It wasn't so much the hunting. It was the killing.
That was what brought Gordie Wilson out to the Santa Ana foothills on a sunny May morning like this. That was why he was cutting school even though he wasn't sure he'd get away with forging his morals signature on another readmit. It wasn't the wild-flower-splashed hills, the sky blue lupines, or the fragrant purple sage. It was the wet, plopping sound when lead met flesh.
Gordie preferred big game, but rabbits were always available-if you knew how to dodge the rangers. He'd never been caught yet.
He'd always liked killing. When he was seven, he'd gotten robins and starlings with his BB gun. When he was nine, it had been ground squirrels with a shotgun. Twelve, and his dad took him on a real hunting trip, going after white-tailed deer with an old .243 Winchester.
That had been so special. But then, every kill was special. It was like his dad said: "Good hunts never end." Every night in bed Gordie thought about the very best ones, remembering the stalking, the shooting, the electric moment of death. He even hunted in his dreams.
For one instant, as he made his way along the dry creek bed, a memory flickered at him, like a little tongue of flame. A nightmare. Just once Gordie had dreamed that he was on the other side of the rifle sights, the one with dogs snapping behind him, the one being hunted. A chase that had only ended when he woke up dripping sweat.
Stupid dream. He wasn't a rabbit, he was a hunter. Top of the food chain. He'd gotten a moose last year.
Big game like that was worth observing, studying, planning for. But not rabbits. Gordie just liked to come up here and kick them out of the bushes.
This was a good place. A sage-covered slope rising toward a stand of oak and sycamore trees, with some good brush piles underneath for cover. Bound to be a bunny under one of those.
Then he saw it. Right out in the open. Little desert cottontail sunning itself near a squat of grass. It was aware of him, but still. Frozen. Terrific, Gordie thought. He knew how to sneak up on a rabbit, get so close he could practically catch it with bare hands.
The trick was to make the rabbit think you didn't see it. If you only looked at it sideways, if you walked kind of zigzag while slowly getting closer and closer...
As long as its ears stayed down, instead of up and swiveling, you were safe.
Gordie edged carefully around a lemonade berry
bush, looking out of the corner of his eye. He was so close now that he could see the rabbit's whiskers. Pure happiness filled him, warmth pooling in his stomach. It was going to hold still for him.
God, this was the exciting part, the gooood part. Breath held, he raised the rifle, centered the crosshairs. Got ready to gently squeeze the trigger.
There was an explosion of motion, a gray-brown blur and the flash of a white tail. It was getting away!
Gordie's rifle barked, but the slug struck the ground just behind the rabbit, kicking up dust. The rabbit bounded on, down into the dry creek bed, losing itself among the cattails.
Damn! He wished he'd brought a dog. Like his dad's beagle, Aggie. Dogs were crazy about the chase. Gordie loved to watch them do it, loved to draw it out, waiting for the dog to bring the rabbit around in a circle. It was a shame to end a good chase too soon. His dad sometimes let a rabbit go if it ran a good enough race, but that was crazy. What good was a hunt without the kill?
There were times when Gordie... wondered about himself.
He sensed vaguely that his hunting was somehow different than his dad's. He did things when he was alone that he never told anybody about. When he was five, he used to pour rubbing alcohol on earwigs. They'd writhed a long time before they died. Even now he would swerve to run over a possum or a cat in the road if he could.
Killing felt so good. Any kind of killing.
That was Gordie Wilson's little secret.
The bunny was gone. He'd spooked it. Or ...
Maybe something else had.
A strange feeling was growing in Gordie. It had developed so slowly he hadn't even noticed when it started, and it was like nothing he'd ever felt before -at least awake. A ... rabbit-feeling. Like what a rabbit might feel when it freezes, crouched down, with the hunter's eyes on it. Like what a squirrel might feel when it sees something big creeping slowly closer.
A... watched feeling.
The skin on the back of his neck began to crawl.
There were eyes watching him. He felt it with the part of his brain that hadn't changed in a hundred million years. The reptile part.
Gingerly, flesh still creeping, he turned.
Directly behind him three old sycamores grew close enough together to cast a shade. But the darkness underneath was too dark to be just a shadow. It was more like a black vapor hanging there.
Something was under those trees. Something else had been watching the rabbit.
Now it was watching him.
The black vapor seemed to stir. White teeth glinted out of the darkness, as bright as sunlight on water.
Gordie's eyes bulged in their sockets.
What the-what was it?
The vapor moved again and he saw.
Only-it couldn't be. It couldn't be what he thought he saw, because it-just couldn't be. Because there wasn't anything like that in the world, so it just couldn'tIt was beyond anything he'd ever imagined. When it moved, it moved fast. Gordie got off one shot as it surged toward him. Then he turned and ran.
He went the way the rabbit had, slipping and slithering down the slope, tearing his jeans and his hands on prickly pear cactus. The thing he'd seen was right behind him. He could hear it breathing. His foot caught on a stone, and he fell heavily, arms flailing.
He rolled over and saw it in the full sunlight. His mouth sagged open. He tried to scoot away on his backside, but sheer terror paralyzed his muscles.
Deliberately it closed in.
A loose, blubbery wail came from Gordie's lips. His last wild thought was Not me-not me-I'm not a rabbit-not meeeeee -
His heart stopped before it even got its teeth in him.
Jenny was brushing her hair, really brushing it, feeling it crackle and lift by itself to meet the plastic bristles in the static electricity of this golden May afternoon. She gazed absently at her own reflection, seeing a girl with forest green eyes, dark as pine needles, and eyebrows that were straight, like two decisive brush strokes. The hair that lifted to meet the brush was the color of honey in sunlight.
"They didn't do it."
Jenny stopped abruptly. A girl was reflected behind her in the mirror.
The girl had dark hair and dark eyes reddened with crying. She looked poised for flight out of the bathroom.
"I said, they didn't do it. Slug and P.C. They didn't kill your friend Summer."
Oh. Jenny found herself gripping the brush hard, unable to even turn her head. She could only look at the girl's eyes reflected in the mirror, but she understood now. "I never said they did," she said softly and carefully. "I just told the police that they were around that night. And that they stole something from my living room. A paper house. A game."
"I hate you."
Shocked, Jenny turned.
"You and your preppy friends-you did it. You killed her yourselves. And someday everybody will know and you'll pay and you'll be sorry." The girl was twisting a Kleenex between slim olive-tan fingers, tearing it into little bits. Her long hair was absolutely straight except for the slight undersweep of the ends, and her dark eyes were pensive. She didn't belong at Vista Grande High; Jenny had never seen her before.
Jenny put the brush down and went to her, facing her directly. The girl looked taken aback.
"Why were you crying?" Jenny said gently.
"Why should you care? You're a soshe. You wear your fancy clothes to school and hang out with your rich friends-"
"Who's rich? What have my clothes got to do with it?" Jenny could feel her eyebrows come together. She looked pointedly at the girl's fashionably tattered designer jeans.
The girl spoke sullenly. "You're a soshe..."
Jenny grabbed her.
"I am not a soshe," she said fiercely. "I am a human being. So are you. So what is your problem?"
The girl wouldn't say anything. She twisted under Jenny's hands, and Jenny felt the small bones in her shoulders. Finally, almost spitting it in Jenny's face, she said, "P.C. was my friend. He never did anything to that girl. You and your friends did something, something so bad that you had to hide her body and tell those lies. But you just wait. I can prove P.C. didn't hurt her. I can prove it."
Despite the warm day, hairs rose on Jenny's arms. Her little fingers tingled.
"What do you mean?"
Something in her face must have scared the girl. "Never mind."
"No, you tell me. How could you prove it? Did you-"
"Let go of me!"
I'm being rough, Jenny realized. I'm never rough. But she couldn't seem to stop. Chills were sweeping over her, and she wanted to shake the information out of the girl.
"Did you see him or something?" she demanded. "Did he come home the next morning alone? Did you see what he did with the paper hou-"
Pain exploded against her shinbone. The girl had kicked her. Jenny lost her grip, and the girl wrenched away, running to the bathroom door.
"Wait! You don't understand-"
The girl jerked the door open and darted out. Jenny hopped after her, but by the time she looked up and down the second-story walkway, the girl was gone. There were only a few bits of twisted Kleenex on the concrete floor.
Jenny hobbled over to the nearest locker bay and looked into it. Nothing but students and lockers. Then she limped back and looked over the railing of the open walkway to the main courtyard. Nothing but students with lunches.
Young. The girl had been young, probably a ninth grader. Maybe she'd come from Magnolia Junior High. It was within walking distance.
Whoever she was, Jenny had to find her. Whoever she was, she'd seen something. She might know...
I left my purse in the bathroom, Jenny realized. She retrieved it and slowly walked back out.
The pay phone beside the bathroom was ringing. Jenny glanced around-two teachers were locking up a classroom, students were streaming down the stairs on each end of the building. Nobody seemed to be waiting for a call, nobody even seemed to notice the ringing.
Jenny lifted the receiver. "Hello," she said, feeling foolish.
She heard an electronic hiss, white noise. Then there was a click, and in the static she seemed to hear a low whispering in a male voice. It was distorted, drawn out, and there was something weird about the way the syllables were stressed. It sounded like one word whispered over and over.
A as in amble. Then a dragging, hissing sigh: ish. A... ish...
Shhshhshhshhshhshhshh. Click. In the background she heard something that might have been speech, a
sharp, staccato burst. Again, the rhythm was weird. It sounded like some very foreign language.
Bad connection, Jenny thought. She hung up.
Her little fingers were tingling again. But she didn't have time to think about it now. That girl had to be found.
I'd better get the others, Jenny thought.