1

It was ten past nine on Sunday morning - a bright, sun?washed Sunday morning - and Ben was beginning to get seriously worried about Susan when the phone by his bed rang. He snatched it up.

'Where are you?'

'Relax. I'm upstairs with Matt Burke. Who requests the pleasure of your company as soon as you're able.'

'Why didn't you come - '

'I looked in on you earlier. You were sleeping like a lamb.'

'They give you knockout stuff in the night so they can steal different organs for mysterious billionaire patients,' he said. 'How's Matt?'

'Come up and see for yourself,' she said, and before she could do more than hang up, he was getting into his robe.

2

Matt looked much better, rejuvenated, almost. Susan was sitting by his bed in a bright blue dress, and Matt raised a hand in salute when Ben walked in. 'Drag up a rock.'

Ben pulled over one of the hideously uncomfortable hospital chairs and sat down. 'How you feeling?'

'A lot better. Weak, but better. They took the IV out of my arm last night and gave me a poached egg for breakfast this morning. Gag. Previews of the old folks home.'

Ben kissed Susan lightly and saw a strained kind of composure on her face, as if everything was being held together by fine wire.

'Is there anything new since you called last night?'

'Nothing I've heard. But I left the house around seven and the Lot wakes up a little later on Sunday.'

Ben shifted his gaze to Matt. 'Are you up to talking this thing over?'

'Yes, I think so, ' he said, and shifted slightly. The gold cross Ben had hung around his neck flashed prominently. 'By the way, thank you for this. It's a great comfort, even though I bought it on the remaindered shelf at Woolworth's Friday afternoon.'

'What's your condition?'

"'Stabilized" is the fulsome term young Dr Cody used when he examined me late yesterday afternoon. According to the EKG he took, it was strictly a minor-league heart attack . . . no clot formation.' He harrumphed. 'Should hope for his sake it wasn't. Coming just a week after the check-up he gave me, I'd sue his sheepskin off the wall for breach of promise.' He broke off and looked levelly at Ben. 'He said he'd seen such cases brought on by massive shock. I kept my lip zipped. Did I do right?'

'Just right. But things have developed. Susan and I are going to see Cody today and spill everything. If he doesn't sign the committal papers on me right away, we'll send him to you.'

'I'll give him an earful,' Matt said balefully. 'Snot-nosed little son of a bitch won't let me have my pipe '

'Has Susan told you what's been happening in Jerusa?lem's Lot since Friday night?'

'No. She said she wanted to wait until we were all together.'

'Before she does, will you tell me exactly what happened at your house?'

Matt's face darkened, and for a moment the mask of convalescence fluttered. Ben glimpsed the old man he had seen sleeping the day before.

'If you're not up to it - '

'No, of course I am. I must be, if half of what I suspect is true.' He smiled bitterly. 'I've always considered myself a bit of a free thinker, not easily shocked. But it's amazing how hard the mind can try to block out something it doesn't like or finds threatening. Like the magic slates we had as boys. If you didn't like what you had drawn, you had only to pull the top sheet up and it would disappear.'

'But the line stayed on the black stuff underneath for?ever,' Susan said.

'Yes.' He smiled at her. 'A lovely metaphor for the interaction of the conscious and unconscious mind. A pity Freud was stuck with onions. But we wander.' He looked at Ben. 'You've heard this once from Susan?'

'Yes, but - '

'Of course. I only wanted to be sure I could dispense with the background.'

He told the story in a nearly flat, inflectionless voice, pausing only when a nurse entered on whisper-soft crepe soles to ask him if he would like a glass of ginger ate. Matt told her it would be wonderful to have a ginger ale, and he sucked on the flexible straw at intervals as he finished. Ben noticed that when he got to the part about Mike going out the window backward, the ice cubes clinked slightly in the glass as he held it. Yet his voice did not waver; it retained the same even, slightly inflected tones that he undoubtedly used in his classes. Ben thought, not for the first time, that he was an admirable man.

There was a brief pause when he had finished, and Matt broke it himself.

'And so,' he said. 'You who have seen nothing with your own eyes, what think you of this hearsay?'

'We talked that over for quite a while yesterday,' Susan said. 'I'll let Ben tell you.'

A little shy, Ben advanced each of the reasonable expla?nations and then knocked it down. When he mentioned the screen that fastened on the outside, the soft ground, the lack of ladder feet impressions, Matt applauded.

'Bravo! A sleuth!'

Matt looked at Susan. 'And you, Miss Norton, who used to write such well-organized themes with paragraphs like building blocks and topic sentences for mortar? What do you think?'

She looked down at her hands, which were folding a pleat of her dress, and then back up at him. 'Ben lectured me on the linguistic meanings of can't yesterday, so I won't use that word. But it's very difficult for me to believe that vampires are stalking 'salem's Lot, Mr Burke.'

'If it can be arranged so that secrecy will not be breached, I will take a polygraph test,' he said softly.

She colored a little. 'No, no - don't misunderstand me, please. I'm convinced that something is going on in town. Something . . . horrible. But . . . this . . . '

He put his hand out and covered hers with it. 'I under?stand that, Susan. But will you do something for me?'

'If I can.'

'Let us . . . the three of us . . . proceed on the premise that all of this is real. Let us keep that premise before us as fact until - and only until - it can be disproved. The scientific method, you see? Ben and I have already dis?cussed ways and means of putting the premise to the test. And no one hopes more than I that it can be disproved.'

'But you don't think it will be, do you?'

'No,' he said softly. 'After a long conversation with myself, I've reached my decision. I believe what I saw.'

'Let's put questions of belief and unbelief behind us for the minute,' Ben said. 'Right now they're moot.'

'Agreed,' Matt said. 'What are your ideas about pro?cedure?'

'Well,' Ben said, 'I'd like to appoint you Researcher General. With your background, you're uniquely well fitted for the job. And you're off your feet.'

Matt's eyes gleamed as they had over Cody's perfidy in declaring his pipe off limits. 'I'll have Loretta Starcher on the phone when the library opens. She'll have to bring the books down in a wheelbarrow.'

'It's Sunday,' Susan reminded. 'Library's closed.'

'She'll open it for me,' Matt said, 'or I'll know the reason why.'

'Get anything and everything that bears on the subject,' Ben said. 'Psychological as well as pathological and mythic. You understand? The whole works.'

'I'll start a notebook,' Matt rasped. 'Before God, I will!' He looked at them both. 'This is the first time since I woke up in here that I feel like a man. What will you be doing?'

'First, Dr Cody. He examined both Ryerson and Floyd Tibbits. Perhaps we can persuade him to exhume Danny Glick.'

'Would he do that?' Susan asked Matt.

Matt sucked at his ginger ale before answering. 'The Jimmy Cody I had in class would have, in a minute. He was an imaginative, open-minded boy who was remarkably resistant to cant. How much of an empiricist college and med school may have made of him, I don't know.'

'All of this seems roundabout to me,' Susan said. 'Es?pecially going to Dr Cody and risking a complete rebuff. Why don't Ben and I just go up to the Marsten House and have done with it? That was on the docket just last week.'

'I'll tell you why,' Ben said. 'Because we are proceeding on the premise that all this is real. Are you so anxious to put your head in the lion's mouth?'

'I thought vampires slept in the daytime.'

'Whatever Straker may be, he's not a vampire,' Ben said, 'unless the old legends are completely wrong. He's been highly visible in the daytime. At best we'd be turned away as trespassers with nothing learned. At worst, he might overpower us and keep us there until dark. A wake-up snack for Count Comic Book.'

'Barlow?' Susan asked.

Ben shrugged. 'Why not? That story about the New York buying expedition is a little too good to be true.' The expression in her eyes remained stubborn, but she said nothing more.

'What will you do if Cody laughs you off?' Matt asked.

'Always assuming he doesn't call for the restraints immedi?ately.'

'Off to the graveyard at sunset,' Ben said. 'To watch Danny Glick's grave. Call it a test case.'

Matt half rose from his reclining position. 'Promise me that you'll be careful. Ben, promise me!'

'We will,' Susan said soothingly. 'We'll both positively clank with crosses.'

'Don't joke,' Matt muttered. 'if you'd seen what I have - ' He turned his head and looked out the window, which showed the sun-shanked leaves of an alder and the autumn-bright sky beyond.

'If she's joking, I'm not,' Ben said. 'We'll take all pre?cautions.'

'See Father Callahan,' Matt said. 'Make him give you some holy water . . . and if possible, some of the wafer.'

'What kind of man is he?' Ben asked.

Matt shrugged. 'A little strange. A drunk, maybe. If he is, he's a literate, polite one. Perhaps chafing a little under the yoke of enlightened Popery.'

'Are you sure that Father Callahan is a . . . that he drinks?' Susan asked, her eyes a trifle wide.

'Not positive,' Matt said. 'But an ex-student of mine, Brad Campion, works in the Yarmouth liquor store and he says Callahan's a regular customer. A Jim Beam man, Good taste.'

'Could he be talked to?' Ben asked.

'I don't know. I think you must try.'

'Then you don't know him at all?'

'No, not really. He's writing a history of the Catholic Church in New England, and he knows a great deal about the poets of our so-called golden age - Whittier, Long?fellow, Russell, Holmes, that lot. I had him in to speak to my American Lit students late last year. He has a quick, acerbic mind - the students enjoyed him.'

'I'll see him 'Ben said, 'and follow my nose.'

A nurse peeked in, nodded, and a moment later Jimmy Cody entered with a stethoscope around his neck.

'Disturbing my patient?' he asked amiably.

'Not half so much as you are,' Matt said. 'I want my pipe.'

'You can't have it,' Cody said absently, reading Matt's chart.

'Goddamn quack,' Matt muttered.

Cody put the chart back and drew the green -curtain that went around the bed on a C-shaped steel runner overhead. 'I'm afraid I'll have to ask you two to step out in a moment. How is your head, Mr Mears?'

'Well, nothing seems to have leaked out.'

'You heard about Floyd Tibbits?'

'Susan told me. I'd like to speak to you, if you have a moment after your rounds.'

'I can make you the last patient on my rounds, if you like. Around eleven.'

'Fine.'

Cody twitched the curtain again. 'And now, if you and Susan would excuse us - '

'Here we go, friends, into isolation,' Matt said. 'Say the secret word and win a hundred dollars.'

The curtain came between Ben and Susan and the bed. From beyond it they heard Cody say: 'The next time I have you under gas I think I'll take out your tongue and about half of your prefrontal lobe.'

They smiled at each other, the way young couples will when they are in sunshine and there is nothing seriously the matter with their works, and the smiles faded almost simultaneously. For a moment they both wondered if they might not be crazy.

3

When Jimmy Cody finally came into ten's room, it was twenty after eleven and Ben began, 'What I wanted to talk to you about - '

'First the head, then the talk.' He parted Ben's hair gently, looked at something, and said, 'This'll hurt.' He pulled off the adhesive bandage and Ben jumped. 'Hell of a lump,' Cody said conversationally, and then covered the wound with a slightly smaller dressing.

He shone a light into Ben's eyes, then tapped his left knee with a rubber hammer. With sudden morbidity, Ben wondered if it was the same one he had used on Mike Ryerson.

'All that seems to be satisfactory,' he said, putting his things away. 'What's your mother's maiden name?'

'Ashford,' Ben said. They had asked him similar questions when he had first recovered consciousness.

'First-grade teacher?'

'Mrs Perkins. She rinsed her hair.'

'Father's middle name?'

'Merton.'

'Any dizziness or nausea'?'

'No.'

'Experience of strange odors, colors, or - '

'No, no, and no. I feel fine.'

'I'll decide that,' Cody said primly. 'Any instance of double vision?'

'Not since the last time I bought a gallon of Thunder?bird.'

'All right,' Cody said. 'I pronounce you cured through the wonders of modem science and by virtue of a hard head. Now, what was on your mind? Tibbits and the little McDougall boy, I suppose. I can only tell you what I told Parkins Gillespie. Number one, I'm glad they've kept it out of the papers; one scandal per century is enough in a small town. Number two, I'm damned if I know who'd want to do such a twisted thing. It can't have been a local person. We've got our share of the weirdies, but - '

He broke off, seeing the puzzled expressions on their faces. 'You don't know? Haven't heard?'

'Heard what?' Ben demanded.

'It's rather like something by Boris Karloff out of Mary Shelley. Someone snatched the bodies from the Cumber?land County Morgue in Portland last night.'

'Jesus Christ,' Susan said. Her lips made the words stiffly.

'What  'the matter?' Cody asked, suddenly concerned.

'Do you know something about this?'

'I'm starting to really think we do,' Ben said.

4

It was ten past n6on when they had finished telling everything. The nurse had brought Ben a lunch tray, and it stood untouched by his bed.

The last syllable died away, and the only sound was the rattle of glasses and cutlery coming through the half-open door as hungrier patients on the ward ate.

'Vampires,' Jimmy Cody said. Then: 'Matt Burke, of all people. That makes it awfully hard to laugh off.' Ben and Susan kept silent.

'And you want me to exhume the Glick kid,' he rumi?nated. 'Jesus jumped-up Christ in a sidecar.'

Cody took a bottle out of his bag and tossed it to Ben, who caught it. 'Aspirin,' he said. 'Ever use it?'

'A lot.'

'My dad used to call it the good doctor's best nurse. Do you know how it works?'

'No,' Ben said. He turned the bottle of aspirin idly in his hands, looking at it. He did not know. Cody well enough to know what he usually showed or kept hidden, but he was sure that few of his patients saw him like this - the boyish, Norman Rockwell face overcast with thought and introspection. He didn't want to break Cody's mood.

'Neither do I. Neither does anybody else. But it's good for headache and arthritis and the rheumatism. We don't know what any of those are, either. Why should your head ache? There are no nerves in your brain. We know that aspirin is very close in chemical composition to LSD, but why should one cure the ache in the head and the other cause the head to fill up with flowers? Part of the reason we don't understand is because we don't really know what the brain is. The best-educated doctor in the world is standing on a low island in the middle of a sea of ignorance.

We rattle our medicine sticks and kill our chickens and read messages in blood. All of that works a surprising amount of time. White magic. Bene gris-gris. My med school profs would tear their hair if they could hear me say that. Some of them tore it when I told them I was going into general practice in rural Maine, One of them told me that Marcus Welby always lanced the boils on the patient's ass during station identification. But I never wanted to be Marcus Welby.' He smiled. 'They'd roll on the ground and have fits if they knew I was going to request an exhumation order on the Glick boy.'

'You'll do it?' Susan said, frankly amazed.

'What can it hurt? If he's dead, he's dead. If he's not, then I'll have something to stand the AMA convention on its ear next time. I'm going to tell the county ME that I want to look for signs of infectious encephalitis. It's the only sane explanation I can think of.'

'Could that actually be it?' she asked hopefully.

'Damned unlikely.'

'What's the earliest you could do it?' Ben asked.

'Tomorrow, tops. If I have to hassle around, Tuesday or Wednesday.'

'What should he look like?' Ben asked. 'I mean . . . '

'Yes, I know what you mean. The Glicks wouldn't have the boy embalmed, would they?'

'No.

'It's been a week?'

'Yes.'  

'When the coffin is opened, there's apt to be a rush of gas and a rather offensive smell. The body may be bloated. The hair will have grown down over his collar - it continues to grow for an amazing period of time - and the fingernails will also be quite long. The eyes will almost certainly have fallen in.'

Susan was trying to maintain an expression of scientific impartiality and not succeeding very well. Ben was glad he hadn't eaten lunch.

'The corpse will not have begun radical mortification,' Cody went on in his best recitation voice, 'but enough moisture may be present to encourage growth on the exposed cheeks and hands, possibly a mossy substance called - ' He broke off. 'I'm sorry. I'm grossing you out.'

'Some things may be worse than decay, 'Ben remarked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. 'Suppose you find none of those signs? Suppose the body is as natural-looking as the day it was buried? What then? Pound a stake through his heart?'

'Hardly,' Cody said. 'in the first place, either the ME or his assistant will have to be there. I don't think even Brent Norbert would regard it professional of me to take a stake out of my bag and hammer it through a child's corpse.'

'What will you do?' Ben asked curiously.

'Well, begging Matt Burke's pardon, I don't think that will come up. If the body was in such a condition, it would undoubtedly be brought to the Maine Medical Center for an extensive post. Once there, I would daily about my examination until dark . . . and observe any phenomena that might occur.'

'And if he rises?'

'Like you, I can't conceive of that.

'I'm finding it more conceivable all the time,' Ben said grimly. 'Can I be present when all this happens - if it does?'

'That might be arranged.'

'All right,' Ben said. He got out of bed and walked toward the closet where his clothes were hanging. "I'm going to - '

Susan giggled, and Ben turned around. 'What?'

Cody was grinning. 'Hospital johnnies have a tendency to flap in the back, Mr Mears.'

'Oh hell,' Ben said, and instinctively reached aroun d to pull the johnny together. 'You better call me Ben.'

'And on that note,' Cody said, rising, 'Susan and I will exit. Meet us downstairs in the coffee shop when you're decent. You and I have some business this afternoon.'

'We do?'

'Yes. The Glicks will have-to be told the encephalitis story. You can be my colleague if you like. Don't say anything. Just stroke your chin and look wise.'

'They're not going to like it, are they?'

'Would you?'

'No,' Ben said. 'I wouldn't.'

'Do you need their permission to get an exhumation order?' Susan asked.

'Technically, no. Realistically, probably. My only ex?perience with the question of exhuming corpses has been in Medical Law II. But I think if the Glicks are set strongly enough against it, they could force us to a hearing. That would lose us two Weeks to a month, and once we got there I doubt if my encephalitis theory would hold up.' He paused and looked at them both. 'Which leads us to the thing that disturbs me most about this, Mr Burke's story aside. Danny Glick is the only corpse we have a marker for. All the others have disappeared into thin air.'

5

Ben and Jimmy Cody got to the Glick home around one-thirty. Tony Glick's car was sitting in the driveway, but the house was silent. When no one answered the third knock, they crossed the road to the small ranch-style house that sat there - a sad, prefab refugee of the 1950s held up on one end by a rusty pair of house jacks. The name on the mailbox was Dickens. A pink lawn flamingo stood by the walk, and a small cocker spaniel thumped his tail at their approach.

Pauline Dickens, waitress and part owner of the Excel?lent Caf, opened the door a moment or two after Cody rang the bell. She was wearing her uniform.

'Hi, Pauline,' Jimmy said. 'Do you know where the Glicks are?'

'You mean you don't know?'

'Know what?'

'Mrs Glick died early this morning. They took Tony Glick to Central Maine General. He's in shock.'

Ben looked at Cody. Jimmy looked like a man who had been kicked in the stomach.

Ben took up the slack-quickly. 'Where did they take her body?'

Pauline ran her hands across her hips to make sure her uniform was right. 'Well, I spoke to Mabel Werts on the phone an hour ago, and she said Parkins Gillespie was going to take the body right up to that Jewish fellow's funeral home in Cumberland. On account of no one knows where Carl Foreman is.'

'Thank you,' Cody said slowly.

'Awful thing,' she said, her eyes straying to the empty house across the road. Tony Glick's car sat in the driveway like a large and dusty dog that had been chained and then abandoned. 'If I was a superstitious person, I'd be afraid.'

'Afraid of what, Pauline?' Cody asked.

'Oh . . . things.' She smiled vaguely. Her fingers touched a small chain hung around her neck.

A St Christopher's medal.

6

They were sitting in the car again. They had watched Pauline drive off to work without speaking.

'Now what?' Ben asked finally.

'It's a balls-up,' Jimmy said. 'The Jewish fellow is Maury Green. I think maybe we ought to drive over to Cumber?land. Nine years ago Maury's boy almost drowned at Sebago Lake. I happened to be there with a girl friend, and I gave the kid artificial respiration. Got his motor going again. Maybe this is one time I ought to trade on somebody's good will.'

'What good will it do? The ME will have taken her body for autopsy or postmortem or whatever they call it.'

'I doubt it. It's Sunday, remember? The ME will be out in the woods someplace with a rock hammer - he's an amateur geologist. Norbert - do you remember Norbert?'

Ben nodded.

'Norbert is supposed to be on call, but he's erratic. He's probably got the phone off the hook so he can watch the Packers and the Patriots. If we go up to Maury Green's funeral parlor now, there's a pretty fair chance the body will be there unclaimed until after dark.'

'All right,' Ben said. 'Let's go.'

He remembered the call he was to have made on Father Callahan, but it would have to wait. Things were going very fast now. Too fast to suit him. Fantasy and reality had merged.

7

They drove in silence until they were on the turnpike, each lost in his own thoughts. Ben was thinking about what Cody had said at the hospital. Carl Foreman gone. The bodies of Floyd Tibbits and the McDougall baby gone ?disappeared from under the noses of two morgue attend?ants. Mike Ryerson was also gone, and God knew who else. How many people in 'salem's Lot could drop out of sight and not be missed for a week . . . two weeks . . . a month? Two hundred? Three? It made the palms of his hands sweaty.

'This is beginning to seem like a paranoid's dream,' Jimmy said, 'or a Gahan Wilson cartoon. The scariest part of this whole thing, from an academic point of view, is the relative ease with Which a vampire colony could be founded - always if you grant the first one. It's a bedroom town for Portland and Lewiston and Gates Falls, mostly. There's no in-town industry where a rise in absenteeism would be noticed. The schools are three-town consolidated, and if the absence list starts getting a little longer, who notices? A lot of people go to church over in Cumberland, a lot more don't go at all. And TV has pretty well put the kibosh on the old neighborhood get-togethers, except for the duffers who hang around Milt's store. All this could be going on with great effectiveness behind the scenes.'

'Yeah,' Ben said. 'Danny Glick infects Mike. Mike infects . . . oh, I don't know. Floyd, maybe. The McDougall baby infects . . . his father? Mother? How are they? Has anyone checked?'

'Not my patients. I assume Dr Plowman would have been the one to call them this morning and tell them about their son's disappearance. But I have no real way of knowing if he actually called or actually got in contact with them if he did.'

'They should be checked on,' Ben said. He began to feel harried. 'You see how easily we could end up chasing our tails? A person from out of town could drive through the Lot and not know a thing was wrong. Just another one-horse town where they roll up the sidewalks at nine. But who knows what's going on in the houses, behind drawn shades? People could be lying in their beds . . . or propped in closets like brooms . . . down in cellars . . . waiting for the sun to go down. And each sunrise, less people out on the streets. Less every day.' He swallowed and heard a dry click in his throat.

'Take it easy,' Jimmy said. 'None of this is proven.'

'The proof is piling up in drifts,' Ben retorted. 'If we were dealing in an accepted frame of reference - with a possible outbreak of typhoid or A2 flu, say - the whole town would be in quarantine by now.'

'I doubt that. You don't want to forget that only one person has actually seen anything.'

'Hardly the town drunk.'

'He'd be crucified if a story like this got out,' Jimmy said.

'By whom? Not by Pauline Dickens, that's for sure. She's ready to start nailing hex signs on her door.'

'In an era of Watergate and oil depletion, she's an exception,' Jimmy said.

They drove the rest of the way without conversation. Green's Mortuary was at the north end of Cumberland, and two hearses were parked around back, between the rear door of the nondenominational chapel and a high board fence. Jimmy turned off the ignition and looked at Ben. 'Ready?'

'I guess.'

They got out.

8

The rebellion had been growing in her all afternoon, and around two o'clock it burst its bonds. They were going at it stupidly, taking the long way around the barn to prove something that was (sorry, Mr Burke) probably a lot of horseshit anyway. Susan decided to go up to the Marsten House now, this afternoon.

She went downstairs and picked up her pocketbook. Ann Norton was baking cookies and her father was in the living room, watching the Packers-Patriots game.

'Where are you going?' Mrs Norton asked.

'For a drive.'

'Supper's at six. See if you can be back on time.'

'Five at the latest.'

She went out and got into her car, which was her proud?est possession - not because it was the first one she'd ever owned outright (although it was), but because she had paid for it (almost, she amended; there were six payments left) from her own work, her own talent. It was a Vega hatchback, now almost two years old. She backed it care?fully out of the garage and lifted a hand briefly to her mother, who was looking out the kitchen window at her. The break was still between them, not spoken of, not healed. The other quarrels, no matter how bitter, had always knit up in time; life simply went on, burying the hurts under a bandage of days, not ripped off again until the next quarrel, when all the old grudges and grievances would be brought out and counted up like high-scoring cribbage hands. But this one seemed complete, it had been a total war. The wounds were beyond bandaging. Only amputation remained. She had already packed most of her things, and it felt right. This had been long overdue.

She drove out along Brock Street, feeling a growing sense of pleasure and purpose (and a not unpleasant underlayer of absurdity) as the house dropped behind her. She was going to take positive action, and the thought was a tonic to her. She was a forthright girl, and the events of the weekend had bewildered her, left her drifting at sea. Now she would row!

She pulled over onto the soft shoulder outside the village limits, and walked out into Carl Smith's west pasture to where a roll of red-painted snow fence was curled up, waiting for winter. The sense of absurdity was magnified now, and she couldn't help grinning as she bent one of the pickets back and forth until the flexible wire holding it to the others snapped. The picket formed a natural stake, about three feet tong, tapering to a point. She carried it back to the car and put it in the back seat, knowing intellectually what it was for (she had seen enough Ham?mer films at the drive-in on double dates to know you had to pound a stake into a vampire's heart), but never pausing to wonder if she would be able to hammer it through a man's chest if the situation called for it.

She drove on, past the town limits and into Cumberland. On the left was a small country store that stayed open on Sundays, where her father got the Sunday Times. Susan remembered a small display ease of junk jewelry beside the counter.

She bought the Times, and then picked out a small gold crucifix. Her purchases came to four-fifty, and were rung up by a fat counterman who hardly turned from the TV, where Jim Plunkett was being thrown for a loss.

She turned north on the County Road, a newly surfaced stretch of two-lane blacktop. Everything seemed fresh and crisp and alive in the sunny afternoon, and life seemed very dear. Her thoughts jumped from that to Ben. It was a short jump.

The sun came out from behind a slowly moving cumulus cloud, flooding the road with brilliant patches of dark and light as it streamed through the overhanging trees. On a day like this, she thought, it was possible to believe there would be happy endings all around.

About five miles up County, she turned off onto the Brooks Road, which was unpaved once she recrossed the town line into 'salem's Lot. The road rose and fell and wound through the heavily wooded area northwest of the village, and much of the bright afternoon sunlight was cut off. There were no houses or trailers out here. Most of the land was owned by a paper company most renowned for asking patrons not to squeeze their toilet paper. The verge of the road was marked every one hundred feet with no-hunting and no-trespassing signs. As she passed the turnoff which led to the dump, a ripple of unease went through her. On this gloomy stretch of road, nebulous possibilities seemed more real. She found herself wonder?ing - not for the first time - why any normal man would buy the wreck of a suicide's house and then keep the windows shuttered against the sunlight.

The road dipped sharply and then rose steeply up the western flank of Marsten's Hill. She could make out the peak of the Marsten House roof through the trees.

She parked at the head of a disused wood-road at the bottom of the dip and got out of the car. After a moment's hesitation, she took the stake and hung the crucifix around her neck. She still felt absurd, but not half so absurd as she was going to feel if someone she knew happened to drive by and see her marching up the road with a snow-fence picket in her hand.

Hi, Suze, where you headed?

Oh, just up to the old Marsten place to kill a vampire. But I have to hurry because supper's at six.

She decided to cut through the woods.

She stepped carefully over a ruinous rock wall at the foot of the road's ditch, and was glad she had worn slacks. Very much haute couture for fearless vampire killers. There were nasty brambles and deadfalls before the woods actu?ally started.

In the pines it was at least ten degrees cooler, and gloomier still. The ground was carpeted with old needles, and the wind hissed through the trees. Somewhere, some small animal crashed off through the underbrush. She suddenly realized that if she turned to her left, a walk of no more than half a mile would bring her into the Harmony Hill Cemetery, if she were agile enough to scale the back wall.

She toiled steadily upward, going as quietly as possible. As she neared the brow of the hill, she began to catch glimpses of the house through the steadily thinning screen of branches - the blind side of the house in relation to the village below. And she began to be afraid. She could not put her finger on any precise reason, and in that way it was like the fear she had felt (but had already largely forgotten) at Matt Burke's house. She was fairly sure that no one could hear her, and it was broad daylight - but the fear was there, a steadily oppressive weight. It seemed to be welling into her consciousness from a part of her brain that was usually silent and probably as obsolete as her appendix. Her pleasure in the day was gone. The sense that she was playing was gone. The feeling of decisiveness was gone. She found herself thinking of those same drive-in horror movie epics where the heroine goes venturing up the narrow attic stairs to see what's frightened poor old Mrs Cobham so, or down into some dark, cobwebby cellar where the walls are rough, sweating stone - symbolic womb - and she, with her date's arm comfortably around her, thinking: What a silly bitch . . . I'd never do that! And here she was, doing it, and she began to grasp how deep the division between the human cerebrum and the human midbrain had become; how the cerebrum can force one on and on in spite of the warnings given by that instinctive part, which is so similar in physical construction to the brain of the alligator. The cerebrum could force one on and on, until the attic door was flung open in the face of some grinning horror or one looked into a half-bricked alcove in the cellar and saw  -

STOP!

She threw the thoughts off and found that she was sweating. All at the sight of an ordinary house with its shutters closed. You've got to stop being stupid, she told herself. You're going to go up there and spy the place out, that's all. From the front yard you can see our own house. Now, what in God's name could happen to you in sight of your own house?

Nonetheless, she bent over slightly and took a tighter grip on the stake, and when the screening trees became too thin to offer much protection, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled. Three or four minutes later, she had come as far as it was possible without breaking cover. From her spot behind a final stand of pines and a spray of junipers, she could see the west side of the house and the creepered tangle of honeysuckle, now autumn?-barren. The grass of summer was yellow but still knee-high. No effort had been made to cut it.

A motor roared suddenly in the stillness, making her heart rise into her throat. She controlled herself by hooking her fingers into the ground and biting hard on her lower lip. A moment later an old black car backed into sight, paused at the head of the driveway, and then turned out onto the road and started away toward town. Before it drew out of sight, she saw the man quite clearly: large bald head, eyes sunken so deeply you could really see nothing of them but the sockets, and the lapels and collar of a dark suit. Straker. On his way in to Crossen's store, perhaps.

She could see that most of the shutters had broken slats. All right, then. She would creep up and peek through and see what there was to see. Probably nothing but a house in the first stages of a long renovation process, new plastering under way, new papering perhaps, tools and ladders and buckets. All about as romantic and supernatural as a TV football game.

But still: the fear.

It rose suddenly, emotion overspilling logic and the bright Formica reason of the cerebrum, filling her mouth with a taste like black copper.

And she knew someone was behind her even before the hand fell on her shoulder.

9

It was almost dark.

Ben got up from the wooden folding chair, walked over to the window that looked out on the funeral parlor's back lawn, and saw nothing in particular. It was quarter to seven, and evening's shadows were very long. The grass was still green despite the lateness of the year, and he supposed that the thoughtful mortician would endeavor to keep it so until snow covered it. A symbol of continuing life in the midst of the death of the year. He found the thought inordinately depressing and turned from the view.

'I wish I had a cigarette,' he said.

'They're killers,' Jimmy told him without turning around. He was watching a Sunday night wildlife program on Maury Green's small Sony. 'Actually, so do I. I quit when the surgeon general did his number on cigarettes ten years ago. Bad PR not to. But I always wake up grabbing for the pack on the night stand.'

'I thought you quit.'

'I keep it there for the same reason some alcoholics keep a bottle of scotch on the kitchen shelf. Will power, son.'

Ben looked at the clock: 6:47. Maury Green's Sunday paper said sundown would officially arrive at 7:02 EST.

Jimmy had handled everything quite neatly. Maury Green was a small man who had answered the door in an unbuttoned black vest and an open-collar white shirt. His sober, inquiring expression had changed to a broad smile of welcome.

'Shalom, Jimmy!' He cried. 'It's good to see you! Where you been keeping yourself?'

'Saving the world from the common cold,' Jimmy said, smiling, as Green wrung his hand. 'I want you to meet a very good friend of mine. Maury Green, Ben Mears.'

Ben's hand was enveloped in both of Maury's. His eyes glistened behind the black-rimmed glasses he wore. 'Shalom, also. Any friend of Jimmy's, and so on. Come on in, both of you. I could call Rachel - '

'Please don't,' Jimmy said. 'We've come to ask a favor. A rather large one.'

Green glanced more closely at Jimmy's face. "'A rather large one,"' he jeered softly. 'And why? What have you ever done for me, that my son should graduate third in his class from North-western? Anything, Jimmy.'

Jimmy blushed. 'I did what anyone would have done, Maury.'

'I'm not going to argue with you,' Green said. 'Ask. What is it that has you and Mr Mears so worried? Have you been in an accident?'

'No. Nothing like that.'

He had taken them into a small kitchenette behind the chapel, and as they talked, he brewed coffee in a battered old pot that sat on a hot plate.

'Has Norbert come after Mrs Glick yet?' Jimmy asked.

'No, and not a sign of him,' Maury said, putting sugar and cream on the table. 'That one will come by at eleven tonight and wonder why I'm not here to let him in.' He sighed. 'Poor lady. Such tragedy in one family. And she looks so sweet, Jimmy. That old poop Reardon brought her in. She was your patient?'

'No,' Jimmy said. 'But Ben and I . . . we'd like to sit up with her this evening, Maury. Right downstairs.'

Green paused in the act of reaching for the coffeepot. 'Sit up with her? Examine her, you mean?'

'No' Jimmy said steadily. 'Just sit up with her.'

He looked at them closely. 'No, I see you're not. Why would you want to do that?'

'I can't tell you that, Maury.'

'Oh.' He poured the coffee, sat down with them, and sipped. 'Not too strong. Very nice. Has she got something? Something infectious?'

Jimmy and Ben exchanged a glance.

'Not in the accepted sense of the word,' Jimmy said finally.  

'You'd like me to keep my mouth shut about this, eh?'

'Yes.'  

'And if Norbert comes?'

'I can handle Norbert,' Jimmy said. 'I'll tell him Reardon asked me to check her for infectious encephalitis. He'll never check.'

Green nodded. 'Norbert doesn't know enough to check his watch, unless someone asks him.'

'Is it okay, Maury?'

'Sure, sure. I thought you said a big favor.'

'It's bigger than you think, maybe.'

'When I finish my coffee, I'll go home and see what horror Rachel has produced for my Sunday dinner. Here is the key. Lock up when you go, Jimmy.'

Jimmy tucked it away in his pocket. 'I will. Thanks again, Maury.'

'Anything. Just do me one favor in return.'

'Sure. What?'

'If she says anything, write it down for posterity.' He began to chuckle, saw the identical look on their faces, and stopped.

10

It was five to seven. Ben felt tension begin to seep into his body.

'Might as well stop staring at the clock,' Jimmy said.

'You can't make it go any faster by looking at it.'

Ben started guiltily.

'I doubt very much that vampires - if they exist at all - rise at almanac sunset,' Jimmy said. 'It's never full dark.' Nonetheless he got up and shut off the TV, catching a wood duck in mid-squawk.

Silence descended on the room like a blanket. They were in Green's workroom, and the body of Marjorie Glick was on a stainless-steel table equipped with gutters and foot stirrups that could be raised or depressed. It reminded Ben of the tables in hospital delivery rooms.

Jimmy had turned back the sheet that covered her body when they entered and had made a brief examination. Mrs Glick was wearing a burgundy-colored quilted house coat and knitted slippers. There was a Band-Aid on her left shin, perhaps covering a shaving nick. Ben looked away from it, but his eyes were drawn back again and again.

'What do you think?' Ben had asked.

'I'm not going to commit myself when another three hours will probably decide one way or the other. But her condition is strikingly similar to that of Mike Ryerson - no surface lividity, no sign of rigor or incipient rigor.' And he had pulled the sheet back and would say no more.

It was 7:02.

Jimmy suddenly said, 'Where's your cross?'

Ben started. 'Cross? Jesus, I don't have one!'

'You were never a Boy Scout,' Jimmy said, and opened his bag. 'I, however, always come prepared.'

He brought out two tongue depressors, stripped off the protective cellophane, and bound them together at right angles with a twist of Red Cross tape.

'Bless it,' he said to Ben.

'What? I can't . . . I don't know how.'

'Then make it up,' Jimmy said, and his pleasant face suddenly appeared strained. 'You're the writer; you'll have to be the metaphysician. For Christ's sake, hurry. I think something is going to happen. Can't you feel it?'

And Ben could. Something seemed to be gathering in the slow purple twilight, unseen as yet, but heavy and electric. His mouth had gone dry, and he had to wet his lips before he could speak.

'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.' Then he added, as an afterthought: 'In the name of the Virgin Mary, too. Bless this cross and . . . and . . . '

Words rose to his lips with sudden, eerie surety.

'The Lord is my shepherd,' he spoke, and the words fell into the shadowy room as stones would have fallen into a deep lake, sinking out of sight without a ripple. 'I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.'

Jimmy's voice joined his own, chanting.

'He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil - '

It seemed hard to breathe properly. Ben found that his whole body had crawled into goose flesh, and the short hairs on the nape of his neck had begun to prickle, as if they were rising into hackles.

'Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall - '

The sheet covering Marjorie Glick's body had begun to tremble. A hand fell out below the sheet and the fingers began to dance jaggedly on the air, twisting and turning.

'My Christ, am I seeing this?' Jimmy whispered. His face had gone pale and his freckles stood out like spatters on a windowpane.

' - follow me all the days of my life,' Ben finished. 'Jimmy, look at the cross.'

The cross was glowing. The light spilled over his hand in an elvish flood.

A slow, choked voice spoke in the stillness, as grating as shards of broken crockery: 'Danny?'

Ben felt his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth. The form under the sheet was sitting up. Shadows in the darkening room moved and slithered.

'Danny, where are you, darling?'

The sheet fell from her face and crumpled in her lap.

The face of Marjorie Glick was a pallid, moonlike circle in the semidark, punched only by the black holes of her eyes. She saw them, and her mouth juddered open in an awful, cheated snarl. The fading glow of daylight flashed against her teeth.

She swung her legs over the side of the table; one of the slippers fell off and lay unheeded.

'Sit right there!' Jimmy told her. 'Don't try to move.' Her answer was a snarl, a dark silver sound, doglike. She slid off the table, staggered, and walked toward them. Ben caught himself looking into those punched eyes and wrenched his gaze away. There were black galaxies shot with red in there. You could see yourself, drowning and liking it.

'Don't look in her face,' he told Jimmy.

They were retreating from her without thought, allowing her to force them toward the narrow hall which led to the stairs.

'Try the cross, Ben.'

He had almost forgotten he had it. Now he held it up, and the cross seemed to flash with brilliance. He had to squint against it. Mrs Glick made a hissing, dismayed noise and threw her hands up in front of her face. Her features seemed to draw together, twitching and writhing like a nest of snakes. She tottered a step backward.

'That's got her!' Jimmy yelled.

Ben advanced on her, holding the cross out before him. She hooked one hand into a claw and made a swipe at it. Ben dipped it below her hand and then thrust it at her. An ululating scream came from her throat.

For Ben, the rest took on the maroon tones of night?mare. Although worse horrors were to come, the dreams of the following days and nights were always of driving Marjorie Glick back toward that mortician's table, where the sheet that had covered her Jay crumpled beside one knitted slipper.  

She retreated unwillingly, her eyes alternating between the hateful cross and an area on Ben's neck to the right of the chin. The sounds that were wrenched out of her were inhuman gibberings and hissings and glottals, and there was something so blindly reluctant in her withdrawal that she began to seem like some giant, lumbering insect. Ben thought: If I didn't have this cross out front, she would rip my throat open with her nails and gulp down the blood that spurted out of the jugular and carotid like a man just out of the desert and dying of thirst. She would bathe in it.

Jimmy had cut away from his side, and was circling her to the left. She didn't see him. Her eyes were fixed only on Ben, dark and filled with hatred . . . filled with fear.

Jimmy circled the mortician's table, and when she backed around it, he threw both arms around her neck with a convulsive yell.

She gave a high, whistling cry and twisted in his grip. Ben saw Jimmy's nails pull away a flap of her skin at the shoulder, and nothing welled out - the cut was like a lipless mouth. And then, incredibly, she threw him across the room. Jimmy crashed into the corner, knocking Maury Green's portable TV off its stand.

She was on him in a flash, moving in a bunched, scrab?bling run that was nearly spiderlike. Ben caught a shadow?s crawled glimpse of her falling on top of him, ripping at his collar, and then the sideward predatory lunge of her head, the yawning of her jaws, as she battened on him.

Jimmy Cody screamed - the high, despairing scream of the utterly damned.

Ben threw himself at her, stumbling and nearly falling over the shattered television on the floor. He could hear her harsh breathing, like the rattle of straw, and below that, the revolting sound of smacking, champing lips.

He grabbed her by the collar of her house coat and yanked her upward, forgetting the cross momentarily. Her head came around with frightening swiftness. Her eyes were dilated and glittering, her lips and chin slicked with blood that was black in this near-total darkness.

Her breath in his face was foul beyond measure, the breath of tombs. As if in slow motion, he could see her tongue lick across her teeth.

He brought the cross up just as she jerked him forward into her embrace, her strength making him feel like some?thing made of rags. The rounded point of the tongue depressor that formed the cross's downstroke struck her under the chin - and then continued upward with no fleshy resistance. Ben's eyes were stunned by a flash of not-light that happened not before his eyes but seemingly behind them. There was the hot and porcine smell of burning flesh. Her scream this time was full-throated and agonized. He sensed rather than saw her throw herself backward, stumble over the television, and fall on the floor, one white arm thrown outward to break her fall. She was up again with wolflike agility, her eyes narroked in pain, yet still filled with her insane hunger. The flesh of her lower jaw was smoking and black. She was snarling at him.

'Come on, you bitch,' he panted. 'Come on, come on.'

He held the cross out before him again, and backed her into the corner at the far left of the room. When he got her there, he was going to jam the cross through her forehead.

But even as her back pressed the narrowing walls, she uttered a high, squealing giggle that made him wince. It was like the sound of a fork being dragged across a por?celain sink.

'Even now one laughs! Even now your circle is smaller!'

And before his eyes her body seemed to elongate and become translucent. For a moment he thought she was still there, laughing at him, and then the white glow of the street lamp outside was shining on bare wall, and there was only a fleeting sensation on his nerve endings, which seemed to be reporting that she had seeped into the very pores of the wall, like smoke.

She was gone.

And Jimmy was screaming.

11

He flicked on the overhead bar of fluorescents and turned to look at Jimmy, but Jimmy was already on his feet, holding his hands to the side of his neck. The fingers were sparkling scarlet.

'She bit me!' Jimmy howled. 'Oh God-Jesus, she bit me!'

Ben went to him, tried to take him in his arms, and Jimmy pus ' hed him away. His eyes rolled madly in their sockets.

'Don't touch me. I'm unclean.' 'Jimmy

'Give me my bag. Jesus, Ben, I can feel it in there. I can feel it working in me. For Christ's sake, give me my bag!'

It was in the corner. Ben got it, and Jimmy snatched it. He went to the mortician's table and set the bag on it. His face was death pale, shining with sweat. The blood pulsed remorselessly from the torn gash in the side of his neck. He sat down on the table and opened the bag and swept through it, his breath coming in whining gasps through his open mouth.

'She bit me,' he muttered into the bag. 'Her mouth . . . oh God, her dirty filthy mouth . . .'

He pulled a bottle of disinfectant out of the bag and sent the cap spinning across the tiled floor. He leaned back, supporting himself on one arm, and upended the bottle over his throat, and it splashed the wound, his slacks, the table. Blood washed away in threads. His eyes closed and he screamed once, then again. The bottle never wavered.

'Jimmy, what can I - '

'In a minute,' Jimmy muttered. 'Wait. It's better, I think. Wait, just wait -'

He tossed the bottle away and it shattered on the floor. The wound, washed clean of the tainted blood, was clearly visible. Ben saw there was not one but two puncture wounds not far from the jugular, one of them horribly mangled.

Jimmy bad pulled an ampoule and a hypo from the bag. He stripped the protective covering from the needle and jibbed it through the ampoule. His hands were shaking so badly he had to make two thrusts at it. He filled the needle and held it out to Ben.

'Tetanus,' he said. 'Give it to me. Here.' He held his arm out, rotated to expose the armpit.

'Jimmy, that'll knock you out.'

'No. No, it won't. Do it.'

Ben took the needle and looked questioningly into Jimmy's eyes. He nodded. Ben injected the needle.

Jimmy's body tensed like spring steel. For a moment he was a sculpture in agony, every tendon pulled out into sharp relief. Little by little he began to relax. His body shuddered in reaction, and Ben saw that tears had mixed with the sweat on his face.

'Put the cross on me,' he said. 'If I'm still dirty from her, it'll . . . it'll do something to me.'

'Will it?'

'I'm sure it will. When you were going after her, I looked up and I wanted to go after you. God help me, I did. And I looked at that cross and I . . . my belly wanted to heave up.'

Ben put the cross on his neck. Nothing happened. Its glow - if there had been a glow at all - was entirely gone. Ben took the cross away.

'Okay,' Jimmy said. 'I think that's all we can do.' He rummaged in his bag again, found an envelope containing two pills, and crushed them into his mouth. 'Dope,' he said. 'Great invention. Thank God I used the john before that . . . before it happened. I think I pissed myself, but it only came to about six drops. Can you bandage my neck?'

'I think so,' Ben said.

Jimmy handed him gauze, adhesive tape, and a pair of surgical scissors. Bending to put the bandage on, he saw that the skin around the wounds had gone an ugly, con?gealed red. Jimmy flinched when he pressed the bandage gently into place.

He said: 'For a couple of minutes there, I thought I was going to go nuts. Really, clinically nuts. Her lips on me . . . biting me . . .' His throat rippled as he swallowed. 'And when she was doing it, I liked it, Ben. That's the hellish part. I actually had an erection. Can you believe it? If you hadn't been here to pull her off, I would have . . . would have let her . . . '

'Never mind,' Ben said.

'There's one more thing I have to do that I don't like.'

'What's that?'

'Here. Look at me a minute.'

Ben finished the bandage and drew back a little to look at Jimmy. 'What - '

And suddenly Jimmy slugged him. Stars rocketed up in his brain and he took three wandering steps backward and sat down heavily. He shook his head and saw Jimmy getting carefully I down from the table and coming toward him. He groped madly for the cross, thinking: This is what's known as an O. Henry ending, you stupid shit, you stupid, stupid  -

'You all right?' Jimmy was asking him. 'I'm sorry, but it's a little easier when you don't know it's coming.'

'What the Christ - ?'

Jimmy sat down beside him on the floor. 'I'm going to tell you our story,' he said. 'It's a damned poor one, but I'm pretty sure Maury Green will back it up. It will keep my practice, and keep us both out of jail or some asylum . . . and at this point, I'm not so concerned about those things as I am about staying free to fight these . . . things, whatever you want to call them, another day. Do you understand that?'

'The thrust of it,' Ben said. He touched his jaw and winced. There was a knot to the left of his chin.

'Somebody barged in on us while I was examining Mrs Glick,' Jimmy said. 'The somebody cold-cocked you and then used me for a punching bag. During the-struggle, the somebody bit me to make me let him go. That's all either of us remembers. All. Understand?'

Ben nodded.

'The guy was wearing a dark CPO coat, maybe blue, maybe black, and a green or gray knitted cap. That's all you saw. Okay?'

'Have you ever thought about giving up doctoring in favor of a career in creative writing?'

Jimmy smiled. 'I'm only creative in moments of extreme self-interest. Can you remember the story?'

'Sure. And I don't think it's as poor as you might believe. After all, hers isn't the first body that's disappeared lately.'

'I'm hoping they'll add that up. But the county sheriff is a lot more on the ball than Parkins Gillespie ever thought of being. We have to watch our step. Don't embellish the story.'

'Do you suppose anyone in officialdom will begin to see the pattern in all this?'

Jimmy shook his head. 'Not a chance in the world. We're going to have to humble through this on our own. And remember that from this point on, we're criminals.'

Shortly after, he went to the phone and called Maury Green, then County Sheriff Homer McCaslin.

Ben got back to Eva's at about fifteen minutes past mid?night and made himself a cup of coffee in the deserted downstairs kitchen. He drank it slowly, reviewing the night's events with all e intense recall of a man who has just escaped falling from a high ledge.

The county sheriff was a tall, balding man. He chewed tobacco. He moved slowly, but his eyes were bright with observation. He had pulled an enormous battered note?book on a chain from his hip pocket, and an old thick?-barreled fountain pen from under his green wool vest. He had questioned Ben and Jimmy while two deputies dusted for fingerprints and took pictures. Maury Green stood quietly in the background, throwing a puzzled look at Jimmy from time to time.

What had brought them to Green's Mortuary?

Jimmy took that one, reciting the encephalitis story.

Did old Doc Reardon know about it?

Well, no. Jimmy thought it would be best to make a quiet check before mentioning it to anyone. Doc Reardon had been known to be, well, overly chatty on occasion.

What about this encephawhatzis? Did the woman have it?

No, almost certainly not. He had finished his examin?ation before the man in the CPO coat burst in. He (Jimmy) would not be willing - or able - to state just how the woman had died, but it certainly wasn't of encephalitis.

Could they describe this fella?

They answered in terms of the story they had worked out. Ben added a pair of brown work boots just so they wouldn't sound too much like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

McCaslin asked a few more questions, and Ben was just beginning to feel that they were going to get out of it unscathed when McCaslin turned to him and asked:      

'What are you doing in this, Mears? You ain't no doctor.'

His watchful eyes twinkled benignly. Jimmy opened his mouth to answer, but the sheriff quieted him with a single hand gesture.

If the purpose of McCaslin's sudden shot had been to startle Ben into a guilty expression or gesture, it failed. He was too emotionally wrung out to react much. Being caught in a misstatement did not seem too shattering after what had gone before. 'I'm a writer, not a doctor. I write novels. I'm writing one currently where one of the important secondary characters is a mortician's son. I just wanted a look into the back room. I hitched a ride with Jimmy here. He told me he would rather not reveal his business, and I didn't ask.' He rubbed his chin, where a small, knotted bump had risen. 'I got more than I bar?gained for.'

McCaslin looked neither pleased nor disappointed in Ben's answer. 'I should say you did. You're the fella that wrote Conway's Daughter, ain't you?'

'Yes.'

'My wife read part of that in some woman's magazine. Cosmopolitan, I think. Laughed like hell. I took a look and couldn't see nothing funny in a little girl strung out on drugs.'

'No,' Ben said, looking McCaslin in the eye. 'I didn't see anything funny about it, either.'

'This new book the one they say you been workin' on up to the Lot?'

'Yes.'

'P'raps you'd like Moe Green here to read it over,' McCaslin remarked. 'See if you got the undertaken' parts right.'

'That section isn't written yet,' Ben said. 'I always re?search before I write. It's easier.'

McCaslin shook his head wonderingly. 'You know, your story sounds just like one of those Fu Manchu books. Some guy breaks in here an' overpowers two strong men an' makes off with the body of some poor woman who died of unknown causes.'

'Listen, Homer - ' Jimmy began.

'Don't you Homer me,' McCaslin said. 'I don't like it. I don't like any part of it. This encephalitis is catchin', ain't it?'

'Yes, it's infectious,' Jimmy said warily.

'An' you still brought this writer along? Knowin' she might be infected with somethin' like that?'

Jimmy shrugged and looked angry. 'I don't question your professional judgments, Sheriff. You'll just have to bear with mine. Encephalitis is a fairly low-grade infection which gains slowly in the human blood stream. I felt there would be no danger to either of us. Now, wouldn't you be better off trying to find out who carted away Mrs Glick's body - Fu Manchu or otherwise - or are you just having fun questioning us?'

McCaslin fetched a deep sigh from his not inconsiderable belly, flipped his notebook closed, and stored it in the depths of his hip pocket again. 'Well, we'll put the word out, Jimmy. Doubt if we'll get much on this unless the kook comes out of the woodwork again - if there ever was a kook, which I doubt.'

Jimmy raised his eyebrows.

'You're lyin' to me,' McCaslin said patiently. 'I know it, these deputies know it, prob'ly even ole Moe knows it. I don't know how much you're lyin' - a little or a lot - but I know I can't prove you're lyin' as long as you both stick to the same story. I could take you both down to the cooler, but the rules say I gotta give you one phone call, an' even the greenest kid fresh out of law school could spring you on what I got, which could best be described as Suspicion of Unknown Hanky-panky. An' I bet your lawyer ain't fresh out of law school, is he?'

'No,' Jimmy said. 'He's not.'

'I'd take you down just the same and put you to the inconvenience except I get a feelin' you ain't lyin' because you did somethin' against the law.' He hit the pedal at the foot of the stainless-steel waste can by the mortician's table. The top banged up and McCaslin shot a brown stream of tobacco juice into it. Maury Green jumped. 'Would either of you like to sort of revise your story?' he asked quietly, and the back-country twang was gone from his voice. 'This is serious business. We've had four deaths in the Lot, and all four bodies are gone. I want to know what's happening.'

'We've told you everything we know,' Jimmy said with quiet firmness. He looked directly at McCaslin. 'If we could tell you more, we would.'

McCaslin looked back at him, just as keenly. 'You're scared shitless,' he said. 'You and this writer, both of you. You look the way some of the guys in Korea looked when they brought 'em back from the front lines.'

The deputies were looking at them. Ben and Jimmy said nothing.

McCaslin sighed again. 'Go on.' get out of here. I want you both down to my office tomorrow by ten to make statements. If you ain't there by ten, I'll send a patrol car out to get you.'

'You won't have to do that,' Ben said.

McCaslin looked at him mournfully and shook his head. 'You ought to write books with better sense. Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories. A man can sink his teeth into one of those.'

13

Ben got up from the tab and rinsed his coffee cup at the sink, pausing to look out the window into the night's blackness. What was out there tonight? Marjorie Glick, reunited with her son at last? Mike Ryerson? Floyd Tibbits? Carl Foreman?

He turned away and went upstairs.

He slept the rest of the night with the desk lamp on and left the tongue-depressor cross that had vanquished Mrs Glick on the table by his right hand. His last thought before sleep took him was to wonder if Susan was all Tight, and safe.