Dead Man's Song Page 1

Author: Jonathan Maberry

Series: Pine Deep #2

Genres: Horror



And I think I’m gonna drown I believe I’m gonna drown I think I’m gonna drown Standing on my feet.

—Mem Shannon, Drowning on My Feet

Sing it like the midnight wind, Sing it like a prayer; Sing it on to the way to hell, Them blues’ll take you there.

—Oren Morse, Dead Man’s Song


It was October when it happened. It should always be October when these things happen. In October you expect things to die.

In October the sun shrinks away; it hides behind mountains and throws long shadows over small towns like Pine Deep. Especially towns like Pine Deep. The wind grows new teeth and it learns to bite. The colors fade from deep summer greens to the mournful browns and desiccated yellows of autumn. In October the harvest blades are honed to sharpness, and that’s when the sickles and scythes, the threshers and combines, maliciously attack the fields, leaving the long stalks of corn lying dead in haphazard piles along the beaten rows. Pumpkin growers come like headsmen to gather the gourds for the carvers’ knives. The insects, so alive during the long months of July, August, and September, die in their thousands, their withered carcasses crunching under the feet of children hurrying home from school, children racing to beat the fall of night. Children do not play out-of-doors in the nights of Pine Deep.

There are shadows everywhere—even in places they have no right to be. The shadows range from the purple haze of twilit streets to the utter, bottomless black in the gaping mouths of sewers. Some of the shadows are cold, featureless—just blocks of lightless air. Other shadows seem to possess an unnatural vitality; they seem to roil and writhe, especially as the young ones—the innocent ones—pass by. In those kinds of shadows something always seems to be waiting. Impatiently waiting. In those kinds of shadows something always seems to be watching. Hungrily watching. These are not the warm shadows of September, for in that month the darkness still remembers the warmth of summer suns; nor were they yet the utterly dead shadows of bleak November, to whom the sun’s warmth is only a wan memory. These were the shadows of October, and they were hungry shadows. When the dying sun cast those kinds of shadows, well…

This was Pine Deep, and it was October—a kind of October particular to Pine Deep. The spring and summer before had been lush; the autumn of the year before that had been bright and bountiful, yielding one of those rare and wonderful Golden Harvests that are written of in tourist books of the region; and though there had been shadows, there hadn’t been shadows as dark as these. No, these shadows belonged to an autumn whose harvest was going to be far darker—these were the shadows of a Black Harvest October in Pine Deep. So, it was October when it happened. It should always be October when these things happen.

In October you expect things to die.


“They said they’d send us some coffee and hot sandwiches in about half an hour,” called Jimmy Castle as he trudged back into the clearing a quarter mile from the Guthrie farmhouse. Yellow crime scene tape was strung from post to post along the rows of towering late season corn, the ends anchored to the wooden rails of the fence that marked the boundary of the big farm. Tarps were pegged down over the spot where Henry Guthrie had been gunned down just a few days ago, and the criminalists and other crime scene investigators would be back in the morning to finish up their comprehensive search of the area. Of the three gunmen who had come into town after fleeing a bloody shoot-out in Philadelphia, two were dead and one—Kenneth Boyd—was still on the loose. That meant that the scene had to be secured until the CSI team was completely done, and it also meant a long cold night for Castle—who was still on loan from Crestville to help with the manhunt—and his partner, Nels Cowan, who was local PD.

Castle had his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his blue Crestville PD jacket, fists balled tight in a losing battle to try and hold on to some warmth. He walked briskly, shoulders rounded to keep the wind off his ears, his straw-colored hair snapping in the stiff breeze. “I told them to send some of those pocket hand-warmers, too…getting pretty freakin’ cold out….”

His words trailed off to nothing as he entered the clearing and all thoughts of warmth were slammed out of his brain.

He stopped walking, stopped talking, stopped breathing. The world imploded down into one tiny quarter-acre of unreality; time and order and logic all were smashed into one chunk of madness. All sound in the world died; all movement failed; all that existed was the tableau that filled his eyes as Jimmy Castle saw the two things that occupied the clearing. His mouth sagged open as he stood there rooted to the spot, feeling all sensation and awareness evaporate into smoke as the seconds fell dead around him. All of his cop reflexes, all of his training in crisis management simply froze into stillness because nothing at the Academy, nothing he had seen on the streets of Pittsburgh, where he’d done his first years, and nothing since he’d moved to Crestville could have prepared him for what he saw there in the moonlight darkness of the Guthrie cornfield. His mind ground to a halt and he just stood there and stared.

Nels Cowan lay on the muddy ground, arms and legs spread in an ecstasy of agony, head thrown back and lolling on what little was left of his throat. Cowan’s mouth was open, but any scream he uttered echoed only in the dark vastness of death; his eyes were open as if beholding horror, but that look was frozen onto his face forever, like an expression carved onto a wax mask. Blood glistened as thick and black as oil in the moonlight. The ghastly wounds on Cowan’s throat were so savage that Castle could even see the taut gray cords of half-severed tendons and the sharp white edge of a cracked vertebra. The dark shape hunched over Nels Cowan raised its head and looked at him without expression for a long moment, and then the bloody mouth opened in a great smile full of immense darkness and hunger, lips parting to reveal hideous teeth that were grimed with pink-white tatters of flesh. The teeth gleamed white through the streaks of red as the smile broadened into a feral snarl; its features were a mask of lust and hate, the nose wrinkled like a dog’s, the black eyes became lost in pits of gristle. A tongue, impossibly long and purplish-gray, lolled from the mouth and licked drops of blood from the thing’s chin.

Jimmy Castle opened his mouth, mimicking the silent scream of Nels Cowan; however his scream escaped, ran shrieking out into the night air and soared disjointedly up into the night. The frozen moment of time melted and he sagged to his knees, still screaming as his fingers scrabbled at the butt of his gun, his fingernails making scratching sounds in the silence. He was only distantly aware that the gun was coming free of the holster. With no mindful awareness of his actions he racked the slide, flicked off the safety, held the gun out and up in both hands, pointed. Fired. Actions performed a thousand times in practice, performed now with absolutely no conscious control, machinelike and correct. The barrel of the heavy 9mm rose, sought its target, and screamed defiance at the man-shape that was rising, tensing, readying itself to spring.

He tried to say the word “Freeze!” and though his mouth worked at it he could not manage any sound. Then his hands, operating independently of his brain, squeezed the trigger.

Thunder boomed and lightning flashed in the clearing as Jimmy Castle tried to blast the thing back into nightmares.

He fired straight, aiming by instinct alone at the centerline of the creature’s body. He fired fast. He fired true. He fired nine times, each boom as loud as all the noise in the world, sending nine tumbling lead slugs directly into the thing, catching it as it rose, catching it in belly and groin and chest. He hit it every single time.

And it did him no damn good at all.



Dawn, October 1st, to Midnight, October 2nd

The hellhounds dogging my steps, everywhere I go The hellhounds following my tracks, everywhere I go; Caught my scent at the crossroads And chasing me through the corn Hellhounds dogging me everywhere I go.

—Oren Morse, Lost and Lonely Blues

I don’t mind them graveyards, and it ain’t ’cause I’m no kind of brave; Said I don’t mind no graveyard, but I ain’t no man that is brave. ’Cause the ghosts of the past, they are harder to face than anything comes from a grave.

—A. L. Sirois, Ghost Road Blues

Chapter 1


The morphine should have kept him out for hours, down there in the darkness where there was no pain, no terror. After the doctors had stitched up his mouth and lip and the nurses had inserted replacement IV needles in his hand and shot the narcotics into his blood, Malcolm Crow should have just gone into that dark nowhere where there are no memories, no dreams. But that didn’t happen.

He only slept for a few hours while Officer Jerry Head—on loan from the Philly PD and part of the combined task force that had been formed to hunt down Kenneth Boyd, Tony Macchio, and Karl Ruger—sat in a plastic visitor chair and watched.

In his dreams Crow walked through the cornfields of the Guthrie farm, looking for Val, searching for her everywhere but finding nothing. As he hunted through the dreamscape he could hear a whispering echo of music buried beneath the hiss and rustle of the moving cornstalks—faint, but definitely there. He knew it was blues because it was always blues in his dreams; he knew that if he could get closer to it, if he could find its source, then he would be able to tell the name of the song. Somehow that mattered, though he did not know why. The dreamer never questions the logic of the dream.

Crow pushed through the corn, wincing now and then as the sharp blades of the leaves nicked his face and palms. He was barefoot; his hospital gown flapped open and the cold stung his ass. The ground was hard, his feet were blistered and bleeding, but he did not stop, did not even look down. The breeze stilled and for just a second he could hear the song more clearly. Damn, he did know it, but he just couldn’t pull the name out of his head. Something about a road. Something about a prison. What the hell was it?

He turned, orienting himself, and looked back the way he’d come. Behind him the corn was smashed down and broken aside as if his passage through the field had been like a bulldozer’s. He could see the trail leading in a twisted line going back so far that it vanished into the distance. The music was stronger now and he moved off to his right, humming as he went. It was in his head, in his mouth, and then he knew it. It was an old prison blues song, something someone had taught him long ago, back when he was a kid; and this time it came to him: “Ghost Road Blues.” A song from down South, something to do with prisoners suffering in Louisiana’s Angola prison and praying for release—even if it was the Angel of Death who unlocked their chains.

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