In the Dark of the Night

For Liz, with love…

T
HE MAN PULLED
hard on the oars, every muscle in his body burning despite the chill of the autumn night.

He ignored the pain, pulling the boat out toward the middle of the lake, where the water was the deepest.

Deepest, and coldest.

Yet despite the iciness of the water and of the night, perspiration trickled from his brow and from his arms and drizzled down his chest.

Urgency spurred him onward and he pulled again, straining on the oars. His biceps spasmed in protest, but he ignored the pain. Just as he ignored the voices in his head. The ones that commanded him to turn the boat around.

But he wouldn’t do that. No matter what happened—no matter how much strength the voices gained or his muscles lost—he would stay the course he’d set.

He focused on the objects that lay toward the bow in the bottom of the boat. An old crawfish trap, its mesh torn but still strong enough to serve its purpose.

The float for the trap, even older than the trap itself, was secured to the trap with far too short a length of cheap polypropylene line. That wouldn’t matter, either—the trap would be heavy enough to pull the float down.

Especially after he added the two concrete blocks he’d brought along, just to be sure.

Just to be absolutely sure.

The voices in his head were shouting now, with one voice rising to a shriek so loud he felt his skull might burst.

He pulled on the oars one last time, then let the boat drift. As it slid silently through the water, it rocked gently, and somehow the quieting motion silenced even the voices in his head.

Then the rocking stopped and the voices roared back to life. As if sensing what was about to come, they rose once again in a raging howl of protest.

But the man continued to carry out the plan he’d rehearsed so many times in his head and twice again in the boat itself.

He shipped the oars and reached into his coat pocket.

With trembling fingers, he pulled out a heavy piece of metal and rubbed his thumb across its edge.

The sharpened steel glinted in the autumn moonlight, shining as if from a fire deep within its core.

As if it had a life of its own.

One of the voices—the woman’s voice—rose once more, but he closed his mind to it, willing himself not to give in. His hands shaking now, he dropped the glittering steel into the bottom of the trap. The voices shrieking ever louder, he closed and latched the trap’s cover.

“No one will ever find you again,” he whispered.

The voices heard, and the keening swelled in his head, hammered at his soul, threatened to tear his mind asunder.

“Stop,” he whispered, “please stop.” But he knew begging would only make it worse.

They would sense his weakness.

They would think they were winning.

They would not win.

Quickly, he threaded the end of the rope first through the frame of the trap, then through the centers of the two cement blocks in the bottom of the boat. Finally, he turned the rope back on itself to secure the free end in a series of half hitches, but the voices tore at him as he worked, distracting him from what he was doing, and in the cold of the night his hands began to go numb. The rope slipped from his fingers, and he groped in the darkness until he found it again.

He shook himself violently, trying to rid himself of the voices as a dog would a coat full of water. The boat rocked wildly, and for a moment he thought he might pitch over the gunwale into the depths of the lake, but his hand closed on the oarlock at the last moment and he steadied himself. Still trying to shut out the screaming voices, he worked faster, fumbling with the rope, twisting it first one way, then another.

Then at last he was done, and he yanked the last knot so tight he heard himself gasp.

And in that gasp, he heard his own voice.

His last scrap of humanity.

It had been a long time since he’d felt human.

Since he’d had even a memory of who he really was.

The cacophony of screaming voices had long ago drowned out all but the last vestiges of the man he had originally been.

Yet now, with the rope still burning in his fingers, those final vestiges of his humanity gave him strength to resist the commands of the voices. Keeping the boat carefully balanced, he lifted the crayfish trap and the cement blocks so they were balancing on the gunwale.

Sensing what was about to happen, the voices rose once more, the woman’s voice towering over the rest as she roared her fury at what he was doing.

He felt his resolve weaken, and reached for the trap as if to pull it back inboard. Then, in the instant before his fingers closed on the trap’s mesh, he found one last scrap of strength. “You…will…not…win,” he breathed, and with a quick shove, tipped the trap and the blocks into the water.

The rope followed the blocks overboard, its coils racing into the depths, and he felt his entire body throbbing to the pounding of his heart.

He’d won.

But even as he felt the flush of victory, the rope went taut and he felt it jerk on his waist. Before he could react—before he could reach for the oarlock that had saved him a few moments ago—he plunged over the side and into the freezing water.

Too dark! It had been too dark, and when he’d fumbled with the rope, he’d somehow tied it around himself!

“Too bad,”
the woman’s voice mocked.
“We told you not to! We told you! But we don’t need you. There are others. There will always be others.”

Others? Had he not stopped it all? Had he not stopped them forever?

He began tearing at the rope that was bound around his waist, his cold fingers clawing at the wet hemp, but he couldn’t even find the knots, let alone untie himself.

He was going down too far, and far too fast. Pressure was building in his ears, a pressure that exploded into a piercing pain, as if an ice pick had been plunged into his head.

He gasped and choked as the dark, cold lake water rushed into his throat.

And now the woman was laughing.

Then, just when he thought it was too late—at the instant when he would have plunged irrevocably into the darkness—he thought he felt the coils around his waist begin to loosen….

T
HE HANDS ON
the classroom clock were crawling far too slowly toward the weekend. Eric Brewster fidgeted in his seat as Mr. Smallwood reiterated the English assignment, but Eric wasn’t paying much attention. Everybody in class—everybody in school—had spring fever, including the teacher, and Eric was certain that nobody intended to do much homework, any more than Mr. Smallwood expected it would get done. Not tonight, not this weekend, not next week, which was the last week of school before summer vacation.

When the bell rang, Eric was out of his seat, out the door, dodging fast-moving bodies as he made his way to his locker to dump his books. Long summer evenings weren’t made for studying, and he was already thinking about the possibilities when Kent Newell started working the combination to the locker next to his. Which meant that Tad Sparks, the third member of the triad that had formed in kindergarten and was still thriving in the next to last year of high school, wouldn’t be far behind. When any two of them were together, the third was sure to be close by.

Except in summer, when the Newells and the Sparkses headed for rented summer houses in Wisconsin, while the Brewsters sweated it out in Evanston, just barely north of Chicago, and, where they lived, not quite close enough to Lake Michigan to catch whatever cool breeze the water might conjure up. But maybe this summer would be different. This summer his parents were looking for a summer rental, too. Of course, so far the looking had proved futile. It seemed every house at Phantom Lake had been rented months ago, and the ugly possibility that he might be stuck without his friends for another summer was starting to seem like an even uglier reality.

As usual, Kent Newell read his mind. “Your folks find a house yet?”

Eric shook his head, and memories of the single week he and his parents had spent at the lake with Kent’s family last summer rose up to taunt him: fishing, swimming, waterskiing all day; barbecuing fresh trout or steaks outside in the evening while pretending the mosquitoes weren’t nearly as bad as they were. Walking into town after supper to get an ice cream cone or just hang out ogling the local girls. Eric had loved it all, and so had his parents, even though all they’d done was sit around in chairs on the lawn or on the dock in front of the Newells’ house, just talking.

But this year, with a lot of convincing from Kent’s mom, his parents had decided they should rent a house of their own for the summer. At least, Eric’s father was convinced.

His mother was a different story. All she kept talking about was how nervous she’d be, all alone in a house in the middle of the woods. Except that it wouldn’t be the middle of the woods. It would be on the lake. And she wouldn’t be all alone at all. He’d be there, and his sister Marci would be there, and every weekend his father would be there, too.

If his mother stopped dragging her heels, that is, and actually found them a house.

“Your mom’s got to find a place, and she needs to do it quick,” Kent said.

Eric nodded. “Yeah.”

Tad Sparks arrived then, and was greeted with one of Kent’s arm punches, which had grown more painful over the last year, since Kent had spurted past six feet and put on twenty pounds, all of which was muscle. “This is the summer,” Kent said, grinning slyly at Tad. “I can feel it.”

“Feel what?” Tad said.

“You’re gonna get laid, man. You’re finally going to do it!”

Tad’s face reddened as he followed Eric out into the already humid midwestern afternoon.

“Those girls up at the lake are just waiting for you,” Kent went on, nudging Eric. “I mean, they are going to be
hot
for you this year. And Eric’s gotta be there when you finally give it up, so we’ve got to get his mom in gear. I mean, there’s got to be one house left, doesn’t there? A cancellation or something?”

“But it’s got to be in The Pines,” Tad said. “You’ve got to make sure it’s in The Pines.”

Eric sighed. “Right now I don’t care where it is, just so it’s close to you guys.”

“Which means The Pines,” Kent said, rolling his eyes.

“We’ll go fishing,” Tad said.

“You’ll dance naked with girls,” Kent added, winking at Eric. “There’s a dance every Friday night in the pavilion. If Tad can’t get laid there, there’s no help for him at all.”

Eric groaned. “So far all Mom says is she can’t find anything. Except I’ve got a feeling she’s not really trying.”

Kent Newell’s brows arched, and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. “Ah, but you see, I’ve got an ace in the hole.”

Eric eyed him. “Yeah? What?”


My
mom,” Kent declared. “She knows some people up there. Hell, she knows
everybody
up there. And believe me, if there’s a place at The Pines, she’ll find it. And she’ll talk your mom into taking it.”

They paused at the corner. “I gotta get home,” Tad said. “See you guys later.”

“I’m going to go work out,” Kent said to Eric. “Want to go to the gym?”

Eric hesitated, then shook his head, his good mood now long gone. If his mother was scared about being up in Wisconsin without his father during the week, then that would be that. And given that his mother was scared of practically everything, the possibility that she’d wind up just refusing to go even if someone did find them a house was all too real. “I think I’ll just go home, too,” he said.

Once again Kent read his mood. “Ah, who needs the gym,” he said, clapping Eric on the shoulder. “Let’s grab a Coke, then go over to my house and see if my mom’s found your folks a house yet.”

Eric shrugged. Better to hang with Kent right now than go home, where he might well be stuck with his ten-year-old sister all summer, once again spending endless days mowing and trimming the lawn while his mom went out to lunch with her friends and his father worked and Marci would stick to him like glue, constantly asking her ten-year-old’s questions while he was thinking his sixteen-year-old’s thoughts.

While his friends were at Phantom Lake, fishing and swimming and waterskiing.

And getting laid.

Without him.

Falling in beside Kent, Eric felt the summer already slipping away even though it hadn’t yet actually begun.

                  

M
ERRILL BREWSTER WAS
just turning the last bag of the week’s groceries over to Marguerite when the kitchen door slammed open—making Marguerite almost jump out of the maid’s uniform she insisted on wearing, even though Merrill had pleaded with her not to. Ellen Newell appeared in the doorway, a grin spread across her face and something hidden behind her back.

“Guess what I have!” Ellen demanded. “You’re going to love it.”

Merrill’s eyes narrowed as she ran through the possibilities. With Ellen, everything was always wonderful, and everyone was always going to love everything, so she could be talking about almost anything. Except that whatever it was, was small enough to be held in one hand.

Ellen Newell’s hands, of course, were larger than most, and stronger, too. Even though she was nowhere near her son’s size, she was just as good an athlete as Kent, and could still beat him at tennis without even breaking a sweat. If Ellen weren’t one of her best friends, Merrill knew she could have hated her. As it was, Merrill just held out her hand. “Give,” she said.

Rolling her eyes at the other woman’s refusal to play a guessing game, Ellen surrendered the contents of her left hand to Merrill, then winked broadly at Marguerite, who was just pulling a carton of yogurt out of a bag. “Better check the expiration date on that,” she said. “If it’s less than a week from now, Merrill will be afraid she’ll poison everyone if she serves it.”

“I will not!” Merrill protested. “Besides, I already checked. It’ll be okay for another week.” Then, as her best friend and her housekeeper shook their heads in despair at what she knew they considered neurotic overcautiousness, but which she herself thought of as mere common sense, Merrill turned her attention to the sheet of paper Ellen had surrendered.

An e-mail printout, from someone named Rita Henderson.

“She rents houses up at the lake,” Ellen explained as Merrill scanned the page. “A house just came on the market this afternoon, it’s available for the entire season, and she’s holding it for you until five o’clock!”

Merrill looked at the kitchen clock. “It’s four o’clock now!”

“Which gives you an hour! Merrill, it’s the only chance left! This house has never been rented before, and Rita says she has a dozen people who will snap it up in a second. It’s in The Pines, and it’s right next door to us! It’s perfect!”

Merrill’s eyes shifted from the e-mail to Ellen. “Do you know the house?”

“Well, of course I do!” Ellen said, bracing herself to fight off every ridiculous objection Merrill might come up with. “It’s called Pinecrest, and it’s a fabulous old place. It’s been vacant for a while—some legal snafu about the estate of the last owner.”

“There’s an attachment to this file,” Merrill said, her eyes fixing accusingly on Ellen. “It’s a jpeg file, which I assume means it’s a picture of the house. Is there a reason you didn’t bring that, too?”

Ellen snatched the e-mail back, and for the first time saw the attachment line. “Oh my God, I got so excited at the message I didn’t even notice there was a picture. Come on!” Grabbing Merrill’s arm, she half dragged the other woman out the kitchen door, down the steps of the back porch, across the large backyard, and through the gate that had been installed years ago, when Kent and Eric had first become friends and Ellen and Merrill had discovered they were as compatible as their sons.

Except that today Ellen was completely excited about a house that Merrill, without knowing anything about it, was already fairly certain she wasn’t going to agree to rent. Not, at least, in the hour she had to make up her mind.

Then they were in the Newells’ kitchen, and Ellen was at the Mac that sat on the built-in desk that had replaced the table when she’d converted the breakfast nook into her office.
Why not?
Ellen had declared.
I’m not a housewife, anyway—I’m a family CEO, and I need an office.
Now, she was manipulating the mouse with the expertise of a teenager, and a moment later an image filled the computer screen. “There,” she said triumphantly.

Merrill found herself gazing at a photograph of what looked like a haunted house. It was a huge Victorian gothic, and nothing at all like the charming—and comfortably small—lake houses in The Pines that the Newells and the Sparkses had been renting for years.

“Good Lord,” she breathed. The house was two stories tall, its roof pierced with gables. Built of granite that had blackened with age, it presented a stern countenance not at all softened by the sweeping front lawn that spread down to the water. Nor was the house the only building on the property; there was a dock and a boathouse, and what looked like what was once a large carriage house.

“Pinecrest was the original house on the lake,” Ellen explained. “I think some Milwaukee beer baron built it, and the estate covered the whole south shore. It got split up into what’s now The Pines back in the thirties after the beer guy went bust. Anyway, it’s been closed up for years, and Rita says they’re basically going to rent it this summer, and then put it on the market along about August.” She hesitated, then decided there was no reason not to tell Ellen the whole truth. “The reason they’re renting it is so it won’t seem unlivable, and you’d have to agree to let Rita show it if someone wants to see it. But not until August.”

Merrill gazed at the oddly foreboding facade, tried to imagine what it would be like living in the house.

And keeping it clean, especially if it had to be shown.

“It’s big, but it’s not unmanageable,” Ellen said, reading Merrill’s expression. “And imagine the views from the second floor bedroom! Come on, Merrill—this is the chance of a lifetime! And it’s just one summer—it’s not like you’re buying the place!”

Merrill told herself that Ellen was right—that it was a great opportunity, and that if she turned the house down, there wasn’t going to be another one. Still, she hesitated. “Let’s forward the e-mail to Dan, and I’ll call him. But I have to say, I don’t think I like it. It’s so—” She hesitated, searching for the right word, then shook her head. “I don’t know—it looks like a witch’s house.”

Ellen groaned, then glared at her friend. “You’ve been afraid of a lot of things over the years, Merrill Brewster. But
witches
? For God’s sake!”

As Merrill leaned over the computer and hit the Forward button, the back door burst open and Kent and Eric came in. Kent threw his gym bag toward the dining room table, missed, but didn’t bother to pick it up before coming over to see what was on his mother’s computer. “Jeez,” he breathed as he gazed at the picture. “Pinecrest? They’re actually
renting
Pinecrest?”

“What’s Pinecrest?” Eric asked. Then his eyes fell on the computer screen and widened. “Jesus—look at that place!”

Instead of responding, Kent looked up at his mother. “So what happened? Did the owner finally show up?”

Ellen’s eyes bored into her son, and she tilted her head toward Merrill, but it was already too late.

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