In the Dark of the Night (4 page)

                  

A
DAM MOSLER TOOK
a rake from Ellis and leaned it up against a tree. Ellis, standing in the trailer, handed Chris the leaf blower then tossed a coil of electric cord to Adam. “Who wants to start on the roof?” he asked.

“Not me,” Adam promptly answered. “I got acrophobia so bad I’d fall off in a second. Besides, you’re the one who was so excited about taking this job. You do it.”

“Hey, it’s money, right?” Ellis shot back. “And I’ve got no problem going up on the roof, so just give me a hand with the ladder, okay?”

A few minutes later, as Ellis tied one end of a nylon rope to himself and the other around the chimney, Adam took a bow saw and a pair of pruners and went to work on the clutter of dead branches that had fallen from the trees over the last seven years. He knew Ellis was right; he could use the money as much as Ellis, but he was still pissed off about having to work for a bunch of rich people whose kids would arrive in their L.L.Bean clothes with their Jet Skis and speedboats and spend the summer acting like they owned the whole town.

And everybody in it.

He picked up a bunch of branches and hurled them onto the growing pile of trash, his anger at the injustice of it growing steadily. None of those Chicago kids were going to be cleaning up stuff like this—their fathers would just peel off bills from the wads in their pockets and hand over the keys to the Range Rover or the Escalade, or whatever fake sport utility vehicle the rich people were driving this year.

Adam dumped another load of brush onto the pile, and felt a stab of pain as a long sliver drove deep into the palm of his right hand. Cursing silently, he sat down on the patio and pulled his jackknife out of his pocket, pried the smaller of the two blades open, then realized it wasn’t going to work: he was right-handed and he wouldn’t be able to get the splinter out himself. “Chris!” he yelled.

A moment later Chris McIvens appeared from behind the greenhouse, pushing a wheelbarrow full of broken glass. He dumped it onto an old tarp they’d found in the trailer and spread out next to the rubbish pile, then inspected Adam’s hand. “It’s gonna hurt,” he said as he took the knife from Adam. “You sure you want me to do it?”

Adam nodded grimly. “I’m only doing this for the money, and I can’t do it with a freakin’ log in my hand, can I?”

“Okay,” Chris said. “Here goes.” He poised the blade of the knife over Adam’s palm, then carefully sliced through the skin over the sliver as Adam gritted his teeth against the pain. A moment later Chris lifted the fragment of wood out of the open wound, and Adam instantly began sucking on the cut, which, now that the operation was over, didn’t really hurt all that much.

“Lucky it wasn’t a nail,” Chris observed as he wiped the blade of the jackknife, then closed it and handed it back to Adam. “Coulda gotten lockjaw.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “They got shots for that,
idiot.
” Then his eyes moved out past the house and down the lawn toward the lake. Shadows from the forest were creeping quickly across the lawn, the glassy water rippling where the fish were starting their evening feed. If it wasn’t for who was going to be living here, this could be a nice place. Then he heard Chris talking to him.

“I was thinking we ought to do something out here.”

“Yeah?” Adam asked. “Like what? Mow the lawn in a goddamned diamond pattern?”

Now it was Chris who rolled his eyes. “No,
idiot,
” he said, giving the second word the exact enunciation Adam had used only a moment before. “I meant like we should set a booby-trap or something.”

Adam eyed Chris with new respect. “Like what?” he said again.

Chris shrugged. “I don’t know yet. There’s got to be something. And we’ve got a whole week to think about it.”

The leaf blower suddenly roared to life above them, and a moment later a shower of filth rained down on their heads.

Adam jumped up, shook the moss and dirt out of his hair, and looked up to the roof, but he couldn’t see Ellis, and knew Ellis wouldn’t hear him over the roar of the blower even if he yelled until he ruptured his larynx. His eyes met Chris’s. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s think of something. But we don’t tell Ellis, right?”

Chris nodded, knowing as well as Adam that no matter how harmless whatever they came up with was, Ellis would talk them out of it. So now he and Chris knocked their fists together in a gesture of solidarity—if not actual conspiracy—and went back to work, Chris to the greenhouse, and Adam to cleaning up the yard so it could be mowed.

But now both boys felt an energy about the work that hadn’t been there before.

They’d clean this place up, all right. But that wasn’t all they’d do.

“Y
A READY, BOY?”

The words came out of the old man’s mouth as little more than an indistinct whisper. Not that it mattered; the old dog’s ears had failed three years ago. There wasn’t anyone else to talk to, though, so the old man just kept on talking to the dog. Not that there was much to say, either, since the old man’s mind had become almost as indistinct as his voice. Nowadays, he only remembered the important things. His name for instance.

Logan.

He still knew his name was Logan, and he knew he had a first name, too. Or at least he’d had one a long time ago, before the bad times.

Now, as the sun began to drop toward the horizon, Logan gently lifted the bony old Labrador and settled him carefully onto a pile of rags in the bottom of the boat near the bow, where the dog could rest his head on the gunwale next to the rough wooden cross Logan had mounted on the boat’s bow sometime in the past. If anybody had asked Logan why the cross was there, he wouldn’t have been able to say. “Following Jesus,” he’d probably have mumbled. “Can’t be too careful, can you?” Nobody, however, had ever asked, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have paid much attention to his answer.

Except the dog. The dog always listened, and the dog always understood. “Good boy,” Logan sighed as he transferred the weight of the animal from his arms to the floorboards of the skiff.

Sensing more than hearing the sound of his master’s voice, the dog managed a thump of his tail as Logan stepped into the boat and used an oar to push off from the shore. As the boat drifted through the cattails and marsh grasses that choked this part of the lake, the dog managed to sit up, his grizzled muzzle lifting so he could fill his nostrils with what little breeze there was.

Logan used one of the oars to pole the boat quietly from its hiding place in the tangle of growth out into the open water thirty yards away.

The dog’s head swiveled, his nose pointing directly across the lake toward the small town nestled on the opposite shore, and an eager whine bubbled up from his throat. “Not today, boy,” Logan whispered. “We’re just watching tonight. Just watching…just making sure.”

The dog turned its all but totally blind eyes toward his master’s voice, and a warm wave of affection—affection mixed with sadness—broke over Logan. The dog wasn’t going to be around much longer, and Logan was pretty sure that when the dog died, he’d die, too.

He could keep watch for only so long.

He and the dog could protect things for only so long, and after that someone else would have to keep watch.

But who?

Nobody else knew what he knew.

Nobody else had lived what he had.

Nobody else understood the way things really were.

Nobody.

Nobody but him.

Logan rowed quietly as the setting sun painted the sky a shade of red that made him think of the hell he was certain waited for him on the day he died, and the pines turned to skeletal silhouettes that looked like fingers reaching desperately for salvation.

A salvation that Logan knew was far beyond his reach.

Turning away from the hopelessness of the sky, he pulled slowly on the oars, keeping close to the shoreline as the rowboat cut silently through the water. He could hear the faint putting of idling outboard motors drifting across the lake, and knew that people were still on the water, especially fishermen.

At dusk, though, the chances of his being seen were slim.

The inlet stream was choked with spawning ciscoes, flipping and slapping on the water, and Logan brought his oars in and let the boat drift soundlessly over the top of them. “S’all right,” he whispered. “Not after you. Not tonight, anyway.”

Away from the mouth of the stream, he began rowing again, and a few minutes later he came around the end of a point. The house was ahead now, on the far end of the gently curving bay formed by the point he’d just rounded and the next one, but still hidden by the thick woods that bordered its lawn.

Just a few more strokes of the oars and he would be there.

Yet when Pinecrest came into view, Logan sensed that something was different.

Something had changed.

Then, as he shipped the oars to let the boat drift silently, he saw them.

Three boys.

Three boys sitting on the front lawn.

But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the house.

The house was different.

The house looked as if it were somehow expecting something.

As the dog tensed in the bow, the old man dipped the oars once more and turned the boat so the cross mounted in the bow stood between him and the looming stone structures that were Pinecrest.

What was going on?

Had Dr. Darby come back?

No—that was impossible—it couldn’t happen!

Could the house have been sold? Were people moving in?

These boys, maybe?

But that could never happen, either.

He couldn’t let it happen.

Nobody could ever live here again.

Using the oars so gently there was no sound at all, Logan slipped the boat closer to shore, careful every foot of the way to keep the big wooden cross between himself and the old estate.

The dog sensed his apprehension and shifted restlessly on his nest of rags.

“Easy,” Logan whispered. “It’s okay. We just have to figure out what to do. That’s all. Just figure it out.”

He peered through the failing light as the three boys rose from the lawn, dusted off their pants, and started toward the house. A moment later they were gone, disappearing toward the driveway. Soundlessly, Logan moved forward until the bow of the boat touched the shore.

He could feel it now—someone was coming to live in the house.

And it was as if the house itself were excited.

As if the evil knew it was about to be released once more.

Logan crossed himself and backed away with the oars, keeping the cross in the bow between himself and Pinecrest until the entire property began fading into the gathering night then finally disappeared behind the point around which he had come only a few minutes ago.

“It’s all going to start up again,” he whispered, as much to himself as to the dog.

Falling silent, he turned the skiff toward home and rowed into the dark of the night.

T
HE DAY HAD
finally arrived, and after the first excitement of leaving Evanston behind for the summer died away, and the first three of the six hours it took to drive to Phantom Lake passed, a silence had fallen over the Brewsters.

Merrill was paging through what she thought of as her mental worry book, examining each item, assessing its current threat level. In the privacy of her own mind, she rarely lowered a level, while publicly she did her best never to admit they existed at all.

Did her best, but usually failed.

Still, for today at least, the calm of the rolling Wisconsin farmland was lulling her a bit, and none of the current worries seemed overwhelming.

If she’d left the iron on—had she turned it on at all?—Marguerite would turn it off and put it away.

If she’d forgotten sunscreen, there would be a store in Phantom Lake where she could buy some.

If she’d failed to pay a bill, Dan would take care of it when he got home.

If she forgot to pack—What? What could she have possibly forgotten to pack? The LX470 was filled to the brim with suitcases, pet carriers, blow-up water toys, kids, and…
stuff.
Stuff that would probably prove useless, but that she couldn’t resist taking along anyway. There were even bags of food wedged in the backseat between the kids, in the unlikely event that somehow supermarkets didn’t exist in northern Wisconsin.

She tried not to think about Dan, who sat beside her, driving—that he’d be gone all week every week.

In the backseat directly behind her mother, Marci was counting animals. She’d already decided Wisconsin was the best place she’d ever seen, and had spent the first hours trying to make up her mind whether to marry a farmer when she grew up or have her own farm, which would be filled with cows and horses and pigs, and no brothers at all. But then, as the farms began to give way to wilderness and she caught glimpses of deer—and even what she was sure was a wolf, though Eric said it was just a dog—she decided maybe she’d be a forest ranger instead and live in a log cabin in the woods, with wild animals coming to eat every day.

Finally, she turned around to check on Tippy and Moxie, and found both of them sleeping happily in their carriers, Moxie burrowed deep into the towels in his cage, and Tippy sprawled out on top of her own nest.

Satisfied that the cat and dog were doing fine, she went back to her count, adding one more deer and a squirrel to her list, and trying to decide if the dead possum they’d passed a little while ago counted.

Eric, next to Marci, was listening to his iPod, tapping out rhythms on his knees, anticipating the summer with far more excitement than he would admit to anyone, let alone his parents and sister. When the trip began a few hours ago, the sun had already been too hot, the heaviness of the air telling him the afternoon was going to be miserable. If it was already that hot and sticky just in June, what was August going to be like? But he wasn’t going to be there in August, so what did it matter?

He was going to be in northern Wisconsin, in a house on Phantom Lake, with his best friends only a few hundred yards away, spending every single day swimming and fishing and waterskiing and hiking.

About the time they reached the halfway point, black clouds began rolling in from the west. The highway was already thick with SUVs and big pickup trucks pulling boats and camping trailers, and Dan Brewster unconsciously sat up a little straighter in the driver’s seat, took a tighter grip on the steering wheel, and hoped his wife wouldn’t notice the deteriorating weather.

A couple of heavy raindrops splatted onto the windshield, and Dan shot Merrill a quick glance. Sure enough, she’d noticed.

Merrill pretended she hadn’t seen Dan’s quick glance at her, but of course she had. And of course just the few drops of rain that hit the car had started a whole new page in the worry book.
What if it rained all summer? What if the roof of the house leaked? What if…

Dan flicked on the wipers. “Looks like we’re in for a little weather,” he said. He took another quick glance at Merrill, then spoke again, doing his best to inject as much optimism into his voice as he could summon, given that every car coming toward them had not only their wipers on, but their headlights as well. “Probably just a squall—won’t last more than a couple minutes.”

The sky grew darker.

As Dan slowed and turned on his own headlights, he could feel Merrill struggling not to say anything, and began laying mental odds on how long she would be able to hold out. Given the blinding mist all the SUVs with their boats and trailers were throwing at the windshield, it wouldn’t be long.

Merrill gazed out her side window, determined to concentrate on the scenery around her rather than the increasingly threatening sky above her, but then a bolt of lightning seared the sky, thunder clapped right behind it, and the clouds seemed to open up. Dan switched the wipers to full speed, but they couldn’t keep up with the torrent of rain, and suddenly the road ahead was nothing more than a blur of red taillights.

“Maybe we should stop,” Merrill said.

“Wow,” Eric said from the backseat. “Almost thirty seconds since it started raining. I didn’t think you’d be able to hold out more than ten.”

“I was figuring fifteen,” Dan said, giving Merrill a quick wink. “Thirty’s a new record, isn’t it?”

Merrill tried to glower but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Oh, shut up, both of you. All I meant was—”

But before she could finish, they heard a strange popping sound and the car swerved. Marci squealed, and Merrill reached out to brace herself against the dashboard. Dan, though, simply pressed gently on the brake, flicked on the turn signal, then eased the now thumping SUV across a lane of traffic and onto the shoulder of the highway. “Flat tire,” he announced as he switched on the hazard lights.

He turned off the engine, set the emergency brake, and for a moment the family sat silently in the car, listening to the rain pound the roof.

“So here are our options,” Dan said, breaking the silence a moment before his wife could. “Either Eric and I change the tire, or we call Lexus and let them do it.” He peered out through the streaming windshield. “And Lord only knows how long it will take them to get here in this weather.” He unbuckled his seat belt.

“For God’s sake, Dan, wait a few minutes,” Merrill pleaded, reading her husband’s intentions perfectly. “Maybe it’ll blow over.”

Dan stared at her, his eyes twinkling. “Do I know you? Since when do you ever think something’s going to blow over? Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

“You could both drown out there!” Merrill protested, ignoring the jibe as Dan opened the door a crack.

“Ready, Eric?” he asked. “On three. One…two…three.”

Both doors opened and both male Brewsters leaped out into the deluge. A moment later the back hatch was opened and Dan fumbled with the latch to the small tool storage compartment, cursing softly as one of the suitcases toppled out onto the shoulder of the road. Then he released the catch that allowed the spare tire to drop from its spot below the floorboards onto the pavement beneath the car.

As Marci and Merrill did their best to watch what was going on through the downpour, Eric and Dan jacked up the car, manhandled the flat off, put the spare on, and maneuvered the bad tire into position in the compartment beneath the Lexus. Twenty minutes after they’d begun, they were finished.

Soaked to the skin, but finished.

“There’s a towel in the red tote,” Merrill told Marci. “The one behind Tippy’s cage.”

Marci got it out, handed it to her brother, then found another one for her father.

“Wasn’t that fun?” Dan asked Eric as he toweled off as much water as he could. “Makes you want to be a mechanic, doesn’t it?”

“Or not,” Eric responded. “Think I’ll still plan on college, at least for now.”

“Remind me to drop that tire off as soon as we get to Phantom Lake,” Dan said.

“I don’t know—” Merrill began.

“Don’t know what?” Dan asked.

Merrill frowned, and glanced out at the continuing downpour. “Maybe this whole thing is a bad idea. Maybe we should just turn around—”

“Mom!” Eric said. “Come
on
!”

“It’s just a flat tire, honey,” Dan said quietly. “And it’s fixed, and the storm will blow over. It’s going to be a great summer, so just relax, okay?” He started the car and eased his way back into traffic, and five minutes later the storm was over as suddenly as it had come upon them. The sun came out and the sky was clear and deep blue as far north as any of them could see. “See?” Dan said. “A beautiful day.”

“I’m hungry,” Marci said. “And Moxie needs to tinkle.”

“How much farther?” Eric asked.

“A couple more hours,” Dan said, giving Merrill a smile. “We’ll stop for lunch at the first spot we come to, okay?”

Merrill smiled back and nodded.

Two more hours—three, including lunch—and summer would officially begin.

                  

R
ITA HENDERSON TURNED
the key in the massive oak door of Pinecrest, picked up the vase of wildflowers Camilla Bonds had delivered to the doorstep earlier in the day, and carried it inside, setting the arrangement in the most natural place—the center of the round mahogany table in the foyer. Stepping back, she eyed the blossoms critically and decided they were perfect.

Next came the fruit basket Camilla had also delivered, which went into the living room.

As always happened, Rita was instantly distracted by the view of the lake framed by the living room window, and for a moment she simply stood still, gazing at the panorama before her.

Two bald eagles soared over the water, fishing. The lake twinkled and sparkled in the sun, and a cloudless sky hung over it all like a turquoise dome. No matter how many times she saw it, she never tired of the view, and now she took a few moments just to savor it before turning her attention back to the task at hand.

She set the basket of fruit on the coffee table, adjusted it until it was perfect, then took a long and very careful look around the room, which, though she would never admit it to anyone, she had never imagined could look this inviting.

Margie Haines’s cleaning crew had aired the old house out to the point where barely a trace of mildew remained. In fact, the room smelled good, the lemon oil she had instructed Margie to use on every inch of wood in the house giving the whole place a fresh scent. Knowing Margie’s girls would have done their job, but climbing the stairs anyway just to check, she found the bathrooms spotless, with fresh towels on every bar.

Brand new linens were on the beds, along with equally new pillows and quilts.

The kitchen had been stocked with good quality cookware, dinnerware, flatware, and everything else a renter could need, and in Rita’s car a bag of groceries was still waiting to be brought in. She’d brought coffee, filters, cream, sugar, milk, and two kinds of cereal—the works. Along with the fruit basket, there would be plenty of food to see the Brewsters through until they could stock up.

Moving outside, Rita was forced to admit that the boys had done a better job of cleaning up the grounds than she had imagined they would. The greenhouse was tidy, if not perfect, and the lawn was mown short and was vibrantly green. The terrace had been swept, as had the patio near the boathouse, where new sand had been put in the fire pit and a good supply of well-dried wood and kindling placed in a neat stack nearby. The chairs ringing the fire pit had been freshly painted, and new cushions were on their seats. The dock was in, with several new planks replacing old ones that had rotted out over the years of disuse, and two ducks and a throng of ducklings were using the dock for sunbathing, and possibly the ducklings’ first diving lesson.

Ellis, Adam, and Chris had earned their money and a good tip on top of it, and Rita made a mental note to called Nate Humphries and give them a glowing recommendation. By the time she was back in the house with the groceries, she’d already thought of two other places that needed some work, and if they wanted the job, she could keep them busy all summer.

The grandfather clock in the hallway came to life as she stepped through the front door again, striking two. Rita checked her watch: two, right on the dot. The old clock seemed to be working just fine, which meant she needed to get the groceries unpacked and put away and get back to the office; the Brewsters were due sometime around three.

As she drove out of the driveway a few minutes later, she cast one last glance back at the house. The roof was clean, the driveway freshly graveled, the old fountain scrubbed and actually operating. Rita passed through the gates, turned left, and headed back to her office, satisfied that the house was ready, never noticing the old rowboat with the strange cross mounted in its bow that had been all but hidden in the shadows near the boathouse.

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