Lifeblood Chapter 12

THE CAR CRUISED past the correct turn and took the next one a quarter mile down the road. The shotgun blast had made Gaylen cautious. Someone knew about her and her changed nature and knew how to fight her. She was going to be careful not to approach her box openly. We rolled into an area thick with trees and darkness. Branches and leaves stirring constantly in the wind made it all seem alive and aware. We stopped cold in the middle of a deserted mud-washed road, the motor died, and their voices rose up in the relative quiet.

’’Don't leave me here!’’

’’I'll be right back. I have to see that it's clear.’’

’’God, I'm dying. You can't go now.’’

’’You'll be all right.’’ Her door opened.

’’No! Do it now! You said you would--you promised! Gaylen!’’

She got out. I was flat on the ground by the rear passenger tire pretending to be a rock. The door slammed shut on Malcolm's protests.

From under the car I saw her feet slip on the mud, regain balance, and walk away. When I no longer heard her I stood up.

Malcolm was on his side across the length of the seat and hardly noticed when his door opened. He was still alive, and that was all that mattered to me.

His wounds were scattered and colorful and he was bleeding freely in several spots. The little skin showing through the blood was white and clammy with shock. He and Gaylen had been outside the lethal range of the wood pellets, though. His claims of dying were premature, at least for the moment.

’’Gaylen, please--’’

’’She's gone, all you've got left is me.’’ I wanted him to know, to see it coming.

He didn't know me at first, I was only an unexpected intrusion, then his eyes rolled fully open and he started to scream. My hand smothered his mouth and part of his nose.

’’You said you wanted it. Does it matter where it comes from?’’

He couldn't move. He was that scared and hardly flinched when my hand slid down his face to close around his neck.

’’You want to be a dead man like me? I can do that for you, Malcolm.’’ My fingers tightened.

He struggled for air, imagining my grip to be stronger than it was.

’’I'm not as good as you are, though. It won't be quick, and believe me--it's gonna hurt.’’

Simple words he could understand, and now simple actions. I brought the knife up so he could see. The blade was clean and shining now, the edge was so sharp that it hurt to look at it. He recognized the thing and realized the mistake he'd made in Escott's kitchen. I let it hover next to his face. He shrank back into the car seat, and when he could go no farther, the first pathetic mewlings of sound began deep in his throat.

’’Where do you want it first? Your eyelids?’’ I pressed the flat of the blade against his temple, the razor edge brushing his eyebrow. ’’I could cut them away, top and bottom.’’

He jerked at the touch of the steel, causing a tiny nick in the skin. I drew back and let him recover. His breath was coming too fast, and I didn't want him passing out.

’’That'd hurt, but there are better nerve centers to play with. I want you to know what I went through in that stairwell. I want you to know what you gave Braxton and Bobbi. You think you're hurting now--in a minute you're gonna wish it was this good.’’

I threw the knife in the backseat and used my bare hands and, God help me, I was laughing.

I crawled from the car like a drunk and leaned against it, still shaking a little from what I'd done. Maybe I should have been sickened by my actions, but nothing so normal as that touched me now.

The wind was damp and cool as it washed over my face.

I'd stopped in time. He was still alive. Somehow I just managed to shake free of the insanity that had taken me over. Malcolm hadn't been so lucky. I'd paid him back for all that he'd done and then some. I was free of the nightmare. He would always be its prisoner.

I sucked clean, moist air deep into my lungs and let it shudder out again, flushing away the last stink of his terror.

No regrets. None.

I pushed away from the car and went after Gaylen.

The rain had almost stopped, but the leaves above continued to drip, creating a false fall. I couldn't count on that to muffle any noise I made, and stepped carefully on soft grass whenever possible.

She'd heard his screams and was coming back to investigate. I saw her just in time, put a fat tree between us, and sprinted, closing the space. I got within ten yards and froze, peering out from a fork in the branches.

She stopped short of the car;one of her sharp new senses had tipped her off and her head snapped around, on guard for an unknown threat.

The old woman was gone. It was one thing to know that fact, quite another to see it. Her face was so very like Maureen's, especially now with her anxious expression. But she was someone else, not the gentle woman I had loved.

I stepped out from behind the tree and walked swiftly toward her.

The body and its inner functions may have changed, but her mind was still human-slow to react. I was absolutely the last thing she expected to see, and with good reason, since she'd watched me die. She was still rooted in place when I caught her arms. The touch confirmed my reality.

There was some struggling, then she abruptly stopped and smiled, quite calm. That smile made me freeze in turn and I knew then why Maureen had confined her sister to an asylum.

’’What are you going to do?’’ she asked. ’’Kill me?’’

I held her fast. ’’I can try, and after what you did to Bobbi, I'll enjoy it. There's a lot of wood around here haven't you noticed?’’

She had. She was still smiling, though. Then her face rippled, faded, and became a shapeless something. The hair on my scalp went up. My hand no longer clutched arms, but closed through cold tendrils darker and thicker than any fog. Her body was gone and in its place was a floating blob of about the same size. She had vanished, even as I had done a hundred times before.

But I could see her. She might not know that. It was some kind of advantage to me if I could keep fooling her.

The gray thing hung in the air for a few seconds, then moved away like an amoeba swimming in fluid. It fell in on itself, shaping and growing solid again. She was laughing.

’’You didn't expect that;I thought you would have. I can do everything you can. Did you think I'd just let you kill me?’’

’’Do you think I'll let you go? If I don't get you, Escott will. Malcolm missed, you know. Did you see him in the alley? His gun? You felt it.

That wasn't rock salt in the cartridges.’’

’’I'm not worried about him.’’

’’Aren't you? You tried to have him killed tonight, but the next time you'll have to do the dirty work yourself. Malcolm's finished.’’

’’I don't need him now.’’

She vanished again, or almost. The shape swung to one side and behind some trees, but didn't wander far. I kept staring at the spot she'd been in, even after she materialized, turning only when she made a sound. It was to test me. Apparently I'd passed. Pleased, she vanished again.

There were noises behind me, near Malcolm, but off to the left. I followed their direction, stopping, listening. A loud snap. A foot skidding over damp leaves. Silence.

A glimpse of movement against the wind.

The gray thing moved closer, coming across open ground to get close to me. It seemed larger.

I circled as though searching, but with my head turned enough to keep an eye on her. She would sense my presence and movement. I made it easier for her by stopping next to a tree and waiting.

She went solid and swung the broken branch at my head. I dropped a split second early, turned, and dived for her mid-section. Her club broke against the tree;she still clutched a two-foot length as we went down.

I pulled it from her, raised, and struck.

The angle was bad;there was no force in the blow, nothing near what was needed. The raw edge caught her shoulder, not her head. She yelped and the splinters tore her dress and scraped her fresh skin, and then I was holding on to nothing again as she turned into living fog.

It slithered along the ground and rose into a rough human shape. I remembered to move around as though confused. A face began forming, and when there was enough for ordinary eyes to see I brought the branch down on its middle. That did no harm and she only retreated again.

Her direction was good, she was moving toward the house. She must have tired of teasing me and wanted to get on with her original business before she made a mistake. I let her get ahead and followed, keeping a prudent distance.

The backyard to Malcolm's house came into sight, its width sloping down at us, the trimmed grass giving away to weeds as the ground tilted sharply. The land did the same again from our side, forming a broad V shape. Down the middle, swollen and fast from the rain, was a brown stream. It wouldn't be very deep, two or three feet at the most, and in some spots no more than four feet wide. As far as she was concerned it could have been the Chicago River. Without help she'd find it nearly impossible to cross.

She stopped short at the very edge of the bank, the gray pseudopods probing and undecided. She was held back by the invisible barrier of free-flowing water. She went solid, with her back to the stream and her eyes on the woods to see my approach. I was hunched down behind a bush, keeping very still, and she missed me. Now she glanced side to side for a bridge of some sort, a fallen tree or stones sticking up, but nothing so convenient was at hand.

She turned again, checking for me and considering the car. She could go back for it and reach the house from the front, but would it be any easier? It was a long way back and I might be waiting near it. The truck with her box of earth was less than a hundred feel away, its nose pointing to the street, .ill ready to go.

Gaylen made up her mind and eased one foot tentatively in the water like a swimmer testing the temperature. She didn't like it, pulled out quickly, and again looked for an alternative. Nothing presented itself, so with a grimace she tried once more, right foot, left, the water churning up around her knees, then higher. For all her need of speed, she might have been wading through partially set cement.

When she was in far enough, I broke cover and closed on her with the club. She heard me and turned, or tried to;her feet couldn't keep up with the changing situation. The branch swung, she caught my arm, and no doubt at that moment tried to vanish. The confused surprise was plain on her face.

Had she been floating freely in the water, I'd have lost her, hut her contact with the stream bed negated that option. The mud and earth beneath her feet held her solid.

I dragged free and struck again. She deflected it, but the force she needed threw her off balance, and she gave out a little scream and splashed full length on her side. The next scream was louder and filled with anguished pain. She fought to get up and out.

The branch caught her flailing hand, and she grabbed my arm successfully with the other and held fast, either to pull me in or make me pull her out. My own balance was tenuous on the loose, slippery bank. The fall was inevitable, but only my right arm and leg went in. They were more than enough.

I'd crossed free water before: above it dematerialized and rushing out of control to the nearest shore or clinging to the inside of a boat or sitting solid in a car to feel only its tug from one riverbank to another, but never by direct contact. It was a tremendous shock, like being dumped in the Arctic in winter. The actual temperature of the water had nothing to do with the freezing ice it felt like to me. I was different now and uniquely vulnerable to this element. I was instantly weakened. No wonder she'd screamed.

She clung to me, knowing I wouldn't go in any deeper if I could help it, and I inadvertently pulled her out a little as I tried to get free. My left hand closed on her wrist, squeezing ,and turning, trying to break it. Her grip on my shoulder loosened, then she took a chance, jerked free, and slammed her fist into my jaw. It was a solid hit and rattled my brain. I slipped deeper into the fiery cold on top of her.

It was utterly numbing. Our muscles were freezing up, our movements slowing to nothing. Neither of us could vanish and neither would let go.

I pushed her under while trying to get back up on the bank. Breathing was no longer necessary to her survival, but such instincts are not easily overcome in a few hours. She pushed her body against the stream bed and her face came up, her hair matted and her teeth bared. With a free hand I hit her as hard as I could.

Her bones should have shattered under the blow. She felt it but ignored it. I hit her two more times before she knocked my hand away and stabbed my neck with stiffened fingers. She caught the Adam's apple, and I gagged a moment, then shoved her under again, hoping the cold would slow her down more than it was slowing me.

I used the leverage to free one leg from the water. The iciness abated a little, and I concentrated on holding her beneath the surface. She wouldn't drown, but a lengthy immersion might weaken her.

The branch was gone, lost in the swirling water, and there was nothing large or sturdy enough to take its place. Fingers closed on my ear and twisted hard. I hit at her face again and connected with a nose and eye ridge. It surprised her and broke her grip. My ear stayed attached and I seized her hand before it could do anything else. I had to look to see that I had it, for I was losing feeling fast.

Voices. Lights twitching above and to the right.

Gordy and one of his men had heard her scream and were investigating.

They carried shotguns. It took them a full minute to find us;I was too busy holding her under to call out. My arms were nearly dead and I couldn't tell if my fingers were doing their job properly. At least her struggles had slowed.

Then my knees slipped in again and she exploded to the surface.

Her eyes were wide with flat, blank panic, and that gave her more strength than I was prepared or able to deal with. She wanted only to escape from the near-petrifying cold. Twisting and clawing halfway out of the water, her hands dug for purchase in the mud, tearing gouges in the bank. Wrap-ping arms around her middle, I kept her down, but she was kicking and I was already weak and battered.

Gordy was standing on the far bank, a flashlight disclosing the scene.

His gun came up uncertainly.

’’It's me!’’ I yelled, realizing he didn't know me for all the mud.

He knew my voice, crab-walked down the slope, and waded across, making it look easy. Gaylen's knee caught me under the rib cage, knocking my breath out. I couldn't warn him to stay back. One of her hands shot out and got his ankle. He yelped and fell, his body acting as an anchor as she began to pull free of the water.

I grabbed her a little higher, throwing my weight on top and smashing her face in the mud. We slid down the bank, our legs still in the stream. It was freezing agony, but safe. As long as she was held in it she couldn't vanish and escape.

Her face lifted, she spit mud and pleaded with Gordy. 'Please help me, he--

I flipped her over, cutting off her helpless-damsel act. She was extremely strong, but when it came down to it, I was bigger and just able to hold her in the water. The man that had come with Gordy stared with openmouthed horror as I shoved her down again. Maybe Gordy had told him something, maybe not. He was unprepared for this kind of savagery and looked ready to run. Gordy stopped him.

’’Hitch! Stay here and cover her.’’ He got up, stepped back into the water, and kept his distance.

Gaylen fought her way up again, but this time she saw the gun. She remembered what I'd said earlier.

Gordy loomed over us, the muzzles centering on her chest. She tore and kicked against me.

’’Fleming?’’ he asked.

Gaylen's eyes turned on me, frantic and helpless and with all the torment and wanting in the world in them.

I thought of Braxton staring sightlessly at his own blood on the tiles.

I thought of Bobbi being mercilessly shoved into the river water. The image was blinding.

’’Yes,’’ I choked.

She was screaming, but without sound, even as I had screamed in the stairwell. Gordy put the barrels to her chest.

There was no color in his face. The tendons in his hands were ridged to control the shaking. He was familiar with violence, but this was different. The night roared once and went silent.

The rubber blade squeaked annoyingly as it dragged over the nearly dry glass.

I was so goddamned tired. I was tired and sickened and cold enough to lie down and die, but he put his hand out and pulled me from the water, away from the red stains before they--

The window was a good thing to stare at;the movement of the wipers was soothing and hypnotic, even the noisy one. You could stare for hours at the fan shapes being renewed with each swinging stroke and not think of anything at all. You could forget the wetness and the clinging clothes and the earthy stink of mud.

’’That shot'll bring the cops,’’ Hitch had said uneasily, his eyes on me as I flopped bonelessly to the ground at his feet.

No time to rest. Things to do first.

Malcolm. I told them where to find what was left of him and what to do.

Back and forth. The squeak changed as some of the rubber loosened and trailed after the wiper like a piece of black string. First straight, then curled under on the return stroke. Back and forth.

’’It's in the living room,’’ Gordy told him. ’’Wipe it clean.’’

’’Yeah, boss.’’ He fled to the house, then stopped just short of it as a car pulled up and braked in the driveway. It was Gordy's, and Escott and Bobbi spilled out.

Gordy stared at her, his big face slack with stunned recognition.

’’Bobbi’’

Understanding his surprise, she paused long enough to give him a fierce hug, then knelt next to me, asking if I was all right. I couldn't answer and held on to her. Escott was explaining things to Gordy and was asking what had happened, until the sight of Gaylen's mangled body stopped the flow of words.

We all looked.

’’Jesus,’’ Gordy whispered, and stepped back from the bank.

The tangled hair was still dark, but the skin was changing. The smooth texture was sagging around the jaw, growing puffy under the eyes.

Wrinkles formed as we watched.

It was as though your death had caught up with you.

’’She's dying,’’ I said.

’’She's not dead?’’

’’We take a lot of killing.’’ I knew what she was going through and took no pleasure in the knowledge.

’’Charles, get Bobbi out of here.’’

He came and gently took her shoulders. She shrugged him off.

’’I want to stay.’’

’’Please, go with him.’’

’’But-

’’I know, but you can't. We have to leave, and fast. I'm all right, I promise, but I want you out of here.’’

She didn't like it but saw the sense. She kissed me hard. ’’I'll be waiting at my place.’’

’’I'll come as soon as I can.’’

She smiled. It was a wan one, but still a smile, and she let Escott pull her away.

’’What about her?’’ said Gordy, nodding at the stream when they were gone.

’’We can't leave her for the cops. We can't chance an autopsy--not on her. And that truck with the box in it has to go.’’

’’I'll get the boys to fix things.’’

Hitch came back then with another mug named Jinky and the shotgun used to kill Norma. Gordy sent them across the stream and into the trees.

’’Put his mitts on it, and for Chrissake make sure he ain't got no spare shells.’’

’’Yeah, boss.’’

’’And clean off that knife.’’

’’Yeah, boss.’’

While they were gone we did what was necessary and did it fast.

The trail of rubber flapped and twisted, vibrating and adding its noise to the squeak. Hitch, who was driving, finally shut them off. We made a turn and the blanket-wrapped thing on the floor shifted with the direction change. I moved my feet so it wouldn't touch me.

Silly thing to do.

For the hundredth time Hitch checked the mirror. He was more worried about looking out for cops than not seeing my reflection. He made another turn and we swayed. His speed was cautious, but his driving technique clumsy. He didn't like what was in the back with me and Jinky.

Couldn't blame him.

Jinky was nervous as well and complaining. ’’This just ain't done, this cartin'around. Plug 'em and leave 'em, I sez.’’

’’Shut up, Jinky,’’ Hitch said wearily.

He shut up and kept looking sideways at me, uneasy from my silence. His hand never strayed far from the bulge under his armpit. Maybe he was picking up on my feelings of death. I looked at him once, he blanched, and the fear smell came off him, sharp and stinging.

Gordy was in the front passenger seat and turned his head, noticing something was wrong. I kept looking out the window.

’’How's your mother, Jinky?’’ he asked out of the blue.

Jinky was gulping. ’’Wha oh, she's okay.’’

’’She's doin'okay. Still got that dog? What's its name?’’

’’Peanuts yeah, she's still got ’’im.’’

Gordy, not a great conversationalist, kept him talking until he calmed down. After five minutes, Jinky looked less likely to make a fatal exit out the door. I shut my eyes and pretended to nap, half expecting to fight off an army of ugly images from the recent past but finding sweet, warm darkness instead.

We drove north along the lake for a long time. I thought vaguely we were going to Wisconsin, but Hitch made a last turn onto a muddy, rutted road that curved into thick trees. The car bounced and slewed. The thing at my feet shifted again, but this time I didn't bother moving.

A little later, the four of us were slogging through more mud and wet leaves. While Gordy and Hitch carried the rope-tied bundle, Jinky and I used the flashlights. Jinky came along because he didn't want to be alone.

Twenty feet of dock and a boathouse waited for us at the shoreline.

Gordy unlocked the boathouse. I couldn't easily go in since most of it was over the water, so I missed seeing them load the thing into the boat. Without any delay they rowed free of the house and out onto the lake.

I sat on the damp ground and watched them. They didn't start the motor until they were small specks in the distance. Human eyes could not see them in that dark, but Gordy was taking no chances.

Jinky alternately paced and squatted, wanting to stay near me for the company, but not wanting to get too close. He'd seen Malcolm, after all, and maybe Hitch had been talking to him.

Jinky was shivering;the wind off the restless lake was cool. He paced around, hands in pockets, jingling the change there. ’’We used to use this place a lot,’’ he said out of nervousness. I let him talk;his voice took me out of myself. ’’We used to run some pretty good stuff through here from Canada. Mostly for the boss 'n his friends. Stuff that was too good for the speaks, they said.’’

The boat was at the edge of sight. The wind carried the thin buzz of the motor to us. The boat vanished.

He must have been wondering what I was staring at in the gloom. ’’Got hijacked once,’’ he continued. ’’Early out. That was fun. Then we started packin'big rods and that hotted things up. We went to a lot of trouble over that fancy hooch and for what? You get drunk just as fast on the homemade stuff, faster even. Richer, too. Half those mugs never knew the difference.’’

The motor buzz was irregular now, the wind affecting it.

’’There was this girl I had then, always after me for some of the fancy stuff. I took an empty bottle that still had the label on and put in some of the local make and some tea for color. She never knew the difference, but sure knew how to say thanks. Not too smart, but she was a lot of fun.’’

The buzz changed and grew. I blinked the flashlight a few times to give them a direction to aim for and kept it up until they were close. The motor cut and they rowed the rest of the way in. The bundle was gone and so was the boat anchor and its length of chain.

They got out and Gordy locked up. ’’Where to?’’ he asked me.

My throat was clogged;I had to clear it first. ’’Bobbi's.’’

He nodded.

The ride back seemed shorter.


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