Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2008
Fiction: Road Dogs by Norman Partridge
Kim Barlow was two months in the ground when her brother first learned she was dead.
Glen got an email from a deputy sheriff up in Arizona. Of course, the message had been gathering virtual dust for a couple of months in Glen’s in-box, because Glen hardly ever checked his mail. Not because he couldn’t. Sure, the rig was forty miles off the Texas coast, but there were computers around. What there wasn’t was anyone Glen Barlow heard from that way. Except for Kim, and Kim had been pretty quiet since Glen tossed her boyfriend through her living room window last Christmas Eve.
Glen had only clocked a couple months with the company, but the Installation Manager liked him well enough to okay emergency leave. Some young suit from Houston was headed back to the mainland after touring the rig, and Glen caught a ride into Galveston on the company chopper. Seventeen hours later he parked his truck in front of the El Pasito sheriff’s office. He’d already talked to that emailing deputy on a cell phone he’d forgotten in the Ford’s glove compartment when he ditched the mainland for his time offshore. Glen used that cell phone about as much as he used his email account.
The deputy—whose name was J. J. Bryce—had spent most of the day waiting for Glen to show up. One look at the guy and Bryce shook his head. He shook his head when he saw Glen’s pickup, too. Try to describe that old hunk of Ford in a report, he’d note the color as rust or primer, take your pick. And the guy who drove it was pretty much the same way. Headed towards forty with the years starting to show. Bryce was real familiar with the type. A drifter—one of those guys who was wiry as a half-starved animal. And that might mean you were talking jackrabbit, or it might mean you were talking coyote. Sometimes it was hard to tell going in.
But Bryce already had an opinion about this guy. He’d heard all about Barlow tossing Kale Howard through that living room window last Christmas Eve. In fact, he’d heard more about it than the talk that went around the cop shop. Not that any of that mattered right now. The way the deputy saw it, right now things were all business.
The two of them sat down in the deputy’s cramped office and ran the drill. There wasn’t much to look at. Not in the office. Not in the file Bryce had on Kim Barlow’s death. But Glen looked, and he took his time about it, and that wasn’t something the deputy much liked.
After a while, Glen closed the folder and slid it across the desk.
“Having a hard time buying this,” he said.
“No buying it, really. It’s what happened.”
“You don’t have a suspect?”
“You read the report, Mr. Barlow. You don’t have a suspect in a case like this.”
“You talk to that asshole Howard?”
“Yeah. I talked to Kale. Read his file, too.”
“Then you know he used to beat up my sister.”
“I know that. But I also know that Howard didn’t do this. No man could have.”
Glen just looked at the guy—kind of grinned, didn’t say one word—and Bryce all of a sudden felt his pulse hammering, because it most definitely wasn’t the kind of look you got from a jackrabbit.
Glen Barlow said: “You’d be surprised what some men can do.”
There it was. Cards on the table, and all in the space of ten minutes. But the gents named Bryce and Barlow hadn’t quite played out the deck, so they went a few more hands. Bryce reminding Glen about the restraining order, warning him how hard he’d go if Glen went after Kale Howard. Glen asking questions, the deputy batting them off or not answering them at all. The words exchanged weren’t getting either man anywhere he wanted to go, or anywhere he wanted to take the other. The two of them were running neck and neck, and neither seemed to like that very much.
Finally, Glen said: “I want to see the pictures.”
“Look, Barlow. I understand that your sister was your only living relative. You know the land out there. As far as we can figure it, she was alone, rock-climbing at Tres Manos. She must have taken a fall. After that… well, she was hurt pretty bad. She had a broken leg. It was a couple days before anyone found her. Something got hold of her before then… a pack of coyotes, or maybe a big cat. We had some experts in and they said—”
“I don’t care what they said. Kale’s mixed up in this some way. Wouldn’t surprise me if he wanted a little protection after I tossed him through that window. Maybe he got himself a pit bull.”
“We checked that out, Mr. Barlow. Kale doesn’t have a dog.”
“That doesn’t change anything. I still want to see the pictures.”
“Trust me on this. You don’t.”
“How many times you want to hear me say it?”
The deputy drew a deep breath and tried to hold his temper.
“You want me to, I’ll say it again.”
Bryce was so pissed off, he could barely unclench his jaw, but he got the job done. “Okay, Barlow. You want pictures, pictures is what you’ll get.”
The deputy yanked open a file cabinet harder than he should have and tossed another manila folder across the desk. Barlow looked at those photos for a long time—the way Bryce figured time, anyway.
“All right,” Glen said finally. He closed the folder, slid it across the desk, and got up so quickly that he took Bryce by surprise. There was more that the deputy needed to say, but Barlow didn’t give him the chance. He slammed Bryce’s office door before the deputy could say another word, and a handful of seconds later he slammed the door to his busted-ass pickup hard enough to leave a shower of rust on the ground. Then he drove straight out of El Pasito, foot hard on the gas. Past the town’s lone bar… past the funeral home… past the gun shop….
Two miles into the desert, Glen Barlow laid rubber and pulled over.
The goddamn deputy was right about those pictures.
At the base of a dying yucca tree, Glen puked his guts dry.
J. J. Bryce filed the folders on the Kim Barlow case and shared the story of his run-in with her older brother with the sheriff. He sat around the office killing time, but he just couldn’t take it sitting there with the sunset slicing through the Venetian blinds and the edge of the desk marred by cigarette burns from the lazy-ass deputy who’d had it before him.
So he clocked out and got in his own pickup, a brand new Ford which was a hell of a lot shinier than the one Glen Barlow drove. That didn’t make Bryce feel any better, though. He was still boiling, and there wasn’t much he could do about it at the moment—El Pasito only had one bar and Sheriff Randall didn’t like anyone who wore a badge drinking there.
So Bryce drove out of town, south, towards Guadalupe. He figured he’d swing by a Mexican grocery store he knew in Dos Gatos. The place was about thirty miles out of his way, but that’d give him some time to cool off before heading home. Besides, you could get pork carnitas at the grocery, already marinated and ready to go. Bryce figured he’d grab a sixer and some tortillas while he was at it. Later on, he’d drop those carnitas in the banged-up cast-iron skillet he used on the barbeque, watch the stars wink on in the sky while he downed a couple of brews, and the night would go down easy.
Or easier, anyway.
By the time the deputy edged his speedometer past seventy and got the A/C cranking just right, Glen Barlow had chugged half a warm Dr Pepper that had been playing tag with a bunch of burger wrappers on the floor of his truck. The good Dr didn’t do much for him besides wash the taste of puke out of his mouth. Still, that was a plus.
Glen drove south. Same road as Bryce, but in the opposite direction. He didn’t plan to be on the road long. There was a crossroad just ahead, a narrow unpaved lane jagging west through creosote, coyote brush, and amaranth.
Down that road was where Glen Barlow was headed, because there was other stuff he needed to know. Stuff a guy like Bryce wouldn’t tell him. But that was okay—Glen knew where he could find some answers. It was the same place he’d left a whole mess of questions when he cut out of town last December.
That thought chewed on him. He hung a left, pulled over at the side of the dirt road and took another swallow of warm Dr P. For the first time that day, he felt nervous. And that was strange, considering the cards he’d been dealt in the last few hours.
A yank on the handle and the truck door creaked open. Glen climbed out of the cab and stood there in the dry heat. He was dog-tired after a full day behind the wheel, but he couldn’t relax. Still, he tried. He needed to catch his breath before going any further.
He closed his eyes for a minute. There were crickets out there somewhere… sawing a high, even whine that wouldn’t go away. Glen was so used to being on the rig, listening to the sea and the gulls and the equipment. It was weird listening to something different. But he wasn’t really listening, no matter how hard he tried. He was thinking. Remembering last Christmas Eve… remembering pulling to a stop right here, as a cold December moon shone above.
Right here in the same place that he was standing now. Glen churned the last gulp of soda in his mouth. He thought about that night and the nights that had come since then, and he thought about where those nights had taken him. Full circle. Right back to the place he’d begun.
He shook his head, glancing at his reflection in the banged-up driver’s door mirror.
Guess you only have one gear, you stupid bastard.
Glen almost laughed at that. But he didn’t. Instead, he spit warm Dr P on the dirt road. Then he climbed in the truck, keyed the engine, and kicked up some roadbed, leaving that wet patch on the ground for the thirsty red earth to drink up.
Lisa Allen was still beautiful, of course. That hadn’t changed in the handful of months since Glen left town. But a whole lot had. Glen knew that coming through the door of the house they’d once shared.
No kiss for him tonight. Not even a hug. They sat in the kitchen, a couple of beers on the table. The back door was open behind Glen’s shoulder, and he could smell the herbs in the little patch of garden scrabbling along the side of the house. Sage, rosemary, thyme… probably a whole lot of other stuff out there that Lisa’s hippie parents had sung about back in the sixties when they built the adobe on a scrubby patch of Arizona notmuch. Of course, Glen didn’t say that, even though it was the kind of thing that would have made Lisa laugh back in the days when his coat hung in a closet down the hall.
Back then, things were different.
Those crickets were still out there somewhere, sawing that high, even whine. But Glen ignored them. Instead he listened to the words coming out of his own mouth, surer and steadier than he could have imagined. And he listened to Lisa’s answers, which were just as sure and just as steady.
“You saw those photos, Glen. Kale couldn’t have done that.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“The cops told you what they pieced together, didn’t they? Kim was out at Tres Manos… you know how she loved it out there. They found her rock-climbing gear. She was on that wall south of the third fist, and she must have had an accident. God knows how long she was out there alone—”
“Or maybe she wasn’t alone. And maybe it didn’t happen that way. Maybe someone just wanted it to look like it did.”
“Jesus, Glen. Did you listen to the cops at all?”
“Yeah. I listened to them tell me what made sense to them so they could slot a file into a cabinet pretty damn quick.”
“So what do you plan to do about it?”
“A lot of that depends on you. I only know what my gut tells me… and that’s that I need to get Kale Howard in a place where he’s going to do some straight talking. I want to hear what he has to say about this, and I want to look into his eyes when he says it.”
“You tried that before, Glen. If you remember, it didn’t work out so hot.”
“Yeah.” Glen stared at Lisa. “I remember.”
And Glen did remember. All of it. Images came at him like hard popping jabs. He and Kale had exchanged a couple of simple, unvarnished words. And then Kale Howard had thrown a punch that rocked Glen solid, and Glen’s hands were on the rangy bastard, handling him the way you handle a chicken leg when you’re real hungry and you just want to tear it apart at the joint. Which meant that Kale had exited the room through a plate-glass window before Glen even realized what he was doing.
“Look, Lisa. I only came here for one thing. You need to tell me where Kale is.”
Surprised, she raised an eyebrow. “Who’d you talk to over at the cop shop, anyway?”
“Some joker with a roll of nickels up his ass. Guy named Bryce.”
“And he didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Things changed after you cut out of town last December. Kale moved in with Kim.”
“Not a chance.”
“And he’s still there? That’s what you’re telling me? He’s living in her house?”
“It’s his house, Glen.”
Lisa stared at him.
“Kale and Kim drove up to Vegas on Valentine’s Day and got married. Kim left him everything.”
A bitter laugh caught in Glen’s throat. “Okay,” he said. “Things are beginning to make sense now.”
“Don’t you think the cops thought that, too?”
“If they did, they sure as hell didn’t show it. They found my sister torn to shreds out at Tres Manos. Her climbing gear was scattered around, and she had a broken leg, and they figured… Gee, there are coyotes around here, aren’t there? So they did the math the easy way and wrote the whole thing off as an accident times two.”
“Uh-uh. Not the way it happened. This may be a small town, but you’ve got to give the cops some credit. They grilled Kale. They were all over Kim’s house. They didn’t find a thing.”
“Hard to find what’s locked up in a bastard’s head… unless you’re willing to use the right tools, that is.”
“You’d better think about that. You know the law around here. You try something like that… twice? And with a guy who’s got a restraining order against you? It’d be crazy.”
“Yeah. Maybe that’s exactly what it would be. And maybe that’s the way it should have been all along. The truth is that I stopped short when I tossed Kale through that window. You know that better than anyone, Lisa. I should have whipped that dog until I was sure he’d turn tail and run. If I’d done that, maybe Kim would still be alive. Hell, if I’d done that, maybe I wouldn’t have had to leave.”
“You never had to leave. That was your choice.”
“No. It was your choice, Lisa… you made it when you called the cops and stopped me cold last December.”
The words were out of Glen’s mouth before he even knew they were in his brain. Lisa stared at him like he’d just crawled out from under a rock. Seeing that expression, Glen knew it might as well have been that night last December, with the kitchen door closed to the cold and the herbs cut back against the frost and an icy wind rattling the window at his back. His left eye throbbing from the sucker shot Kale Howard had landed just before getting his miserable excuse for an ass tossed through the living room window, Glen trying to explain to Lisa how he knew in his gut that kind of punishment wasn’t enough for a guy like Howard, how a guy like that needed more if he was going to get the message.
He’d never forget that moment, just as he’d never forget the anger that flared inside him when Kim admitted for the first time how things really were with Howard, or what he was certain needed to be done with that anger, or what he’d done with it in the moments after his sister’s confession. And he’d sat there that December night in Lisa’s kitchen with all those things roiling inside him, and no way to get an explanation past his lips that could make sense to the woman he loved.
It didn’t make sense to her now. “You’re saying that if it weren’t for me, everything would be okay today?”
Glen took a breath, but he didn’t say a word.
“Jesus, Glen. You’re not really sitting here saying I’m responsible for Lisa’s death, are you?”
“No. But you’re the one called the cops when I told you I was going back over there.”
“And I told you I’d do that. You walked out of here with a gun, Glen.”
“I was just going to scare him. That coward would have been across the state line by midnight.”
“C’mon. You don’t know how Kale would have reacted when he saw a gun. And when it comes to the cops, I would have called them anyway. Remember, I’m the one who reported Kale as an abuser. Hell, I would have let Kim move in here until things straightened out if she would have done it. I made the offer while Kale was locked up. She wouldn’t even admit that they had a real problem.”
“Sometimes people can’t handle what happens to them.”
“They have to.”
“And what if they aren’t strong enough?”
“You help them get strong.” Lisa sighed. “But you can’t live their lives for them. You can’t walk through the fire they’ve got to walk through. And you can’t burn down your own life because they’re not strong enough to do the job. But that’s what you did. To yourself, when you walked out of here with that gun. To me, too… and to us. And you paid the price for it. But it could have been worse.”
“I don’t see how.”
“I do. If I hadn’t stopped you that night, you’d probably be sitting in a jailhouse, serving time for murder. We both know that’s true.”
Glen shook his head.
“Maybe that’s where I’ll end up still,” he said.
Now it was Lisa’s turn to look at him without saying a word.
“Guess we’re done here,” Glen said.
“Yeah. I guess we are.”
Glen stepped to the door. There was a phone on the counter. “Hate to do this,” he said, and then he unplugged the phone, cradling it under his arm.
“One other thing before I go,” he said.
“Your cell phone, Lisa. Hand it over.”
Glen hit the gas, bulleting down that red road. Suddenly, it was just like it had been six months before. Lisa and his life in the rearview, God knew what ahead.
At least the cops wouldn’t be waiting for him at the end of that road tonight. That wouldn’t happen, now that he’d taken Lisa’s phones. From Lisa’s place, it was a long walk to anywhere.
But he hadn’t had a choice in the matter. No way he could afford a rerun of last December’s action. That night, Sheriff Randall himself had responded to Lisa’s 911 call. The old man had been quick about it, too, heading Glen off at the point where the dirt road that led to Kim’s place met highway blacktop.
After Kale Howard got into the act, Glen ended up in lockup for a week on an assault charge. Of course, Howard had gotten the restraining order, dropped the charges—all like that.
Kale took some heat, too, but in the end he got off with probation and counseling… and soon he was back with Kim, who wasn’t talking to either Lisa or Glen.
That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Glen had issued his own sentence, and in retrospect he was one hard-ass judge. Because somehow, he had turned out to be the bad guy. In the eyes of the law… and his little sister… and in Lisa’s eyes, too.
And maybe even in his own eyes. Because he was the one who hit the road, not Kale Howard. He was the one who didn’t hang around when things went bad with Lisa, and with Kim. He was the one who didn’t talk to either of them for months. He couldn’t dodge that fact any more than he could make up for it now.
More than anything, that was what drove him forward. He cut the wheel harder than he should have and hit the blacktop, heading north. He tried to bury the regrets he’d felt while sitting at Lisa’s table, and the familiar longings that went along with them. But he couldn’t manage the trick. Though his gaze traveled the road ahead—tracking the painted line that gutted its center—his thoughts lingered behind.
He could still see Lisa there, sitting at that table. It had been six months since he’d seen her, but the way things had been six month ago was not exactly far-removed in his memory. He imagined what it would be like, burying his head in her hair again, touching her, going to bed with her, getting up in the morning together. That’s the way it still was, in one small place inside him. And if he were another kind of guy, maybe he could have made it happen all over again… and just that way.
But that was the pure hell of it. Because Glen Barlow wasn’t another kind of guy… and the worst thing about it was he knew that better than anyone. Even better than the other kind of guy who at that moment was stepping through Lisa Allen’s front door.
That guy’s name was J. J. Bryce.
The deputy put a sixer on the counter, and the bag with the tortillas and carnitas he’d bought at that Mexican grocery store next to it. He undid his gunbelt and put it on a chair. Then he bent low, gave Lisa a kiss, and passed her a beer.
“Has Barlow been here yet?”
Lisa shook her head. But that was just a comment about Glen, not an answer to J. J.‘s question.
The real answer took a minute… a popped bottle cap… a deep swallow.
“Oh, yeah,” she said finally. “He’s been, and he’s gone.”
J. J. sighed loud and long, staring down at the place the phone should have been.
“Jesus,” he said. “This guy.”
“I told you how he is. And you said you could handle him.”
“For that little job, I would have needed some of those gloves the bomb-disposal boys use. Man, what a handful of dynamite. Your boy Barlow was ready to go to war as soon as he stepped into my office. One quick chew of my ass and he was out of there. I didn’t get to say a word about Kale and Kim getting married—”
“Yeah. I noticed. I got to drop that bomb myself.”
“Did you tell him about us?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Hell, someone’s got to tell him.”
“Oh, sure. That would have been a sweet follow-up to the news about his sister marrying the guy who used to beat the crap out of her. Hey, maybe we should invite him over to dinner and break the news. We could hold hands, and he could carve out his own heart with a steak knife.”
“Don’t play that, Lisa. Barlow walked out on you… and his sister. If he wants someone to blame for that, he can go find himself a mirror.”
Lisa laughed sharply. “Funny thing is, I think he’d agree with you.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean squat to me. He walked out six months ago, and you didn’t hear from him until today. I’ll bet he didn’t keep in touch with his sister, either. Now, I’m not exactly sure what happened to Kim out there at Tres Manos. Hell, I’m not even sure Kale Howard didn’t have something to do with it. But one thing I’m sure of is that Glen Barlow did dirt to both of you when he left town, and now he’s here trying to make things right when it’s way too late to tote that load.”
“Wow. You sound just like him. If he would have stuck around, I bet you would have rubber-stamped his plan for the rest of the night.”
J. J. sipped his beer and listened while Lisa laid it out for him.
When she was done, he took a deeper swallow.
Then he drained the bottle.
“That goddamn coyote,” he said, and he stepped outside.
J. J. flipped open his cell phone and called dispatch. It was dark now, and a light breeze was blowing from the west. Lisa watched as J. J. moved over to the barbeque. He took off the lid and scraped down the grill while he talked. She couldn’t hear his words, just clipped short sentences. But his tone told the story, and that tone was all business.
Across the table, an empty chair waited. Lisa saw Glen sitting there an hour before. She saw J. J.‘s empty beer bottle on the table, right now. She heard the words of both men, sizing up things in ways that really weren’t that different.
The breeze carried the smell of sage, rosemary, and thyme through the open door. Glen had always trimmed back the rosemary way too tight. He said it made the plant grow stronger. J. J. was the kind of guy who thought anything you put in your mouth should come from the grocery store. She wondered if he ever noticed the herb garden at all.
Lisa had been with J. J. two months. The relationship had started slow and easy, then come on fast. Bryce was a what you see is what you get kind of guy. You wanted to know how he felt about something, all you had to do was ask. He’d tell you. And things worked best if they operated that way from his side of the equation, too. He wanted to know something, he’d ask you straight out. It was never that way with Glen. Glen could be as silent as a shadow. Sure, the two men weren’t exactly yin and yang or night and day, but Lisa definitely didn’t have a problem figuring out which one was left brain and which was right—
Mr. Left Brain stepped through the door.
“Change of plans,” J. J. said. “Dinner’s on the backburner.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jeff Keats is out sick tonight, and Einar Cerda’s transporting a couple of prisoners over to county lockup. That Garcia kid from California’s pretty much running the show, and he’s out on a domestic dispute call. Since all I’ve got is a suspicion your boy Barlow is going to jump a restraining order, there’s no way Glen gets priority. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put the kid up against Barlow and Kale Howard, even if he was available. Not by his lonesome, anyway. You ask me, both those guys belong in strait-jackets.”
“Can’t they call in someone from the day shift?”
“Sure. They could start with Randall, like they did last Christmas Eve. He’d love that.”
“Well, if someone’s stupid enough to be proactive when nothing’s happened yet, he might head out there. Someone who knows all the parties involved. Of course, an idiot like that would have to put his off-duty self in the middle of things and worry about lawsuits later—”
“If you’re saying that you’re doing this off the clock, I’m going with you.”
“Don’t be crazy, Lisa. Let’s leave that job to your buddy the road dog. I think he’s made for it.”
Bryce grabbed his gunbelt from the chair and buckled it on.
“Well,” he said, “I guess I’ll go catch some bad guys and get our phone back.”
Lisa laughed, then kissed him.
“Thanks,” she said.
“No need, darlin’. But let’s not let this get too complicated. You just remember who’s going to walk through the door when this is over.”
“I’ll remember,” she said.
“Okay.” Bryce stepped outside. “Be back soon. Don’t worry.”
Lisa laughed again. Another kiss that was too quick, and then J. J.‘s truck was raising a cloud of dust as he headed for the highway. Lisa watched him go, and she kept on watching after the dust settled and the truck had disappeared from view.
The night air was cool.
The crickets had gone quiet.
Lisa sat on the back step and tried to think of nothing at all.
Behind the house he’d shared with Kim Barlow—the same house he’d once exited through a window thanks to her brother Glen—Kale Howard eyed Tres Manos.
The place the Anglo locals called The Hands was a sight to see, even from this distance. It was something different every time you looked at it. Red as a thickening puddle of blood in the hard light of afternoon. Black as the devil’s silhouette in the hours past midnight… and right now, with silver moonlight creeping up its backside, it was as smoky and ethereal as a dream any fool could climb.
Kale smiled. Though he stood in darkness, that same moonlight crept up his spine like a dozen furious scorpions in a hurry to plant stings at the base of his brain. In his world, that wasn’t unfamiliar feeling, and it dug down to his core like a grave robber’s shovel, churning up secrets buried in the deepest, darkest corners of the shriveled black hunk he called his soul.
There were visions in that place that would have made a sane man slash his wrists. Visions of women like Kim Barlow as they screamed their last screams, and visions of Kim Barlow herself, on the final night of her life, out there in the desert beneath a towering hunk of rock that might as well have been a gigantic tombstone.
They weren’t exactly Kale’s visions. Not completely. They were owned in part by the thing that lived inside him, the disease that sent those scorpions scurrying across his spine. But the visions were nothing to be feared, any more than he feared the silhouette of Tres Manos in the distance. And, hell, if he raised a hand right now, he could cover up that mother-of-all tombstones where Kim had died, and he could do the job with one little finger. This he did. And just that fast, every memory of Kim Barlow vanished from his mind except that very last one… and, for Kale, that was the one worth keeping.
The moonlight brought it home. As its clean halo broke over the rim of The Hands, the memory shimmered in the clear white light surrounding Kale’s raised finger. Quite suddenly, his raised finger itched as if those ghostly scorpions had launched their own dark vision-quest, scrambling across the enormous sandstone tombstone that rose from the desert of Kale’s hand, jabbing barbed tales into that tower, reducing it to fine grains, burrowing through Kale’s flesh and blood and bone until they unearthed that bedrock of hidden memory.
Kim’s final fright… and just as final understanding.
For Kale, that single moment defined his entire relationship with Kim Barlow. He understood that… just as he understood that it paid to take his time when those moments rose from the shadows. They were the ones that truly counted.
He’d taken his time with Kim, all right. Together, they’d gone to Tres Manos, sharing a picnic dinner as dusk turned to night. Kale had made sure Kim understood the lies he’d told, stripping them away from the truth with the same relish he stripped meat away from a bone. And when he was finished doing that little job he did another, taking what he wanted from Kim in the shadow of a great tombstone he could eclipse with a single finger.
He took it in a fury born of cursed moonlight and patience and spite. Under other circumstances Kale would have lingered with the memory, but it was time for it to go. His mind cremated every image, and his pointing finger curled into a fist along with its neighbors, and his fist tightened. Chrome skull rings gnashed on his fingers like five monsters grinding bones to make their bread. The moon crested about the towers. Kale extended his fingers. He had to. Each one was lengthening now, growing black claws that sliced the shadow he cast.
Those ghostly scorpions raised tails and drove spikes home, and the venom of the moon delivered fresh visions to Kale’s mind… visions of Kim’s brother. The bastard had been in Kale’s head all day. Even when the moon was shining on another part of the world, he’d known Glen Barlow was coming. The scorpions had told him so, and he had trusted each sting of warning, and each scent raised by his daylight visions.
And he’d scented the bastard, all right… even in his visions. The oil burning in Barlow’s old pickup had scalded his nostrils, and he’d smelled the bastard’s sweat as he stood out there in the desert, and he’d retched at the stink of Barlow’s puke as the hardcase gave up his misery in the dull heat of dusk. And now the visions were stronger. Barlow was coming closer. Barlow was almost here. That burning motor oil was a hot rag in the mouth of the night, and the stink of gun oil etched in the whorls of Barlow’s fingerprints bore the raw perfume of vengeance.
The fact that Barlow had a gun didn’t worry Kale, for the bullets in Barlow’s pistol did not bear the acrid stench of a single grain of silver. That meant Kale had nothing to fear from the weapon. And if Kale did not fear Barlow’s gun, he would not fear Glen Barlow. Not when his own fingers were tipped with razor claws that could slice flesh to ribbons. Not when growing teeth twisted and scraped in his mouth, carving a brutal path against thickening gums.
And that wasn’t the end of it. Soon Kale’s jaws were heavy with fangs. Black bristles of fur spiked from a dozen monsters tattooed on his arms. Moonlight poured over the desert, and Kale’s shadow stretched across the sand as he grew larger—tendons cording over lengthening bone, muscles getting heavier.
But the moon was carving him down, too. It whittled away everything but the basics, the way those jabbing scorpions had chiseled at the sandstone tower in his vision… cutting away everything that had once protected Glen Barlow, skinning hesitation and fear from Kale’s heart, tearing off every mask he had ever been forced to wear.
Moonlight carved the werewolf as brutally and efficiently as the Reaper’s own predatory scythe. And what the moon left behind was the same… and nothing but.
As he neared Kim’s house, Glen killed the headlights. He pulled the pickup to the side of the road, parking beneath an old mesquite tree a hundred yards from the entrance to her property. Night had dropped its veil, but there were still shadows here. The gnarled branches overhead netted the stark silver light of the full moon, casting twisted shadows on the hood of Glen’s old truck.
Glen reached under the seat and grabbed his pistol. He stepped from the truck and cut a path through the night, following the road at a slow trot until he came to the rock-lined drive leading to Kim’s house. He stood there for a moment, in full moonlight now. If anyone inside the house was looking through a window, they’d surely see him… but every window was dark, and so were the rusted railroad lanterns hanging from the heavy-beamed overhang that covered the front patio.
There weren’t any other houses nearby. Just that silver moonlight, and desert that didn’t so much as ripple until it ran into Tres Manos, many miles away. Quietly, Glen moved down the final twenty feet of the drive. He put a hand on the hood of Kale’s Mustang as he passed by, but the car was as cold as the house was dark.
Sand crunched lightly beneath Glen’s bootheels. Out on the road, a driver shifted gears. Glen ducked low, but the car didn’t enter Kim’s driveway. Headlights cast cold beams over the front of the house as the car passed by. Glen caught a quick glimpse of his reflection in the bedroom window, the light trapping his image on the pane for what seemed a long moment. Then the light moved on, smearing across the rest of the house, sweeping the shadows beneath the patio overhang as it passed, revealing the heavy slab of a front door and the old string of chili peppers hanging there… and, past that, a weathered sheet of plywood, still nailed over the front window.
Glen shook his head. Maybe Kale was too lazy to fix the window, or maybe the bastard didn’t want anyone looking inside. Either way, Glen planned to take a good long look. As the sound of the passing car’s engine faded in the distance, he stepped onto the flagstone patio and crossed through the shadows beneath the overhang. Here the air was heavy with the fragrance of climbing roses; the plants wound around stout support posts like gnarled muscles, vines heavy with blooms cradled by the overhang above.
It was darker here, but Glen’s night vision was good. He spotted a stack of cut piñon near the boarded-up window. Grabbing a length of it, he pressed his back to the brick wall near the heavy slab of a front door.
Glen tossed the piñon across the patio. The log clattered loudly against flagstone as it landed fifteen feet away. If anyone was inside the house, they wouldn’t be able to ignore the noise.
Glen waited. No sound from within, and no lights came on. His breaths came faster now, and the butt of the pistol jammed into his jeans nudged at his belly.
Needles of silver light pierced the roses overhead as the moon rose higher.
The sweet fragrance of the flowers was heavy on the night air.
Glen filled his lungs with it.
He tested the doorknob.
It was locked.
Damn. Glen drew another breath… but this time he choked on it. Because suddenly there was another smell—a sour animal stink, as if something dead was trapped up there in the rose vines.
And then there was a sound. Glen jolted as a hunk of piñon clattered over the flagstones at his feet and bounced off the door. He spun quickly, drawing his pistol as he turned toward the thing that had tossed the log… the thing that had been stalking him since he’d first stepped from his truck.
Because this was no man. Something down deep in Glen’s gut recognized that before his mind could accept it. The shadow that faced him was enormous… and grinning… and red-eyed… and it moved much faster then Glen could possibly move.
It came straight at him. Before he could raise his pistol, the thing caught him with one hairy shoulder and hammered him against the door. The hanging chili peppers went to powder behind his back. The shadow snatched his wrist and yanked him forward, and Glen was suddenly spinning like a child launched from a Tilt-A-Whirl, heels scrapping over flagstone and then rising above it, the thing’s clawed hands tight on his wrist… tighter still when the monster cracked the whip.
Glen’s body was jerked so hard he was sure his left shoulder had popped from its socket. But it wasn’t his left shoulder he needed to worry about. It was the right one, which slammed into the plywood covering the broken window with such force that the panel cracked and planted splinters in his flesh.
Glen dropped to the ground. The thing’s hands were off him for just a couple seconds as it drew back. Then it charged again, fanged teeth gleaming in the patchwork light beneath the overhang.
It was almost on top of him when Glen realized he was still holding the pistol. Pain dug a trench from his wrist to his shoulder as he jacked his aching elbow into position and pulled the trigger. The gun bucked in his hand. The thing screamed and fell back. Blood splattered across the flagstone, and a wet hunk of meat smacked against the ground. Glen fired again—straight at the thing’s chest this time—and fired once more as the monster stumbled back.
The 230-grain hollow-points did their work. Another slug drove the shadow-thing backward. It crashed against one of the patio posts—the overhang shuddering as the creature bucked in pain, its blood showering flagstones in wet droplets.
Glen fired again, and the monster howled.
Dead rose petals rained down.
And the shadow charged through them with renewed ferocity. Glen raised the pistol one more time, but it was too late. Before he could pull the trigger, the creature’s bristling forehead cracked hard against Glen’s chin. Simultaneously, a knotted shoulder drove into his gut, jamming him against the cracked plywood covering the broken window.
This time, the plywood didn’t hold.
This time, Glen went straight through it.
And the werewolf followed.
Kale sprang through the gaping plywood maw. There was the bastard. Right there—a hunk of human piledriver stretched out on the hardwood floor.
Somehow Barlow had managed to hang on to his pistol. Kale slapped it away with a fistful of claws. Nothing could stop him now. His wounds were already scarring over. He grabbed Barlow’s collar, snarling down at him. And the look on Glen’s face? Man… it was priceless, as if someone had just lit up his flat-earthed little world with a full bucket of hellfire.
If a wolf could have laughed, Kale would have done it. The scorpion fury trapped inside him demanded that Barlow die hard. It’d been too damn tough keeping the leash on during the year he’d lived with the bastard’s sister. Caging his anger when Barlow gave him static about never holding a job for long… or the way he’d dip into Kim’s wallet when he needed some cash… or a million other things. Sometimes he’d lose it, and Kim would pay the price. Sure. Had to be Kimmy who paid, because he’d kept Kim on a leash of her own.
And it was a short one. Kimmy’d had things he wanted. A damn fine little house in the middle of nowhere, and money in the bank, and not too many relatives around to muddy the water. So waiting had been the ticket. First for the marriage license… next for the will. And that meant that most of the time Kale bit back his anger, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself. He’d let loose… especially when it was getting close to the full moon and the scorpions started crawling up his spine.
And that wasn’t bad, really. Not all bad, anyway. The scorpions, the fights and the violence… they gave Kale an excuse to get the hell out of Dodge. Usually he’d head to Vegas. Enjoy a couple days on the Strip, then do a little cruising in the desert. Grab someone traveling alone, out where it didn’t matter. He had his way about it, he favored himself some dark-haired little piece of sweetmeat. Maybe one with a little something extra to go with the gristle. He’d catch one alone at a rest stop or a backwater motel—some place like that. Have some fun with her, then chow down. Clean the bones and bury them. Strip her car and sell it to a chop shop while the best parts of the little skank were still warm in his belly, then head home with a fat bankroll in the pocket.
No sweat, Kimmy. I picked it up gambling. Now let me drive you over to Tucson and we’ll have dinner. Hey, we can even stay the night at that place you like. I want to make things up to you… and I’m really sorry about that fight we had, okay?
Uh-huh. That was the way it worked.
Sweet when he needed to be.
Not so sweet when he didn’t.
And right now, with Kim six feet under and most of her worldly possessions banked, Kale didn’t have a shot glass worth of sweet in him. Barlow started scrambling, one hand reaching for that pistol on the floor. Kale grabbed him before he could reach the useless weapon, slamming Glen into the wall hard enough so that the boy damn near punched an outline in the sheetrock.
The werewolf didn’t stop there. He piled into Glen before he could hit the ground, ramming him against the wall again… and again. Next he jammed a clawed hand under Barlow’s chin, and this time he did the job right—hammering Glen’s thick skull straight through the sheetrock.
A wrench of his wrist and he pulled Barlow out of the divot, twisting his neck into a patch of moonlight shining from the back window. Ruby beads rolled down Glen’s sweaty face. Yeah, Kale thought, twisting harder. Bring on the blood!
He picked up Barlow and heaved him against the far wall. Glen crashed into a clean square of moonlight, grunted, tried to move. But Kale was on him before the hardcase could even twitch an inch. This was it—the final bit of business before the deed got done. Because right now, all Barlow really knew was that some kind of monster was putting him through the spin cycle. For Kale, killing Kim’s brother would be useless unless the bastard realized the identity of the nightmare doing the deed.
Without that little moment of recognition, Kale’s satisfaction-meter would register zip.
With it, that sucker would notch off the scale. The werewolf’s claws snaked through Barlow’s hair and gave his head an attentive yank. At the same time, Kale raised his other hand, and moonlight caught the chrome skull rings circling his black fingers.
Those fingers danced before Glen Barlow’s eyes.
Fanged teeth sparkled with rictus smiles.
Hollow-eyed skulls filled with moonlight.
Barlow stared as if hypnotized, pupils dilating into deepening pools of realization. Kale howled in triumph, but Barlow wasn’t even looking at him. He just kept staring at those rings.
And why wouldn’t he stare?
It was a hell of a thing to figure out a few seconds before you died.
It was a hell of a thing to realize that the monster crouching over you was the man you’d come to kill.
So Glen did the only thing he could do.
He looked the monster dead in the eye.
The switchblade he’d hidden in his boot snicked open in the moonlight.
The werewolf caught the gleam a second too late. Glen jammed the knife between Kale Howard’s ribs, burying the blade to the hilt before ripping it to the side. Black blood spilled over Glen’s right hand. He pulled back and stabbed the creature again, lower this time. Kale roared as if his guts were about to spill out of his belly.
But they didn’t. The werewolf’s wounds were already healing. His left hand plunged downward, razor claws splayed in a driving arc that split the skin of Glen’s right forearm. Muscle shredded as Kale dug those nails deep, burying four long fingers between Glen’s bones.
Glen dropped the knife, and the well-honed blade dug into the floorboards as Kale closed his fist around Glen’s ulna. Glen would have screamed if he could have sucked a breath. The werewolf’s other hand snaked through Glen’s hair, then deeper—claws digging tunnels between scalp and skull until they found purchase in the tendons at the back of Glen’s neck.
The monster jerked Glen’s head back, stretching his neck into the kill zone, trapping him between hands buried in neck and wrist. Wounds spilled blood across the corded length of Glen’s neck. Kale’s black lips drew back. A mouthful of spit slapped Glen in the face, and then Kale’s jaws closed around his neck.
Savage teeth tore into muscle. Arterial blood geysered against the werewolf’s pelt. Halogen headlights cored the jagged plywood hole across the room. It seemed the light would swallow Glen faster than Kale could. He closed his eyes against it, but he couldn’t escape its stark power.
Outside, a car door slammed.
There were voices. The werewolf’s ears perked, and he turned toward the light.
For Glen, the reprieve didn’t seem to matter.
If the Marines had arrived, they were too goddamned late.
Of course, it wasn’t the Marines.
And it wasn’t J. J. Bryce, either.
There were three of them, and every one looked just a little bit like Kale Howard—even the one who didn’t have a set of cojones hanging between her legs.
Glen had never met any of Kale’s siblings.
But all it took was one glance, and he knew this bunch fit the bill.
The Howards were all over brother Kale in a matter of seconds. Dwayne—the largest of the boys—waded in first, backhanding the wolf with a handful of silver rings. Kale howled as if doused with acid, but he didn’t turn tail. No. He spit blood and bared his teeth, but he never got the chance to test his game on his eldest brother. Joe—shorter, faster, and meaner—had already closed in from one side, skinning his belt from his jeans. Before Kale could make a move, Joe had looped that thirty-two-inch length of snakeskin around his brother’s neck in one well-practiced motion.
Leather whispered through hammered silver as Joe yanked the belt tight. The buckle closed over Kale’s windpipe like a pair of channel locks, the horrible metal burning its brand into his flesh. Unable to breathe, Kale blacked out for an instant and started to drop.
In the second it took for him to make the trip to the floor, Kris—the oldest and roughest of Kale’s siblings—stepped forward. Tanned, cougar-lean, and dressed in black jeans and a tank top, she looked like the kind of woman who should be demo-ing combat knives at a survivalist convention in Vegas. She jammed the barrel of a nickel-plated .45 against her baby brother’s temple and tore a strip off him with a voice seasoned by whiskey and cigarettes.
“Make another move, dog, and I’ll splatter your brains all over this room.”
“Better save those silver bullets, Kris.” Dwayne hovered over Glen. “Looks like this boy’s been bit.”
Kale’s sister swore under her breath as she turned to examine Glen’s wounds. From jawbone to wrist, Barlow’s right side was a shredded mess of meat and gristle. Any bastard suffering similar wounds under another circumstance would have slipped into shock by now, but Kris knew that wasn’t going to happen to Barlow… not if the werewolf virus were pulsing through his blood.
She ignored his mangled arm, and the pistol that lay next to it, examining the flesh torn by the werewolf’s attack. Yep. This was more than a claw job. Kale had put his fangs straight into the cowboy’s arteries, but he hadn’t finished him off. The wounded man’s heart was still beating, and from the look of things the virus was already doing its work. Barlow’s wounds were beginning to heal, a cuff of scar tissue slowly knitting over the flesh of his wrist. The only upside was that Barlow was freshly infected. His metabolism was operating at a slower rate than Kale’s, so he wasn’t an immediate threat.
“Better put a bullet in him, sis,” Joe said. “That full moon ain’t goin’ anywhere for hours yet. I don’t want to have to deal with two dogs if he turns.”
“Brush up on your homework, idiot,” Kris said. “It takes longer than that for the virus to set. This cowboy won’t do any turning until the next full moon. The most he’ll do right now is some serious healing up.”
She smiled down at Glen.
“If we let him live long enough, that is.”
But there was no way in hell Kris Howard was going to let this desert rat live. She’d made that decision as soon as she’d learned that the cowboy had been bit.
Yep. That was the way it had to be. Kris was the one who made the decisions around here. She’d been doing that since her parents decided to crawl inside a bottle when she was just a kid. Even then, her deadweight brothers were just along for the ride.
And Kale, hell… time hadn’t done him any favors. He was still her scrabble-brained little brother, half nuts even on nights when the moon was just a fingernail clipping up there in the sky. That’s why she’d cleaned up after him so many times in the years since he’d gotten his ass chewed by a werewolf down in Mexico.
Of course, having a werewolf in a family of thieves was mostly a real plus, but Kris could see that this wasn’t going to be one of those times. Damn… it’d been awhile since Kale tore up that little showgirl in Reno, but this clusterfuck tonight made that mess look like a picnic. Kale had opened Kim’s brother like a can of Alpo. Anyone who watched forensic TV shows could collect enough evidence in this slaughterhouse to convict every Howard in the room… plus their dead-ass parents, who were back in Texas taking dirt naps.
So the whole deal sure enough screwed the pooch, but what could she do about it? Jagged wedges of Glen Barlow’s skin stuck to the wall like some serial killer’s warped painting; his blood was soaking into the cracked floorboards; the headbutt-pitted sheetrock was clotted with hanks of his hair. Kris was sure she’d have to burn down the house before they made a permanent exit tonight. And that really bit, because the plan had been to sell the damn thing for a good chunk of cash after Kale knocked off his latest bride.
But there was more chance of their parents growing fresh livers and crawling out of their plywood caskets down there in Texas than there was of her selling this house. Kris figured the best she could hope for when she finished up this business tonight would be an empty box of matches. And the way she saw it, the bloody mess of a man at her feet had to have figured out the score about the whole deal—including the growling moron who at that moment was straining against a snakeskin leash.
Kris stared down at Glen Barlow, cocking her head in Kale’s direction.
“Guess you know the family secret,” she said.
“Yeah… and I think I figured out the family business, too.”
Kris smiled. The bloody cowboy sucked a breath. Surprisingly, only part of it whistled through his windpipe. Had to be the virus was burning a trail through Barlow’s torn-up excuse for a circulatory system faster than Kris had expected. But she wasn’t particularly worried about that. After all, she was the one holding the gun with the silver bullets.
“So, you’re the guy who tossed my baby brother through a window, huh?”
“Looks like tonight you’re reapin’ what you sowed.”
“Well, it was a dirty job…” he started, coughing up a thick rope of blood.
“Yeah… but somebody had to do it,” she finished.
“You know how it goes.”
“You bet I do. But there’s a problem with that, Tex. Kale sure ain’t the most obedient pup in the kennel, but he’s my brother. And in our family, we take care of our own. I figure you can understand that.”
Another cough, and maybe another yeah mixed in there, too.
“Sure. Add it up, we’re not that different, you and me. I’m here to help Kale. You’re here to do right by your sister. Hell, I understand that. Some guy chews your baby sis down to the bone and leaves her in the middle of nowhere for the buzzards to peck. Plus, he ends up with everything she owned in the world. You’ve got a right to go all Charlie Bronson on him, but you’re a little late for that. To tell the truth, you’re late for anything that doesn’t include taking a silver bullet.”
That did it. Barlow tried to rise. Just doing that, it looked like his head was going to topple off his torn-up neck and end up in his lap. Kris nearly laughed, and the only thing that stopped her were the scars closing over Barlow’s wound.
He was healing faster now, but Kris knew there wasn’t enough fast in the world to get the job done for him before she finished saying her piece. “You wanted to fix things, Barlow, you should have done it last Christmas. It’s too late now. Your sister’s in a hole. And if there’s still a squeaky little cage turnin’ in your guts, let me tell you something: that hamster’s dead, amigo. Whatever you wanted to do, it’s way past time to do it now.”
“You said that.”
“Yeah. I did. But you cost me a fat bankroll tonight, so forgive me if I take a minute to show you the error of your ways before I put a hunk of silver in your brain. See, I don’t want you feeling the least little bit like a hero when you get your ass kicked into eternity. You’re not any kind of hero, amigo. Let’s get that straight.”
Barlow was quiet now. Had to be it was sinking in. He didn’t say a word.
Kris checked the pistol, chambered a round.
“Let me wrap it up for you, now that you’re catching on. I’ve got a real simple way of looking at life. The way I see it, what you do is who you are… and what you don’t do, too. And, buddy, when it comes to your sister, and when it comes to the guy who killed her, you didn’t do much.”
Barlow held his silence. All he gave her was a stare.
And that was enough. Hell, that stare was plenty.
Kris raised the pistol.
“I see you get the message,” she said. “End of sermon. It’s time for the piper to get paid.”
The werewolf virus had jacked Glen’s metabolism into a molten overdrive. His mind raced with quick-cut impressions, hundreds of them—Kris’ .45… and her smile… and the other two Howard boys watching him from across the room… and their snarling werewolf brother straining against the snakeskin leash, eager for another taste of Barlow’s flesh—the slightest movement of each member of the Howard clan cataloged in a fraction of a second, and every image filed for action and reaction if Glen could only move.
He had to do that. If the virus set quickly enough… if the full moon shone at the correct angle… his lupine brain understood that he could move faster than he’d ever moved before. And it was happening already. His wounds were closing as if some heathen god had decided to dam him up. Scar tissue crackled over his carotid artery. New skin covered exposed muscle and tendon, cells multiplying with an insane rapidity.
Glen’s dropped pistol lay just a foot away. Synapses fired as his brain ordered his hand to grab the pistol… but, damn… he couldn’t even wriggle his fingers yet, let alone lift his arm.
“Don’t even think about it,” Kris said, kicking the gun across the room.
She bent low, pressing the .45 barrel against his temple.
“Here we go,” she said. “Enjoy the ride.”
Glen sucked a breath. Kris began to squeeze the trigger.
Across the room, another pistol cocked sharply.
A man’s voice came from the other side of the ragged plywood hole.
“Drop the gun,” J. J. Bryce said. “And do it now.”
The hard-eyed woman did as she was told. One look at the bloody man on the floor and Bryce had a serious crime scene flashback—Kim Barlow dead in the shadow of Tres Manos—but this time he was looking at her brother, soaked in his own gore on a dusty hardwood floor.
“Get away from him,” Bryce said.
The woman raised her hands and stepped backward, retreating from the dull illumination of the room’s single standing floor-lamp. Bryce leaned through the splintery plywood gap, tracking her movement with his pistol.
That was when he noticed that the woman wasn’t alone. Two men stood in the shadows on the other side of the room. One of them reached for a wall switch while the other slipped a loop from around the neck of a…
Jesus. Some kind of hairy thing… a thing with claws, and teeth, and—
It settled on its haunches.
In another instant it would spring—
Bryce’s brain didn’t need any more input. He fired his pistol. The slug punched the freak backward. The lights went out. The two men scrambled in the dark, but J. J. couldn’t see them. He couldn’t see anything—
Except a pair of red eyes, low to the floor then rising, closing on him like coals shoveled by the devil himself.
The nickel-plated .45 gleamed in a patch of moonlight. Glen was with it, his body trapped in the dead-white fire. And it seemed as if the pistol Kris Howard had used to control her werewolf brother were melting there on that same moonlight forge… its gleaming ivory grips scorching the silver slugs that lurked within.
The stink of silver nearly made Glen retch. His stomach roiled at the thought of touching the weapon, but he knew that the .45 was his only chance.
So did Kris Howard.
She grabbed for the pistol.
Glen did, too.
Several shots rang out inside the house, but J. J. Bryce was barely aware of them. Gripping his own pistol tightly in his fist, he scrambled to his feet as he came out of a tumble with the red-eyed creature.
It had rolled over the top of him, continuing across the flagstone patio before righting itself. Quickly, it launched a second attack, charging him like a freight train. Bryce wasn’t set, but he fired his pistol three times in quick succession. Every slug found its target, dead center in the thing’s chest. It didn’t matter. The monster bit off an anguished scream and kept coming, and it slammed into the deputy so hard that he was airborne in an instant.
A glance to the side. White teeth gnashing inches from Bryce’s face. His pistol clattered against the patio. Then he started to drop. He realized he’d be coming down hard on a flagstone slab a second before his skull slammed against it, realized too that the monster would be on top of him before another second could tick off the clock.
The cop landed hard.
Kale knew he had to finish him off quickly and get back inside the house. He’d heard the gunshots. Chances were they’d come from Kris’ .45 instead of Glen Barlow’s pistol. But who had the gun? That was the question—
Kale spun toward the open doorway.
He had his answer.
He didn’t like it.
The werewolf sprang. Eyes gleaming, teeth bared, claws ready to tear through Glen Barlow in a ferocious explosion of rage.
For Glen, it was just like staring into his own heart.
He didn’t stare long.
He pulled the trigger.
In a bright blast of muzzle flash, everything went away.
J. J. Bryce lay on the flagstones, out cold, but Glen ignored the fallen cop.
The .45 still filled his hand. The silver bullets inside the weapon were encased in a steel clip buried beneath ivory grips. Glen knew that. Still, holding the pistol was like holding a live rattler, ready to sink fangs into his skin if he so much as twitched.
But he couldn’t put the pistol down.
The truth was, he didn’t know if he’d ever put it down.
Behind Glen, three people lay dead in the house. He’d killed Kris first, then the other two. He didn’t even know their names. He’d killed all three of them in a matter of seconds, the animal fury of the werewolf virus surging through him as if it were in control of the gun. Kale was dead, too—his sternum shattered by a silver bullet that had torn through muscle and heart, finally burying itself in his spinal column. He lay on the flagstone patio, and looking at him there was no clue that he’d ever been anything different than the human monsters who lay within the walls of Kim Barlow’s house.
But Kale had been something different. Glen knew that as he stared down at the corpse of the man he’d wanted to kill so badly, just as he knew that his rage was as dead as the cursed bastard who’d murdered his sister. Now it had been replaced by another fire, a hunk of brimstone buried inside him that was torched by the light of the full moon.
Glen wasn’t the kind of man who prayed, but he hoped he wouldn’t feel that fire when he watched the sun rise in just a few hours.
If he watched the sun rise.
If he stuck around long enough to do that.
Glen’s grip tightened around the .45. He knew what the silver bullets in the gun could do to him, the same way he knew what the moon above would do to him the next time it rose in the night sky, full and bright.
Just one bullet. That’s all it would take.
Just one, and he’d never end up like Kale Howard.
Glen raised the pistol. He placed the barrel beneath his chin.
And he waited. He waited for a sign… a sign from somewhere… or someone… perhaps a sign from Kim. Right or wrong, the things he’d done tonight he’d done for her. So he waited for an acknowledgement, a rush of images his brain could catalog the way it had cataloged every movement and expression of the people he’d just killed.
The ivory pistol grips were slick with his sweat. The gun barrel dug into the taut flesh beneath his chin. That brimstone fire inside him was cooking his heart now. Suddenly Glen heard words, down there in the sizzle.
But they weren’t Kim’s words.
They belonged to another, and he’d heard them earlier this night.
What you do is who you are…
The words were lost for a moment, sizzling in the brimstone roar. It was as if something inside Glen wanted to incinerate them, the same way he’d burned down the woman who’d spoken those words. But they came around again, surer this time… as if they were his own.
What you do is who you are…
Glen lowered the pistol.
…and what you don’t do, too.
The sound of Bryce’s cell phone brought him around. It was still dark—a glance at his watch told him it was just past midnight.
Damn. His skull was pounding in time with the phone’s insistent ringtone. J. J. reached for his cell, but it wasn’t there. It was over on the patio, murky LCD light glowing as it chirped like a confused little bird. And there was his pistol, right next to it, and—
That thing he’d wrestled with lay on the patio, too. Only it didn’t look like a wolf anymore. Now the damn thing looked like Kale Howard. And now J. J. remembered. He’d cracked his head on the patio when he’d taken that fall. In the moment before he’d passed out, Glen Barlow had appeared in the doorway with a nickel-plated .45 in his hand. He’d looked like a refugee from a zombie movie, but he’d gunned down the monster beneath the patio overhang.
And now Kale Howard lay dead in its place.
Bryce stared at Howard’s corpse for a long moment.
Goddamn, he thought. Well… goddamn.
Because there wasn’t much else you could think. Not if you could add two and two. And even with a knock on the head, J. J. could do that. He moved on to the next order of business and tried to rise, but his legs wouldn’t quite make the trip. And the rest of his body… Jesus. It felt like his right arm wasn’t even there.
What the hell was going on? He was ass-down in the dirt, leaning against something hard. He couldn’t move his right arm at all. Damn thing was asleep, bent above his head, stuck there as if tied.
Bryce leaned to the side and looked up. He was handcuffed to the driver’s door of a truck. Not his own truck—Barlow’s piece-of-shit rustbucket… which hadn’t even been there when J. J. pulled in a couple hours ago.
Oh shit. With his free hand, Bryce patted his pocket. His keys were gone.
His brand-new Ford was gone, too.
That son of a bitch, Bryce thought. He settled back against Barlow’s truck, and he stewed about it. Might be he’d have to sit here a while before someone came along. But that was okay. He was in no rush to discuss his stolen vehicle… or tonight’s business.
Still, the wheels started turning in his head. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Sooner or later, he’d have to decide what the hell he was going to say.
To Sheriff Randall.
And to Lisa, too.
In the months since he’d left El Pasito, Glen had a lot of time on his hands. That was good. There was a lot he needed to think about in the wake of the bloodbath out there in the desert. Things had changed for him… a lot of things. Everything.
But as the days closed into night, what he thought about most was Kim. He’d always felt responsible for her. After all, he was her big brother. That reaction was as natural as breathing. But he was starting to understand that Kim had made her own decisions in life, and he wasn’t responsible for them any more than he was responsible for the trouble they’d brought her way. They were Kim’s choices, not his. And she’d shut him out when making them, and she’d shut him out when they went bad… especially when it came to Kale.
And maybe that was part of the reason for his anger. She’d shut him out, and then she was dead before either of them could change the way things were. Maybe that was the reason he hadn’t heard his sister’s voice in the desert on the night he’d nearly taken his own life.
Maybe he hadn’t know her well enough to ask for that kind of help.
Maybe she was still shutting him out.
They were brother and sister, sure. They’d shared memory, time, and blood. But Glen had never known the secrets Kim kept locked up in her heart. And he wondered if you ever could know that about someone else, no matter what ties you shared.
Just lately, he’d been thinking about that a lot. He hadn’t reached any particular conclusions, but there was one thing he was sure of. In the time since he’d left El Pasito, he was beginning to understand his own secrets, and he was beginning to understand his own heart.
He wondered if someone else was beginning to understand those things, too.
It wasn’t easy to find a payphone anymore, but Glen turned one up.
He had to buy a phone card from a little Cajun girl working the till in a convenience store before he could make his call. The phone was on a pole across from the gas pumps. There weren’t a lot of people around, just a lot of kudzu. And that was okay with Glen. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to share with anyone.
He dialed Lisa’s number.
A man picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”
Glen didn’t say a word.
“Hello?” the man said again. “Hey… is anyone there?”
A click on the line, and the familiar voice was gone. Glen hung up the receiver.
J. J. Bryce, he thought, and Lisa Allen.
He stood there a minute. A truck roared by on the two-lane highway, heading toward Baton Rouge. Glen shook his head, grinning. A lot had surprised him just lately, and he couldn’t see a single reason why this should be any different.
But, right now, that was okay with him.
Really, it was.
Man, if there was one thing J. J. hated, it was hang-ups.
He turned away from the phone. At least it hadn’t been another lawyer calling. Since the gunfight at the Barlow Corral, he’d had enough of lawyers. And administrative leave. And state and county investigators.
And the questions some of those guys asked. Especially that forensic specialist who’d discovered that the Howard clan had been gunned down with silver bullets. He’d asked if J. J. had any ideas about those. “Hell,” J. J. had said. “Maybe Barlow thought he was the Lone Ranger. The guy was definitely crazy enough.”
As it stood, investigators had connected the Howards to six murders in four states. Three of the victims had been married to Kale. Seemed he’d do the killing, and then his sister would come in a few months later and cash in the chips. She’d been smart enough to keep a low profile, mostly, and that had definitely been her M. O. in El Pasito. No one in town had even know that Kale had a sister—or a couple of brothers—out there at the house. Hell, that was probably why they kept the front window boarded up.
Anyway, J. J. was glad the deal was wrapping up. Next week he was going back to work. A couple months after that… well, the whole thing would probably be forgotten.
One could hope, anyway.
Lisa was sweeping the patio when J. J. stepped through the door. He was carrying a couple bottles of Pacifico, and he handed her one. She took a sip, and that was an improvement. The beer was good and cold.
“Who was on the phone?” she asked.
“Hang up. Don’t you hate those?”
She nodded. They sat on the back step for awhile. J. J. drank his beer and talked about going back to the cop shop. She listened. After awhile, he said, “I think I’ll drive over to Dos Gatos. Get some of those pork carnitas. We can have a barbeque tonight.”
A few minutes later, he was gone.
Lisa sat there on the step, staring at Tres Manos in the distance. Afternoon clouds drifted in from the east, casting shadows over The Hands. Lisa sipped her beer and watched the clouds hang there. They hung a good long while, until the wind chased them off.
Lisa finished her beer, then got her clippers from the toolshed.
She worked in the herb garden.
She trimmed back the rosemary.
She trimmed it tight.