Thumpers last bomb. How we went to the hospital, and to Therriaults building. I even told her how awful Therriault looked with half his head blown out of shape on one side. What I didnt tell her was how Id turned around to see him standing behind Lizs car, close enough to grab my armif dead people can grab, a thing I never wanted to find out one way or the other. And I didnt tell her what hed said, but that night when I went to bed it clanged in my head like a cracked bell: Ill be seeing youChamp. Mom kept saying okay and I understand, all the time looking more distressed. But she had to know what was happening on Long Island, and so did I. She turned on the TV and we sat on the couch to watch. Lewis Dodley of NY1 was doing a stand-up on a street with police sawhorses blocking it off. Police appear to be taking this tip very seriously, he was saying. According to a source in the Suffolk County Police Department I remembered the news helicopter flying over the Frederick Arms and figured it must have had enough time to chopper out to Long Island, so I grabbed the remote from my mothers lap and flipped over to Channel 4. And there, sure enough, was the roof of the King Kullen supermarket. The parking lot was full of police cars. Parked by the main doors was a big van that just about had to belong to the Bomb Squad. I saw two helmeted cops with a pair of dogs on harnesses going inside. The chopper was too high to see if the Bomb Squad cops were wearing bulletproof vests and flak jackets as well as helmets, but Im sure they were. Not the dogs, though. If Thumpers bomb went off while they were inside, the dogs would be blown to mush. The reporter in the chopper was saying, Weve been told that all customers and store personnel have been safely evacuated. Although its possible this is just another false alarm, there have been many during Thumpers reign of terror (Yup, he actually said that) taking these things seriously is always the wisest course. All we know now is that this was the site of Thumpers first bomb, and that no bomb has been found yet. Lets send it back to the studio. The chromo behind the news anchors had a picture of Therriault, maybe his City of Angels ID, because he looked pretty old. He was no movie star, but he looked a hell of a lot better than he had sitting on that bench. Lizs manufactured tip might not have been taken so seriously had it not caused one of the older detectives in the department to recall a case from his childhood, that of George Metesky, dubbed the Mad Bomber by the press. Metesky planted thirty-three pipe bombs during his own reign of terror, which lasted from 1940 to 1956, and the seed was a similar grudge, in his case against Consolidated Edison. Some quick researcher in the news department had also made the connection, and Meteskys face came up next on the chromo behind the anchors, but Mom didnt bother looking at the old guywho, I thought, looked weirdly like Therriault in his orderlys uniform. She had grabbed her phone, then went muttering into her bedroom for her address book, presumably having deleted Lizs number after their argument about the serious weight. A commercial for some pill came on, so I crept to her bedroom door to listen. If Id waited I wouldnt have heard jack shit, because that call didnt last long. Its Tia, Liz. Listen to me and dont say a word. Im going to keep this to myself, for reasons that should be obvious to you. But if you ever bother my son again, if he even sees you, I will burn your life to the ground. You know I can do it. All it would take is one single push. Stay away from Jamie. I scurried back to the couch and pretended to be absorbed in the next commercial. Which turned out to be as useless as tits on a bull. You heard that? Her eyes were burning, telling me not to lie. I nodded. Good. If you see her again, you run like hell. Home. And tell me. Do you understand? I nodded again. Okay, right right right. Im ordering take-out. Do you want pizza or Chinese? 29 The cops found and defused Thumpers last bomb that Wednesday night, around eight oclock. Mom and me were watching Person of Interest on TV when the station broke in with a special bulletin. The sniffer dogs had made lots of passes without finding anything, and their Bomb Squad handlers were about to take them out when one of them alerted in the housewares aisle. Theyd been in that one several times before and there was no place on the shelves to hide a bomb, but one of the cops happened to look up and saw a ceiling panel just slightly out of place. Thats where the bomb was, between the ceiling and the roof. It was tied to a girder with stretchy orange cord, like the kind bungee jumpers use. Therriault really blew his wad on that onesixteen sticks of dynamite and a dozen blasting caps. Hed moved far beyond alarm clocks; the bomb was hooked up to a digital timer very much like the ones in those movies Id been thinking about (one of the cops took a picture after it was disarmed, and it was in the next days New York Times). It was set to go off at 5 PM on Friday, when the store was always busiest. The next day on NY1 (we were back to Moms fave) one of the Bomb Squad guys said it would have brought the whole roof down. When asked how many people might have been killed in such a blast, he only shook his head. That Thursday night as we ate dinner, my mother said, You did a good thing, Jamie. A fine thing. Liz did too, whatever her reasons might have been. It makes me think of something Marty said once. She meant Mr. Burkett, actually Professor Burkett, still Emeritus and still hanging in. What did he say? Sometimes God uses a broken tool. It was from one of the old English writers he used to teach. He always asks me what Im learning in school, I said, and he always shakes his head like hes thinking Im getting a bad education. Mom laughed. Theres a man whos stuffed with education, and hes still totally sharp and in focus. Remember when we had Christmas dinner with him? Sure, turkey sandwiches with cranberry dressing, the best! Plus hot chocolate! Yes, that was a good night. It will be a shame when he passes on. Eat up, theres apple crisp for dessert. Barbara made it. And Jamie? I looked at her. Could we not talk about this anymore. Just kind ofput it behind us? I thought she wasnt just talking about Liz, or even Therriault; she was also talking about how I could see dead folks. It was what our computer teacher might have called a global request, and it was all right with me. More than all right, actually. Sure. Right then, sitting in our brightly lit kitchen nook and eating pizza, I really thought we could put it behind us. Only I was wrong. I didnt see Liz Dutton for another two years, and hardly ever thought about her, but I saw Ken Therriault again that very night. As I said at the beginning, this is a horror story. 30 I was almost asleep when two cats started yowling their heads off and I jerked fully awake. We were on the fifth floor and I might not have heard itand the clatter of a trashcan that followedif my window hadnt been cracked to let in some fresh air. I got up to shut it and froze with my hands on the sash. Therriault was standing across the street in the spreading glow of a streetlamp, and I knew right away that the cats hadnt been yowling because they were fighting. They had been yowling because they were scared. The baby in the Papoose carrier had seen him; so had those cats. He scared them on purpose. He knew I would come to the window, just as he knew Liz called me Champ. He grinned from his half-destroyed head. He beckoned. I closed the window and thought about going into my mothers room to get in bed with her, only I was too big for that, and there would be questions. So I pulled the shade instead. I went back to my own bed and lay there, looking up into the dark. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. No dead person had ever followed me home like a fucking stray dog. Never mind, I thought. In three or four days, hell be gone like all of them are gone. A week at most. And its not like he can hurt you. But could I be sure of that? Lying there in the dark, I realized I didnt. Seeing dead folks didnt mean knowing dead folks. At last I went back to the window and peeked around the shade, sure hed still be there. Maybe hed even beckon again. One finger pointingand then curling. Come here. Come to me, Champ. No one was under the streetlight. He was gone. I went back to bed, but it took me a long time to go to sleep. 31 I saw him again on Friday, outside of school. There were quite a few parents waiting for their kidsthere always are on Fridays, probably because theyre going somewhere for the weekendand they didnt see Therriault, but they must have felt him, because they gave the place where he was standing a wide berth. No one was pushing a baby in a carriage, but if someone had been, I knew that baby would be looking at the empty spot on the sidewalk and bawling its head off. I went back inside and looked at some posters outside the office, wondering what to do. I supposed Id have to talk to him, find out what he wanted, and I made up my mind to do it right then, while there were people around. I didnt think he could hurt me, but I didnt know. I used the boys room first because all at once I really had to pee, but when I was standing at the urinal, I couldnt squeeze out even a single drop. So I went out, holding my backpack by the strap instead of wearing it. I had never been touched by a dead person, not once, I didnt know if they could touch, but if Therriault tried to touch meor grab meI intended to hit him with a sackful of books. Only he was gone. A week went by, then two. I relaxed, figuring he had to be past his sell-by date. I was on the YMCA junior swim team, and on a Saturday in late May we had our final practice for an upcoming meet in Brooklyn, which would take place the following weekend. Mom gave me ten dollars for something to eat afterwards and told meas she always didto make sure I locked my locker so no one would steal the money or my watch (although why anyone would want to steal a lousy Timex I have no idea). I asked her if she was coming to the meet. She looked up from the manuscript she was reading and said, For the fourth time, Jamie, yes. Im coming to the meet. Its on my calendar. It was only the second time Id asked (or maybe the third), but I didnt tell her that, only kissed her on the cheek and headed down the hall to the elevator. When the doors opened, Therriault was in there, grinning his grin and staring at me from his good eye and the stretched-out one. There was a piece of paper pinned to his shirt. The suicide note was on it. The note was always on it and the blood spattered across it was always fresh. Your mother has cancer, Champ. From the cigarettes. Shell be dead in six months. I was frozen in place with my mouth hanging open. The elevator doors rolled shut. I made some kind of sound a squeak, a moan, I dont knowand leaned back against the wall so I wouldnt fall down. They have to tell you the truth, I thought. My mother is going to die. But then my head cleared a little and a better thought came. I grasped it like a drowning man clutching at a floating piece of wood. But maybe they only have to tell the truth if you ask them questions. Otherwise, maybe they can tell you any kind of fake shit they want. I didnt want to go to swim practice after that, but if I didnt Coach might call Mom to ask where Id been. Then she would want to know where I had been, and what was I going to tell her? That I was afraid that Thumper would be waiting for me on the corner? Or in the lobby of the Y? Or (somehow this was the most horrible) in the shower room, unseen by naked boys rinsing off the chlorine? Was I going to tell her she had fucking cancer? So I went, and as you might guess, I swam for shit. Coach told me to get my head on straight, and I had to pinch my armpit to keep from bursting into tears. I had to pinch it really hard. When I got home, Mom was still deep in her manuscript. I hadnt seen her smoking since Liz left, but I knew she sometimes drank when I wasnt therewith her authors and various editorsso I sniffed at her when I kissed her, and didnt smell anything but a little perfume. Or maybe face cream, since it was Saturday. Some kind of lady stuff, anyway. Are you coming down with a cold, Jamie? You dried off well after swimming, didnt you? Yeah. Mom, youre not smoking anymore, are you? So thats it. She put aside the manuscript and stretched. No, I havent had one since Liz left. Since you kicked her out, I thought. Have you been to the doctor lately? To get a checkup? She looked at me quizzically. Whats this about? Youve got that crease between your brows. Well, I said, youre the only parent Ive got. If something happened to you, I couldnt exactly go live with Uncle Harry, could I? She made a funny face at that, then laughed and hugged me. Im fine, kiddo. Had the old annual checkup two months ago, as a matter of fact. Passed with flying colors. And she looked okay. In the pink, as the saying goes. Hadnt lost any more weight that I could see, and wasnt coughing her brains out. Although cancer didnt just have to be in a persons throat or lungs, I knew that. Wellthats good. Im glad. That makes two of us. Now make your mom a cup of coffee and let me finish this manuscript. Is it a good one? As a matter of fact, it is. Better than Mr. Thomass Roanoke books? Much better, but not as commercial, alas. Can I have a cup of coffee? She sighed. Half a cup. Now let me read. 32 During my last test in math that year, I looked out the window and saw Kenneth Therriault standing on the basketball court. He did his grinning-and-beckoning thing. I looked back at my paper, then looked up again. Still there, and closer. He turned his head so I could get a good look at the purple-black crater, plus the bone-fangs sticking up all around it. I looked down at my paper again, and when I looked up the third time, he was gone. But I knew hed be back. He wasnt like the others. He was nothing like the others. By the time Mr. Laghari told us to turn in our papers, I still hadnt solved the last five problems. I got a D- on the test, and there was a note at the top: This is disappointing, Jamie. You must do better. What do I say at least once in every class? What he said was that if you fell behind in math, you could never catch up. Math wasnt so special that way, although Mr. Laghari might think so. It was true for most classes. As if to underline the point, I bricked a history test later that day. Not because Therriault was standing at the blackboard or anything, but because I couldnt stop thinking he might be standing at the blackboard. I got the idea he wanted me to do badly in my courses. You could laugh at that, but theres another old saying that goes its not paranoid if its true. A few lousy tests werent going to stop me from passing everything, not that late in the year, and then it would be summer vacation, but what about next year, if he was still hanging around? Also, what if he was getting stronger? I didnt want to believe that, but just the fact that he was still there suggested it might be true. That it probably was true. Telling somebody might help, and Mom was the logical choice, shed believe me, but I didnt want to scare her. Shed already been scared enough, when she thought the agency was going to go under and she wouldnt be able to take care of me and her brother. That Id helped her out of that pickle might make her blame herself for the one I was in now. That made no sense to me, but it might to her. Besides, she wanted to put the whole seeing-dead-folks stuff behind her. And heres the thing: what could she do, even if I did tell her? Blame Liz for putting me with Therriault in the first place, but that was all. I thought briefly of talking to Ms. Peterson, who was the schools guidance counselor, but shed assume I was having hallucinations, maybe a nervous breakdown. Shed tell my mother. I even thought of going to Liz, but what could Liz do? Pull out her gun and shoot him? Good luck there, since he was already dead. Besides, I was done with Liz, or so I thought. I was on my own, and that was a lonely, scary place to be. My mother came to the swim meet where I swam like shit in every event. On the way home she gave me a hug and told me everyone had an off day and Id do better next time. I almost blurted everything out right then, ending with my fearwhich I now felt was reasonably justifiedthat Kenneth Therriault was trying to ruin my life for screwing up his last and biggest bomb. If we hadnt been in a taxi, I really might have. Since we were, I just put my head on her shoulder as I had when I was small and thought my hand-turkey was the greatest work of art since the Mona Lisa. Tell you what, the worst part of growing up is how it shuts you up. 33 When I headed out of our apartment on the last day of school, Therriault was once again in the elevator. Grinning and beckoning. He probably expected me to cringe back like I had the first time I saw him in there, but I didnt. I was scared, all right, but not as scared, because I was getting used to him, the way you might get used to a growth or a birthmark on your face, even if it was ugly. This time I was more angry than scared, because he wouldnt leave me the fuck alone. Instead of cringing, I lunged forward and put my arm out to stop the elevator doors. I wasnt going to get in with himChrist, no!but I wasnt going to let the doors close until I got a few answers. Does my mother really have cancer? Once again his face twisted like I was hurting him, and once again I hoped I was. Does my mother have cancer? I dont know. The way he was staring at meyou know that old saying about if looks could kill? Then why did you say that? He was at the back of the car now, with his hands pressed to his chest, as if I was scaring him. He turned his head, showing me that enormous exit wound, but if he thought that was going to make me let go of the door and step back, he was wrong. Horrible as it was, Id gotten used to it. Why did you say that? Because I hate you, Therriault said, and bared his teeth. Why are you still here? How can you be? I dont know. Go away. He said nothing. Go away! Im not going away. Im never going away. That scared the hell out of me and my arm flopped down to my side as if it had gained weight. Be seeing you, Champ. The elevator doors rolled shut, but the car didnt go anywhere because there was no one to push any of the inside buttons. When I pushed the one on my side, the doors rolled open on an empty car, but I took the stairs anyway. Ill get used to him, I thought. I got used to the hole in his head and Ill get used to him. Its not like he can hurt me. But in some ways hed hurt me already: the D- on my math test and screwing the pooch at the swim meet were just two examples. I was sleeping badly (Mom had already commented on the pouches under my eyes), and little noises, even a dropped book in study hall, made me jump. I kept thinking Id open my closet to get a shirt and hed be in there, my own personal boogeyman. Or under the bed, and what if he grabbed my wrist or my dangling foot while I was sleeping? I didnt think he could grab, but I wasnt sure of that, either, especially if he was getting stronger. What if I woke up and he was lying in bed with me? Maybe even grabbing at my junk? That was an idea that, once thought, couldnt be unthought. And something else, something even worse. What if he was still haunting mebecause thats what this was, all rightwhen I was twenty? Or forty? What if he was there when I died at eighty-nine, waiting to welcome me into the afterlife, where he would go on haunting me even after I was dead? If this is what a good deed gets you, I thought one night, looking out my window and watching Thumper across the street under his streetlight, I never want to do another one. 34 In late June, Mom and I made our monthly visit to see Uncle Harry. He didnt talk much anymore and hardly ever went into the common room. Although he still wasnt fifty, his hair had gone snow white. Mom said, Jamie brought you rugelach from Zabars, Harry. Would you like some? I held the bag up from my place in the doorway (I didnt really want to go all the way in), smiling and feeling a little like one of the models on The Price is Right. Uncle Harry said yig. Does that mean yes? Mom asked. Uncle Harry said ng, and waved both hands at me. Which you didnt have to be a mind reader to know meant no fucking cookies. Would you like to go out? Its beautiful. I wasnt sure Uncle Harry even knew what out was these days. Ill help you up, Mom said, and took his arm. No! Uncle Harry said. Not ng, not yig, not ug, no. As clear as a bell. His eyes had gotten big and were starting to water. Then, also as clear as a bell, Whos that? Its Jamie. You know Jamie, Harry. Only he didnt know me, not anymore, and it wasnt me he was looking at. He was looking over my shoulder. I didnt need to turn around to know what I was going to see there, but I did, anyway. What hes got is hereditary, Therriault said, and it runs in the male line. Youll be like him, Champ. Youll be like him before you know it. Jamie? Mom asked. Are you okay? Fine, I said, looking at Therriault. Im just fine. But I wasnt, and Therriaults grin said he knew it, too. Go away! Uncle Harry said. Go away, go away, go away! So we did. All three of us. 35 I had just about decided to tell my mother everythingI needed to let it out, even if it scared her and made her unhappywhen fate, as the saying is, took a hand. This was in July of 2013, about three weeks after our trip to see Uncle Harry. My mother got a call early one morning, while she was getting ready to go to the office. I was sitting at the kitchen table, scarfing up Cheerios with one eye open. She came out of her bedroom, zipping her skirt. Marty Burkett had a little accident last night. Tripped over somethinggoing to the toilet, I imagineand strained his hip. He says hes fine, and maybe he is, but maybe hes just trying to be macho. Yeah, I said, mostly because its always safer to agree with my mom when shes rushing around and trying to do like three different things at once. Privately I was thinking that Mr. Burkett was a little old to be a macho man, although it was amusing to think of him starring in a movie like Terminator: The Retirement Years. Waving his cane and proclaiming Ill be back. I picked up my bowl and started to slurp the milk. Jamie, how many times have I told you not to do that? I couldnt remember if she ever had, because quite a few parental edicts, especially those concerning table manners, had a tendency to slide by me. How else am I supposed to get it all? She sighed. Never mind. I made a casserole for our supper, but we could have burgers. If, that is, you could interrupt your busy schedule of watching TV and playing games on your phone long enough to take it to Marty. I cant, full schedule. I dont suppose youd be willing to do that? And then call and tell me how hes doing? At first I didnt answer. I felt like Id just been hit on the head with a hammer. Some ideas are like that. Also, I felt like a total dumbo. Why had I never thought of Mr. Burkett before? Jamie? Earth to Jamie. Sure, I said. Happy to do it. Really? Really. Are you sick? Do you have a fever? Ha-ha, I said. Funny as a rubber crutch. She grabbed her purse. Ill give you cab fare Nah, just put the casserole thing in a carry-bag. Ill walk. Really? she said again, looking surprised. All the way to Park? Sure. I can use the exercise. Not strictly true. What I needed was time to be sure my idea was a good idea, and how to tell my story if it was. 36 At this point Im going to start calling Mr. Burkett Professor Burkett, because he taught me that day. He taught me a lot. But before the teaching, he listened. Ive already said I knew I had to talk to somebody, but I didnt know what a relief it would be to unburden myself until I actually did it. He came to the door hobbling on not just one cane, which Id seen him use before, but two. His face lit up when he saw me, so I guess he was glad to get company. Kids are pretty self-involved (as Im sure you know if youve ever been one yourself, ha-ha), and I only realized later that he must have been a lonely, lonely man in the years after Mona died. He had that daughter on the west coast, but if she came to visit, I never saw her; see statement above about kids and self-involvement. Jamie! You come bearing gifts! Just a casserole, I said. I think its a Swedish pie. You may mean shepherds pie. Im sure its delicious. Would you be kind enough to put it in the icebox for me? Ive got these He lifted the canes off the floor and for one scary moment I thought he was going to face-plant right in front of me, but he got them braced again in time. Sure, I said, and went into the kitchen. I got a kick out of how he called the fridge the icebox and cars autos. He was totally old school. Oh, and he also called the telephone the telefungus. I liked that one so much I started using it myself. Still do. Getting Moms casserole into the icebox was no problem, because he had almost nothing in there. He stumped in after me and asked how I was doing. I shut the icebox door, turned to him, and said, Not so well. He raised his shaggy eyebrows. No? Whats the problem? Its a pretty long story, I said, and youll probably think Im crazy, but I have to tell somebody, and I guess youre elected. Is it about Monas rings? My mouth dropped open. Professor Burkett smiled. I never quite believed that your mother just happened to find them in the closet. Too fortuitous. Far too fortuitous. It crossed my mind to think she put them there herself, but every human action is predicated on motive and opportunity, and your mother had neither. Also, I was too upset to really think about it that afternoon. Because youd just lost your wife. Indeed. He raised one cane enough to touch the heel of his palm to his chest, where his heart was. That made me feel bad for him. So what happened, Jamie? I suppose its all water under the bridge at this point, but as a lifetime reader of detective stories, I like to know the answers to such questions. Your wife told me, I said. He stared at me across the kitchen. I see the dead, I said. He didnt reply for so long I got scared. Then he said, I think I need something with caffeine. I think we both do. Then you can tell me everything thats on your mind. I long to hear it. 37 Professor Burkett was so old school that he didnt have tea bags, just loose tea in a cannister. While I waited for his hot pot to boil, he showed me where to find what he called a tea ball and instructed me on how much of the loose tea to put in. Brewing tea was an interesting process. I will always prefer coffee, but sometimes a pot of tea is just the thing. Making it feels formal, somehow. Professor Burkett told me the tea had to steep for five minutes in freshly boiled waterno more and no less. He set the timer, showed me where the cups were, and then stumped into the living room. I heard his sigh of relief when he sat down in his favorite chair. Also a fart. Not a trumpet blast, more of an oboe. I made two cups of tea and put them on a tray along with the sugar bowl and the Half and Half from the icebox (which neither of us used, probably a good thing since it was a month past its sell-by date). Professor Burkett took his black and smacked his lips over the first sip. Kudos, Jamie. Perfect on your first try. Thanks. I sugared mine up liberally. My mom would have screamed at that third heaping spoonful, but Professor Burkett never said boo. Now tell me your tale. Ive nothing but time. Do you believe me? About the rings? Well, he said, I believe that you believe. And I know that the rings were found; theyre in my bank safety deposit box. Tell me, Jamie, if I asked your mother, would she corroborate your story? Yes, but please dont do that. I decided to talk to you because I dont want to talk to her. It would upset her. He sipped his tea with a hand that shook slightly, then put it down and looked at me. Or maybe even into me. I can still see those bright blue eyes peering out from beneath his shaggy every-whichway brows. Then talk to me. Convince me. Having rehearsed my story on my crosstown walk, I was able to keep it in a pretty straight line. I started with Robert Harrisonyou know, the Central Park manand moved on to seeing Mrs. Burkett, then all the rest. It took quite awhile. When I finished, my tea was down to just lukewarm (maybe even a little less), but I drank a bunch of it anyway, because my throat was dry. Professor Burkett considered, then said, Will you go into my bedroom, Jamie, and bring me my iPad? Its on the night table. His bedroom smelled sort of like Uncle Harrys room in the care home, plus some sharp aroma that I guessed was liniment for his strained hip. I got his iPad and brought it back. He didnt have an iPhone, just the landline telefungus that hung on the kitchen wall like something in an old movie, but he loved his pad. He opened it when I gave it to him (the start-up screen was a picture of a young couple in wedding outfits that I assumed was him and Mrs. Burkett) and started poking away at once. Are you looking up Therriault? He shook his head without looking up. Your Central Park man. You say you were in preschool when you saw him? Yes. So this would have been 2003possibly 2004ah, here it is. He read, bent over the pad and occasionally brushing his hair out of his eyes (he had a lot of it). At last he looked up and said, You saw him lying there dead and also standing beside himself. Your mother would also confirm that? She knew I wasnt lying because I knew what the guy was wearing on top, even though that part of him was covered up. But I really dont want Understood, totally understood. Now concerning Regis Thomass last book. It was unwritten Yeah, except for the first couple of chapters. I think. But your mother was able to glean enough details to write the rest of it herself, using you as her medium? I hadnt thought of myself as a medium, but in a way he was right. I guess. Like in The Conjuring. And off his puzzled expression: Its a movie. Mr. BurkettProfessordo you think Im crazy? I almost didnt care, because the relief of getting it all out there was so great. No, he said, but somethingprobably my expression of reliefcaused him to raise a warning finger. This is not to say I believe your story, at least not without corroboration from your mother, which I have agreed not to ask for. But I will go this far: I dont necessarily disbelieve. Mostly because of the rings, but also because that last Thomas book does indeed exist. Not that Ive read it. He made a little face at that. You say your mothers friendex-friendcould also corroborate the last and most colorful part of your story. Yes, but He raised his hand, like he must have done a thousand times to babbling students in class. You dont want me to speak to her, either, and I quite understand. I only met her once, and I didnt care for her. Did she really bring drugs into your home? I didnt see them myself, but if my mom said she did, she did. He put his pad aside and fondled his go-to cane, which had a big white knob on the top. Then Tia is well rid of her. And this Therriault, who you say is haunting you. Is he here now? No. But I looked around to be sure. You want to be rid of him, of course. Yes, but I dont know how to do it. He sipped his tea, brooded over the cup, then set it down and fixed me with those blue eyes again. He was old; they werent. An interesting problem, especially for an elderly gentleman whos encountered all sorts of supernatural creatures in his reading life. The gothics are full of them, Frankensteins monster and Count Dracula being just the pair who show up most frequently on movie marquees. There are many more in European literature and folk-tales. Lets presume, at least for the moment, that this Therriault isnt just in your head. Lets presume he actually exists. I kept myself from protesting that he did exist. The professor already knew what I believed, hed said so himself. Let us go a step further. Based on what youve told me about your other sightings of dead peopleincluding my wifeall of them go away after a few days. Disappear to He waved his hand. to wherever. But not this Therriault. Hes still around. In fact, you think he may be getting stronger. Im pretty sure he is. If so, perhaps hes not really Kenneth Therriault at all anymore. Perhaps what remained of Therriault after death has been infestedthats the correct word, not possessedby a demon. He must have seen my expression because he hastened to add, Were just speculating here, Jamie. Im going to speak frankly and say I think it far more likely that youre suffering from a localized fugue state that has caused hallucinations. In other words, crazy. At that point I was still glad Id told him, but his conclusion was maximo depressing, even though Id been more or less expecting it. He waved a hand. Bosh. I dont think that at all. Youre obviously operating in the real world as well as ever. And I must admit your story is full of things that are hard to explain in strictly rational terms. I dont doubt that you accompanied Tia and her ex-friend to the deceased Mr. Thomass home. Nor do I doubt that Detective Dutton took you to Therriaults place of employment and his apartment building. If she did those thingsI am channeling Ellery Queen here, one of my favorite apostles of deductionshe must have believed in your mediumistic talents. Which in turn leads us back to Mr. Thomass home, where Detective Dutton must have seen something to convince her of that in the first place. You lost me, I said. Never mind. He leaned forward. All Im saying is that although I lean toward the rational, the known, and the empirichaving never seen a ghost, or had a flash of precognitionI must admit there are elements of your story I cant dismiss out of hand. So let us say that Therriault, or something nasty that has inhabited what remains of Therriault, actually exists. The question then becomes: can you get rid of him? Now I was leaning forward, thinking of the book hed given me, the one full of fairy tales that were really horror stories with very few happy endings. The stepsisters cut off their toes, the princess threw the frog against a wallsplat! instead of kissing him, Red Riding Hood actually encouraged the big bad wolf to eat Grandma, so she could inherit Grandmas property. Can I? Youve read all those books, there must be a way in at least one of them! Or A new idea struck me. Exorcism! What about that? Probably a nonstarter, Professor Burkett said. I think a priest would be more apt to send you to a child psychiatrist than an exorcist. If your Therriault exists, Jamie, you may be stuck with him. I stared at him with dismay. But maybe thats all right. All right? How can it be all right? He lifted his cup, sipped, and set it down. Have you ever heard of the Ritual of Ch?d? 38 Now Im twenty-twoalmost twenty-three, in factand living in the land of later. I can vote, I can drive, I can buy booze and cigarettes (which I plan to quit soon). I understand that Im still very young, and Im sure that when I look back Ill be amazed (hopefully not disgusted) by how na?ve and wet behind the ears I was. Still, twenty-two is light years from thirteen. I know more now, but I believe less. Professor Burkett would never have been able to work the same magic on me now that he did back then. Not that Im complaining! Kenneth TherriaultI dont know what he really was, so lets stick with that for nowwas trying to destroy my sanity. The professors magic saved it. It may even have saved my life. Later, when I researched the subject for an anthropology paper in college (NYU, of course), I discovered half of what he told me that day was actually true. The other half was bullshit. I have to give him credit for invention, though (full marks, Moms British romance writer Philippa Stephens would have said). Check this out, and dig the irony: my Uncle Harry wasnt even fifty and totally gaga, while Martin Burkett, although in his eighties, could still be creative on the flyand all in service of a troubled boy who turned up uninvited, bearing a casserole and a weird story. The Ritual of Ch?d, the professor said, was practiced by a sect of Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhists. (True.) They did it to achieve a sense of perfect nothingness and the resulting state of serenity and spiritual clarity. (True.) It was also considered useful in combating demons, both those in the mind and the supernatural ones who invaded from the outside. (A gray area.) Which makes it perfect for you, Jamie, because it covers all the bases. You mean it can work even if Therriaults really not there, and Im just crazypants. He gave me a look combining reproach and impatience that he probably perfected in his teaching career. Stop talking and try listening, if you dont mind. Sorry. I was on my second cup of tea, and feeling wired. With the groundwork laid, Professor Burkett now moved into the land of make-believenot that I knew the difference. He said that ch?d was especially useful when one of these high-country Buddhists encountered a yeti, also known as the abominable snowman. Are those things real? I asked. As with your Mr. Therriault, I cant say with any surety. Butalso as with you and your Mr. TherriaultI can say that the Tibetans believe they are. The professor went on to say that a person unfortunate enough to meet a yeti would be haunted by it for the rest of his life. Unless, that was, it could be engaged and bested in the Ritual of Ch?d. If youre following this, you know that if bullshit was an event in the Olympics, the judges would have given Professor Burkett all 10s for that one, but I was only thirteen and in a bad place. Which is to say I swallowed it whole. If part of me had an idea of what Professor Burkett was up toI cant really rememberI shut it down. You have to remember how desperate I was. The idea of being followed around by Kenneth Therriault, aka Thumper, for the rest of my lifehaunted by him, to use the professors wordwas the most horrible thing I could imagine. How does it work? I asked. Ah, youll like this. Its like one of the uncensored fairy tales in the book I gave you. According to the stories, you and the demon bind yourselves together by biting into each others tongues. He said this with a certain relish, and I thought, Like it? Why would I like it? Once this union has been accomplished, you and the demon have a battle of wills. This would occur telepathically, I assume, since it would be hard to talk while engaged in ammmmutual tongue-bite. The first to withdraw loses all power over the winner. I stared at him, my mouth open. I had been raised to be polite, especially around my mothers clients and acquaintances, but I was too grossed out to consider the social niceties. If you think Im going towhat?french-kiss that guy, youre out of your mind! For one thing, hes dead, did you not get that? Yes, Jamie, I believe I did. Besides, how would I even get him to do it? What would I say, come on over here, Ken honey, and slip me some tongue? Are you finished? Professor Burkett asked mildly, once again making me feel like the most clueless student in class. I think the tongue-biting aspect is meant to be symbolic. The way chunks of Wonder Bread and little thimbles of wine are meant to be symbolic of Jesuss last supper with his disciples. I didnt get that, not being much of a churchgoer, so I kept my mouth shut. Listen to me, Jamie. Listen very carefully. I listened as if my life depended on it. Because I thought it did. 39 As I was preparing to leave (politeness had resurfaced and I didnt neglect to tell him thank you), the professor asked me if his wife had said anything else. Besides about where the rings were, that was. By the time youre thirteen I think youve forgotten most of the things that have happened to you when youre sixI mean, thats more than half your life ago!but I didnt have any trouble remembering that day. I could have told him how Mrs. Burkett threw shade about my green turkey but figured that wouldnt interest him. He wanted to know if shed said anything about him, not what shed said to me. You were hugging my mom and she said you were going to burn her hair with your cigarette. And you did. Guess you quit smoking, huh? I allow myself three a day. I suppose I could have more, Im not going to be cut down in my youth, but three is all I seem to want. Did she say anything else? Um, that youd be having lunch with some woman in a month or two. Her name might have been Debbie or Diana, something like that Dolores? Was it Dolores Magowan? He was looking at me with new eyes, and all at once I wished wed had this part of our conversation to start with. It would have gone a long way toward establishing my credibility. It might have been. He shook his head. Mona always thought I had eyes for that woman, God knows why. She said something about rubbing sheep-dip into her hands Lanolin, he said. For her swollen joints. Ill be damned. There was one other thing, too. About how you always missed the back loop on your pants. I think she said Wholl do that now? My God, he said softly. Oh my God. Jamie. Oh, and she kissed you. On the cheek. It was just a little kiss, and years ago, but that sealed the deal. Because he also wanted to believe, I guess. If not in everything, in her. In that kiss. That she had been there. I left while I was ahead. 40 I kept an eye out for Therriault on my way homethat was second nature to me by thenbut didnt see him. Which was great, but Id given up hoping that he was gone for good. He was a bad penny, and hed turn up. I only hoped I would be ready for him when he did. That night I got an email from Professor Burkett. I did a little research with interesting results, it said. I thought you also might be interested. There were three attachments, all three reviews of Regis Thomass last book. The professor had highlighted the lines he had found interesting, leaving me to draw my own conclusions. Which I did. From the Sunday Times Book Review: Regis Thomass swan song is the usual farrago of sex and swamp-tromping adventure, but the prose is sharper than usual; here and there one finds glimmers of actual writing. From the Guardian: Although the long-bruited Mystery of Roanoke wont be much of a surprise to readers of the series (who surely saw it coming), Thomass narrative voice is livelier than one might expect from the previous volumes, where turgid exposition alternated with fervid and sometimes comical sexual encounters. From the Miami Herald: The dialogue snaps, the pacing is crisp, and for once the lesbian liaison between Laura Goodhugh and Purity Betancourt feels real and touching, rather than like a prurient joke or a stroke fantasy. Its a great wind-up. I couldnt show those reviews to my motherthey would have raised too many questionsbut I was pretty sure she must have seen them herself, and I guessed they had made her as happy as they made me. Not only had she gotten away with it, she had put a shine on Regis Thomass sadly tarnished reputation. There were many nights in the weeks and months following my first encounter with Kenneth Therriault when I went to bed feeling unhappy and afraid. That night wasnt one of them. 41 Im not sure how many times I saw him the rest of that summer, which should tell you something. If it doesnt, here it is in plain English: I was getting used to him. I never would have believed it on the day when I turned around and saw him standing by the trunk of Liz Duttons car, close enough to touch me. I never would have believed it on the day when the elevator opened and he was in there, telling me my mother had cancer and grinning like it was the happiest news ever. But familiarity breeds contempt, so they say, and in this case the saying was true. It no doubt helped that he never did show up in my closet or under my bed (which would have been worse, because when I was little I was sure that was where the monster was waiting to grab a dangling foot or arm). That summer I read Draculaokay, not the actual book, but a kick-ass graphic novel I bought at Forbidden Planetand in it Van Helsing said that a vampire couldnt come in unless you invited him. If it was true of vampires, it stood to reason (at least to thirteen-year-old me it did) that it was true of other supernatural beings. Like the one inside of Therriault, keeping him from disappearing after a few days like all the other dead people. I checked Wikipedia to see if Mr. Stoker just made that up, but he didnt. It was in lots of the vampire legends. Now (later!) I can see it makes symbolic sense. If we have free will, then you have to invite evil in. Heres something else. He had mostly stopped crooking that finger at me. For most of that summer he just stood at a distance, staring. The only time I did see him beckoning was kind of funny. If, that is, you can say anything about that undead motherfucker was funny. Mom got us tickets to see the Mets play the Tigers on the last Sunday in August. The Mets lost big, but I didnt care, because Mom bagged a pair of awesome seats from one of her publisher friends (contrary to popular belief, literary agents do have friends). They were on the third base side, just two rows up from the field. It was during the seventh inning stretch, while the Mets were still keeping it close, that I saw Therriault. I looked around for the hotdog man, and when I looked back, my pal Thumper was standing near the third base coachs box. Same khaki pants. Same shirt with blood all down the left side and spattering the suicide note. Head blown open like somebody lit off a cherry bomb in there. Grinning. And yes, beckoning. The Tigers infield was throwing the ball around, and just after I saw Therriault, a chuck from the shortstop to the third basemen went way wild. The crowd whooped and jeered the usual stuffnice throw busher, my grandmother can do better than thatbut I just sat there with my hands clamped so tight the nails were biting into my palms. The shortstop hadnt seen Therriault (he would have run into the outfield screaming if he had), but he felt him. I know he did. And heres something else: the third base coach went to retrieve the ball, then backed off and let it roll into the dugout. Shagging it would have brought him right next to the thing only I could see. Did the guy feel a cold spot, like in a ghost movie? I dont think so. I think he felt, just for a second or two, that the world was trembling around him. Vibrating like a guitar string. I have reasons to think that. Mom said, Okay, Jamie? Youre not getting sunstroke on me, are you? Im fine, I said, and clenched hands or not, I mostly was. Do you see the hotdog man? She craned around and waved to the nearest vendor. Which gave me a chance to give Kenneth Therriault the finger. His grin turned into a snarl that showed all his teeth. Then he walked into the visitors dugout, where the players who werent on the field no doubt shuffled around on the bench to give him room, without any idea why they were doing it. I sat back with a smile. I wasnt ready to think that Id vanquished himnot with a cross or holy water but by flipping him the birdbut the idea did kind of tiptoe in. People started to leave in the top of the ninth, after the Tigers scored seven and put the game out of reach. Mom asked me if I wanted to stay and watch the Mr. Met Dash and I shook my head. The Dash was strictly for little kids. I had done it once, back before Liz, back before that fucker James Mackenzie stole our money in his Ponzi scheme, even before the day Mona Burkett told me turkeys werent green. Back when I was a little kid and the world was my oyster. That seemed so long ago. 42 You may be asking yourself a question I never asked myself back then: Why me? Why Jamie Conklin? I have asked myself since, and I dont know. I can only guess. I think it was because I was different, and itthe it inside the shell of Therriaulthated me for it and wanted to hurt me, even destroy me if it could. I think, call me crazy if you want, I offended it somehow. And maybe there was something else. I think maybejust maybethe Ritual of Ch?d had already begun. I think that once it started fucking with me it couldnt stop. As I said, just guessing here. Its reasons might have been something else entirely, as unknowable as it was to me. And as monstrous. As I said, this is a horror story. 43 I was still scared of Therriault, but I no longer thought that I might chicken out if an opportunity came to put Professor Burketts ritual into practice. I only needed to be ready. For Therriault to get close, in other words, not just be across the street or standing near third base at Citi Field. My chance came on a Saturday in October. I was going down to Grover Park to play touch football with a bunch of kids from my school. Mom left me a note that said shed stayed up late reading Philippa Stephenss latest opus and was going to sleep in. I was to get my breakfast quietly, and no more than half a cup of coffee. I was to have a good time with my friends and not come home with a concussion or a broken arm. I was to be back by two at the very latest. She left me lunch money, which I folded carefully into my pocket. There was a PS: Would it be a waste of time to ask you to eat something green, even a scrap of lettuce on a hamburger? Probably, Mom, probably, I thought as I poured myself a bowl of Cheerios and ate them (quietly). When I left the apartment, Therriault wasnt on my mind. He spent less and less time there, and I used some of the newly available space to think about other things, mostly girls. I was dwelling on Valeria Gomez in particular as I walked down the hall to the elevator. Did Therriault decide to get close that day because he had a kind of window into my head, and knew he was far from my thoughts? Sort of a low-grade telepathy? I dont know that either. I pushed the call button, wondering if Valeria would come to the game. It was quite possible because her brother Pablo played. I was deep in a daydream of how I caught a pass, evaded all would-be touchers, and sped into the end zone with the ball held high, but I still stepped back when the elevator arrivedthat had become second nature to me. It was empty. I pushed for the lobby. The elevator went down and the door opened. There was a short stub of hallway, and then a door, locked from the inside, which gave on a little foyer. The door to the outside wasnt locked, so the mailman could come in and put the mail in the boxes. If Therriault had been out there, in the foyer, I couldnt have done what I did. But he wasnt in the foyer. He was inside, at the end of the hall, grinning away like doing so was going to be outlawed the day after tomorrow. He started to say something, maybe one of his bullshit prophecies, and if Id been thinking of him instead of Valeria, I probably would have either frozen in place or stumbled back into the elevator car, whamming on the DOOR CLOSE button for all I was worth. But I was being pissed at him for intruding on my fantasy and all I remember thinking was what Professor Burkett told me on the day I brought him the casserole. The tongue-biting in the Ritual of Ch?d is only one ceremony before meeting an enemy, he said. There are many. The Maoris do a war-cry dance as they face their opponents. Kamikaze pilots toasted each other and photographs of their targets with what they believed was magical sak?. In ancient Egypt, members of warring houses struck each other on the forehead before getting out the knives and spears and bows. Sumo wrestlers clap each other on the shoulders. All come down to the same thing: I meet you in combat, where one of us will best the other. In other words, Jamie, dont bother sticking out your tongue. Just grab your demon and hold on for dear life. Instead of freezing or cringing, I bolted thoughtlessly forward with my arms out, like I was about to embrace a long absent friend. I screamed, but I think only in my head, because nobody looked out from one of the ground-floor apartments to see what was going on. Therriaults grinthe one that always showed that lump of dead blood between his teeth and cheekdisappeared, and I saw an amazing, wonderful thing: he was afraid of me. He cringed back against the door to the foyer, but it opened the other way and he was pinned. I grabbed him. I cant describe how it went down. I dont think a much more gifted writer than I am could, but Ill do the best I can. Remember what I said about the world trembling, or vibrating like a guitar string? That was what it was like on the outside of Therriault, and all around him. I could feel it shaking my teeth and jittering my eyeballs. Only there was something else, on the inside of Therriault. It was something that was using him as a vessel and keeping him from moving on to wherever dead people go when their connection to our world rots away. It was a very bad thing, and it was yelling at me to let it go. Or to let Therriault go. Maybe there was no difference. It was furious with me, and scared, but mostly it was surprised. Being grabbed was the last thing it had expected. It struggled and would have gotten away if Therriault hadnt been pinned against the door, Im sure of that. I was a skinny kid, Therriault was easily five inches taller and would have outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds if hed been alive, but he wasnt. The thing inside him was alive, and I was pretty sure it had come in when I was forcing Therriault to answer my questions outside that little store. The vibration got worse. It was coming up through the floor. It was coming down from the ceiling. The overhead light was shaking and throwing liquid shadows. The walls seemed to be crawling first one way and then the other. Let me go, Therriault said, and even his voice was vibrating. It sounded like when you put waxed paper over a comb and blow on it. His arms flew out to either side, then closed in and clapped me on the back. It immediately became hard to breathe. Let me go and Ill let you go. No, I said, and hugged him tighter. This is it, I remember thinking. This is Ch?d. Im in mortal combat with a demon right here in the front hall of my New York apartment building. Ill strangle the breath out of you, it said. You cant, I said, hoping I was right about that. I could still breathe, but they were mighty short breaths. I began to think I could see into Therriault. Maybe it was a hallucination brought on by the vibration and the sense that the world was on the verge of exploding like a delicate wine glass, but I dont think so. It wasnt his guts I was looking at but a light. It was bright and dark at the same time. It was something from outside the world. It was horrible. How long did we stand there hugging each other? It could have been five hours or only ninety seconds. You could say five hours was impossible, someone would have come, but I thinkI almost knowthat we were outside of time. One thing I can say for sure is that the elevator doors didnt close as they are supposed to five seconds or so after the passengers get out. I could see the elevators reflection over Therriaults shoulder and the doors stayed open the whole time. At last it said, Let me go and Ill never come back. That was an extremely tasty idea, as Im sure youll understand, and I might have done it if the professor hadnt prepared me for this, as well. It will try to bargain, he said. Dont let it. And then he told me what to do, probably thinking that the only thing I had to confront was some neurosis or complex or whatever psychological thing you want to call it. Not good enough, I said, and went on hugging. I could see more and more into Therriault, and realized he really was a ghost. Probably all dead people are and I just saw them as solid. The more insubstantial he became, the brighter that darklightthat deadlightshone. I dont have any idea what it was. I only knew I had caught it, and theres an old saying that goes he who takes a tiger by the tail dare not let go. The thing inside Therriault was worse than any tiger. What do you want? Gasping it. There was no breath in him, I surely would have felt it on my cheek and neck if there had been, but he was gasping just the same. In worse shape than I was, maybe. Its not enough for you to stop haunting me. I took a deep breath and said what Professor Burkett had told me to say, if I was able to engage my nemesis in the Ritual of Ch?d. And even though the world was shivering around me, even though this thing had me in a death grip, it gave me pleasure to say it. Great pleasure. Warriors pleasure. Now Ill haunt you. No! Its grip tightened. I was squeezed against Therriault even though Therriault was now nothing but a supernatural hologram. Yes. Professor Burkett told me to say something else if I got the chance. I later found out it was the amended title of a famous ghost story, which made it very fitting. Oh, Ill whistle and youll come to me, my lad. No! It struggled. That vile pulsing light made me feel like puking, but I held on. Yes. Ill haunt you as much as I want, whenever I want, and if you dont agree Ill hold onto you until you die. I cant die! But you can! That was undoubtedly true, but at that moment I had never felt stronger. Plus, all the time Therriault was fading and he was that deadlights toehold in our world. I said nothing. Only clutched. And Therriault clutched me. It went on like that. I was getting cold, feet and hands losing sensation, but I held on. I meant to hold on forever if I had to. I was terrified of the thing that was inside Therriault, but it was trapped. Of course I was also trapped; that was the nature of the ritual. If I let go, it won. At last it said, I agree to your terms. I loosened my grip, but only a little. Are you lying? A stupid question, you might say, except it wasnt. I cant. Sounding slightly petulant. You know that. Say it again. Say you agree. I agree to your terms. You know that I can haunt you? I know, but Im not afraid of you. Bold words, but as Id already found out, Therriault could make as many untrue statements as heitwanted to. Statements werent answers to questions. And anybody who has to say theyre not afraid is lying. I didnt have to wait until later to learn that, I knew it at thirteen. Are you afraid of me? I saw that cramped expression on Therriaults face again, as if he was tasting something sour and unpleasant. Which was probably how telling the truth felt to the miserable son of a bitch. Yes. Youre not like the others. You see. Yes what? Yes Im afraid of you! Sweet! I let him go. Get out of here, whatever you are, and go to wherever you go. Just remember if I call you, you come. He whirled around, giving me one final look at the gaping hole in the left side of his head. He grabbed at the door-knob. His hand went through it and didnt go through it. Both at the same time. I know its crazy, a paradox, but it happened. I saw it. The knob turned and the door opened. At the same time the overhead light blew out and glass tinkled down from the fixture. There were a dozen or so mailboxes in the foyer, and half of them popped open. Therriault gave me one last hateful look over his bloody shoulder, and then he was gone, leaving the front door open. I saw him go down the steps, not so much running as plunging. A guy speeding past on a bike, probably a messenger, lost his balance, fell over, and sprawled in the street, cursing. I knew the dead could impact the living, that was no surprise. Id seen it, but those impacts had always been little things. Professor Burkett had felt his wifes kiss. Liz had felt Regis Thomas blow on her face. But the things Id just seenthe light that blew out, the jittery, vibrating doorknob that had turned, the messenger falling off his bikewere on an entirely different level. The thing Im calling the deadlight almost lost its host while I was holding on, but when I let go, it did more than regain Therriault; it got stronger. That strength must have come from me, but I didnt feel any weaker (like poor Lucy Westenra while Count Dracula was using her as his personal lunch-wagon). In fact I felt better than ever, refreshed and invigorated. It was stronger, so what? Id owned it, had made it my bitch. For the first time since Liz had picked me up from school that day and taken me hunting for Therriault, I felt good again. Like someone whos had a serious illness and is finally on the mend.
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