The Road Virus Heads North (3 page)

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
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red halter. She was walking a cocker spaniel. She began to smile at Kinnell, then saw something in his face that straightened her lips

out in a hurry. She headed left, and fast. The cocker didn't want to go that fast so she dragged it, coughing, in her wake.

The scrubby pines behind the service area sloped down to a boggy area that stank of plant and animal decomposition. The carpet of

pine needles was a road litter fallout zone: burger wrappers, paper soft drink cups, TCBY napkins, beer cans, empty wine-cooler

bottles, cigarette butts. He saw a used condom lying like a dead snail next to a torn pair of panties with the word TUESDAY stitched

on them in cursive girly-girl script.

Now that he was here, he chanced another look down at the picture. He steeled himself for further changes even for the possibility that

the painting would be in motion, like a movie in a frame - but there was none. There didn't have to be, Kinnell realized; the blond kid's

face was enough. That stone-crazy grin. Those pointed teeth. The face said, Hey, old man, guess what? I'm done fucking with

civilization. I'm a representative of the real generation X, the next millennium is tight here behind the wheel of this fine, high-steppin'

mo-sheen.

Aunt Trudy's initial reaction to the painting had been to advise Kinnell that he should throw it into the Saco River. Auntie had been

right. The Saco was now almost twenty miles behind him, but . .

"This'll do," he said. "I think this'll do just fine."

He raised the picture over his head like a guy holding up some kind of sports trophy for the postgame photographers and then heaved

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it down the slope. It flipped over twice, the frame caching winks of hazy late-day sun, then struck a tree. The glass facing shattered.

The picture fell to the ground and then slid down the dry, needle-carpeted slope, as if down a chute. It landed in the bog, one comer of

the frame protruding from a thick stand of reeds. Otherwise, there was nothing visible but the strew of broken glass, and Kinnell

thought that went very well with the rest of the litter.

He turned and went back to his car, already picking up his mental trowel. He would wall this incident off in its own special niche, he

thought ... and it occurred to him that that was probably what most people did when they ran into stuff like this. Liars and wannabees

(or maybe in this case they were wannasees) wrote up their fantasies for publications like Survivors and called them truth; those who

blundered into authentic occult phenomena kept their mouths shut and used those trowels. Because when cracks like this appeared in

your life, you had to do something about them; if you didn't, they were apt to widen and sooner or later everything would fall in.

Kinnell glanced up and saw the pretty young thing watching him apprehensively from what she probably hoped was a safe distance.

When she saw him looking at her, she turned around and started toward the restaurant building, once more dragging the cocker spaniel

behind her and trying to keep as much sway Out of her hips as possible.

You think I'm crazy, don't you pretty girl? Kinnell thought. He saw he had left his trunk lid up. It gaped like a mouth. He slammed it

shut. You and half the fiction-reading population of America, I guess. But I'm not crazy. Absolutely not. I just made a little mistake,

that's all. Stopped at a yard sale I should have passed up. Anyone could have done it. You could have done it. And that picture

" What picture?" Rich Kinnell asked the hot summer evening, and tried on a smile. "I don't see any picture."

He slid behind the wheel of his Audi and started the engine. He looked at the fuel gauge and saw it had dropped under a half. He was

going to need gas before he got home, but he thought he'd fill the tank a little further up the line. Right now all he wanted to do was to

put a belt of miles - as thick a one as possible - between him and the discarded painting.

Once outside the city limits of Derry, Kansas Street becomes Kansas Road. As it approaches the incorporated town limits (an area that

is actually open countryside), it becomes Kansas Lane. Not long after,, Kansas Lane passes between two fieldstone posts. Tar gives

way to' gravel. What is one of Derry's busiest downtown streets eight miles east of here has become a driveway leading up a shallow

hill, and on moonlit summer nights it glimmers like something out of an Alfred Noyes poem. At the top of the hill stands an angular,

handsome barn-board structure with reflectorized windows, a stable that is actually a garage, and a satellite dish tilted at the stars. A

waggish reporter from the Derry News once called it the House that Gore Built ... not meaning the vice president of the United States.

Richard Kinnell simply called it home, and he parked in front of it that night with a sense of weary satisfaction. He felt as if he had

lived through a week's worth of time since getting up in the Boston Harbor hotel that morning at nine o'clock.

No more yard sales, he thought, looking up at the moon. No more yard sales ever.

I "Amen," he said, and started toward the house. He probably should stick the car in the garage, but the hell with it. What he wanted

right now was a drink, a light meal - something microwaveable - and then sleep. Preferably the kind without dreams. He couldn't wait

to put this day behind him.

He stuck his key in the lock, turned it, and punched 3817 to silence the warning bleep from the burglar alarm panel. He turned on the

front hall light, stepped through the door, pushed it shut behind him, began to turn, saw what was on the wall where his collection of

framed book covers had been just two days ago, and screamed. In his head he screamed. Nothing actually came out of his mouth but a

harsh exhalation of air. He heard a thump and a tuneless little jingle as his keys fell out of his relaxing hand and dropped to the carpet

between his feet.

The Road Virus Heads North was no longer in the puckerbrush behind the Gray turnpike service area.

It was mounted on his entry wall.

It had changed yet again. The car was now parked in the driveway of the yard sale yard. The goods were still spread out

everywhereglassware and furniture and ceramic knickknacks (Scottie dogs smoking pipes, bare-assed toddlers, winking fish), but now

they gleamed beneath the light of the same skullface moon that rode in the sky above Kinnell's house. The TV was still there, too, and

it was still on, casting its own pallid radiance onto the grass, and what lay in front of it, next to an overturned lawn chair. Judy Diment

was on her back, and she was no longer all there. After a moment, Kinnell saw the rest. It was on the ironing board, dead eyes glowing

like fifty-cent pieces in the moonlight.

The Grand Am's taillights were a blur of red-pink watercolor paint. It was Kinnell's first look at the car's back deck. Written across it

in Old English letters were three words: THE ROAD VIRUS.

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Makes perfect sense, Kinnell thought numbly. Not him, his car. Except for a guy like this, there's probably not much difference.

"This isn't happening," he whispered, except it was. Maybe it wouldn't have happened to someone a little less open to such things, but

it was happening. And as he stared at the painting he found himself remembering the little sign on Judy Diment's card table. ALL

SALES CASH, it had said (although she had taken his check, only adding his driver's license ID number for safety's sake). And it had

said something else, too.

ALL SALES FINAL.

Kinnell walked past the picture and into the living room. He felt like a stranger inside his own body, and he sensed part of his mind

groping for the trowel he had used earlier. He seemed to have misplaced it.

He turned on the TV, then the Toshiba satellite tuner which sat on top of it. He turned to V-14, and all the time he could feel the

picture out there in the hall, pushing at the back of his head. The picture that had somehow beaten him here.

"Must have known a shortcut," Kinnell said, and laughed.

He hadn't been able to see much of the blond in this version of the picture, but there had been a blur behind the wheel which Kinnell

assumed had been him. The Road Virus had finished his business in Rosewood. It was time to move north. Next stop

He brought a heavy steel door down on that thought, cutting it off before he could see all of it. "After all, I could still be imagining all

this," he told the empty living room. Instead of comforting him, the hoarse, shaky quality of his voice frightened him even more. "This

could be ... But he couldn't finish. All that came to him was an old song, belted out in the pseudo-hip style of some early '50s Sinatra

done: This could be the start of something BIG ...

The tune oozing from the TV's stereo speakers wasn't Sinatra but Paul Simon, arranged for strings. The white computer type on the

blue screen said WELCOME TO NEW ENGLAND NEWSWIRE. There were ordering instructions below this, but Kinnell didn't

have to read them; he was a Newswire junkie and knew the drill by heart. He dialed, punched in his Mastercard number, then 508.

"You have ordered Newswire for [slight pause] central and northem Massachusetts," the robot voice said. "Thank you very m--"

Kinnell dropped the phone back into the cradle and stood looking at the New England Newswire logo, snapping his fingers nervously.

"Come on," he said. "Come on, come on."

The screen flickered then, and the blue background became green. Words began scrolling up, something about a house fire in Taunton.

This was followed by the latest on a dog-racing scandal, then tonight's weather - clear and mild. Kinnell was starting to relax, starting

to wonder if he'd really seen what he thought he'd seen on the entryway wall or if it had been a bit of travel-induced fugue, when the

TV beeped shrilly and the words BREAKING NEWS appeared. He stood watching the caps scroll up.

NENphAUG19/8:40P A ROSEWOOD WOMAN HAS BEEN BRUTALLY MURDER-ED WHILE DOING A FAVOR FOR AN

ABSENT FRIEND. 38-YEAR-OLD JUDITH DIMENT WAS SAVAGELY HACKED TO DEATH ON THE LAWN OF HER

NEIGHBOR'S HOUSE, WHERE SHE HAD BEEN CONDUCTING A YARD SALE. NO SCREAMS WERE HEARD AND MRS.

DIMENT WAS NOT FOUND UNTIL EIGHT O'CLOCK, WHEN A NEIGHBOR ACROSS THE STREET CAME OVER TO

COMPLAIN ABOUT LOUD TELEVISION NOISE. THE NEIGHBOR, DAVID GRAVES, SAID THAT MRS. DIMENT HAD

BEEN DECAPITATED. "HER HEAD WAS ON THE IRONING BOARD," HE SAID. "IT WAS THE MOST AWFUL THING I'VE

EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE." GRAVES SAID HE HEARD NO SIGNS OF A STRUGGLE, ONLY THE TV AND, SHORTLY

BEFORE FINDING THE BODY, A LOUD CAR, POSSIBLY EQUIPPED WITH A GLASSPACK MUFFLER, ACCELERATING

AWAY FROM THE VICINITY ALONG ROUTE ONE. SPECULATION THAT THIS VEHICLE MAY HAVE BELONGED TO

THE KILLER

Except that wasn't speculation; that was a simple fact.

Breathing hard, not quite panting, Kinnell hurried back into the entryway. The picture was still there, but it had changed once more.

Now it showed two glaring white circles - headlights - with the dark shape of the car hulking behind them.

He's on the move again, Kinnell thought, and Aunt Trudy was on top of his mind now - sweet Aunt Trudy, who always knew who had

been naughty and who had been nice. Aunt Trudy, who lived in Wells, no more than forty miles from Rosewood.

" God, please God, please send him by the coast road," Kinnell said, reaching for the picture. Was it his imagination or were the

headlights farther apart now, as if the car were actually moving before his eyes ... but stealthily, the way the minute hand moved on a

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Pocket watch? "Send him by the coast road, please."

He tore the picture off the wall and ran back into the living room with it. The screen was in place before the fireplace, of course; it

would be at least two months before a fire was wanted in here. Kinnell batted it aside and threw the painting in, breaking the glass

fronting-which he had already broken once, at the Gray service area - against the firedogs. Then he pelted for the kitchen, wondering

what he would do if this didn't work either.

It has to, he thought. It will because it has to, and that's A there is to it.

He opened the kitchen cabinets and pawed through them, spilling the oatmeal, spilling a canister of salt, spilling the vinegar. The

bottle broken open on the counter and assaulted his nose and eyes with the high stink.

Not there. What he wanted wasn't there.

He raced into the pantry, looked behind the door - nothing but a plastic bucket and an 0 Cedar - and then on the shelf by the dryer.

There it was, next to the briquets.

Lighter fluid.

He grabbed it and ran back, glancing at the telephone on the kitchen wall as he hurried by. He wanted to stop, wanted to call Aunt

Trudy. Credibility wasn't an issue with her; if her favorite nephew called and told her to get out of the house, to get out light now, she

would do it ... but what if the blond kid followed her? Chased her?

And he would. Kinnell knew he would.

He hurried across the living room and stopped in front of the fireplace.

"Jesus," he whispered. "Jesus, no."

The picture beneath the splintered glass no longer showed oncoming headlights. Now it showed the Grand Am on a sharply curving

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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