Ghost Road Blues Page 2

Crow rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Never happen. Everyone knows this is a haunted hayride. Things are supposed to jump out at you.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Crow checked his watch. “I’m probably going to do the nine-​fifteen tour and then I’m out of here. Think you can handle it the rest of the night?”

“Have so far,” Coop said, trying to convey through his tone that having run the attraction for fourteen years before the owner had made Crow the general manager, he could somehow find it in himself to slog through another night.

If he caught the sarcasm, Crow made no sign. Instead he clapped Coop on the shoulder and went through the barn into the office.

In the office, Malcolm Crow settled into the leather swivel chair behind the desk, propped his crossed heels on the edge of a stack of boxed T-​shirts, and tugged his cell phone out of his jeans pocket. He hit a speed-​dial number with a thumbnail and held it to his ear.

She picked up on the third ring. “Hey,” she said, her voice husky and breathless.

“Mmm,” he said, “sounds like I interrupted you in the middle of some sordid sexual adventure.”

Val Guthrie’s dry snort was eloquent. “Yeah. I’m having wild and crazy sex with my Stairmaster.”

“You harlot.”

“I think I climbed the equivalent of Mount Rainier. I’m all sweaty, but my buns are like steel.”

“Whereas I get my strength through purity.”

“Crow, if that’s the source of your strength you would be able to bench press a daffodil.”

“So young to be so hardened.” He clucked his tongue a few times.

“Are you coming over tonight, or are you going to stay there and increase the therapy bills of every teenager in four counties?”

“I’ll be over, baby,” he said. “But—you should have heard the screams. That last trap I built—the one with the living dead dragging the kid out of the cart? Man oh man, was that hot!”

There was a slight pause and Crow could imagine her sighing and shaking her head. “You are a very, very, very strange man.”

“Your point being?”

“Oh, shut up and come over here so we can engage in something a bit more wholesome than blood and gore.”

“Hmmmm,” he said, drawing it out.

“I’ll take a nice hot shower and I’ll be all pink and clean when you get here.”

“I don’t know, I think I prefer you sweaty.”

“I don’t mind getting sweaty all over again,” she said sweetly, and hung up.

Crow leaned back in his chair and pictured her—slim, strong, with black hair and a crooked nose, and the most intelligent eyes he’d ever seen. Eyes that went all smoky and out of focus when they made love.

Suddenly gore and ghouls had less immediate appeal.

He looked at his watch. Almost time to take out his last batch, and after that it would be off to Val’s farm, and maybe a long walk in the cornfield to a spot where they both liked—well away from the house—where they sometimes made love under the stars. Even on cold nights like this one.

Crow got up and shoved his cell back into his pocket as he walked through the barn to the field. The staff would be herding the next group of kids onto the flatbed, but Crow didn’t watch them. Instead he turned and looked east. Val’s farm was that way. Miles and miles away, across seas of waving corn and knobbed fields of pumpkins. There were no lights at all in that direction, and there would be no spray of stars tonight. The sky was a uniform and totally featureless black that stretched forever.

He felt wonderfully happy. The hayride was a success, even if it did push the limits—a fact he’d never openly admit—and Val Guthrie was the most wonderful woman on earth.

Then, without warning, he shuddered. A deep shudder that raised gooseflesh along his arms and made all the hair on his scalp twitch and tingle. Somewhere beyond the veil of black nothingness he heard the faintest growl of thunder. Just the hint of a coming storm. The thunder sounded a little like laughter. The deep kind, from far inside the chest. Mirthless.

He shivered again.

“Someone walked over my grave,” he said aloud.

In the distance the thunder laughed again and there was a single flash of lightning that scratched a deep red vein in the darkness.

Off to his right he could hear the screams of the kids as they encountered monsters. At that moment, Crow didn’t like the sound of it.


That night, after leaving the hayride and driving over to Val’s farm, and after taking a moonlight stroll and then making love, Crow drifted to sleep in her arms, the strangeness of the coming storm gone from his mind. But down there in the darkness, even with Val’s arms around him and the warm reality of her breath against the side of his throat, Crow sank down into a tangle of an old dream. Not a dream that was so old that he hadn’t dreamt it in a while, but a dream that was worn into the fabric of his mind like calluses on a grave digger’s hands. Part of the dream was actual memory—the latter parts—but most of the dream was a patchwork of things he had guessed, or pieced together over the years, or intuited. The dream was as ugly and as compelling as the morbid fascination of watching a neighbor’s house burn down, and on some level Crow knew that he had to pass all the way through it, relive every bit of memory and supposition, before the dream would leave him alone. Asleep, he set his jaw and ground his teeth and floated helpless on the current that took him back thirty years….


Autumn of 1976

The Bone Man killed the devil with a guitar.

He chased the devil past the crossroads and chased the devil through the corn, and he caught the devil in the hollow between the mountains where the deep shadows live. It was a swamp down there with mosquitoes as fierce as hurt dogs and snakes the color of mud.

Truth is, they chased each other. Sometimes the devil had the upper hand and he hunted the Bone Man, first with a German Luger he’d been issued a long time ago, and then when he ran out of bullets he chased the Bone Man with a skinning knife. Though the Bone Man was skinny and looked sick, he was a strong man with twenty years of fieldwork in his hard hands and a back made of iron slats and old rope. They’d grappled at the top of the hill, down at the Passion Pit where the kids go to neck. They were both filled with blood and rage, but the moon was still down and the devil was still only a man; on equal ground the Bone Man was stronger. The skinning knife went spinning off into a tangle of wild rose and the devil lost his footing there at the edge. He fell and rolled and tumbled and finally overturned back onto his feet and went running the rest of the way down that steep slope into the shadows of Dark Hollow.

The Bone Man stood panting at the top of the hill for just a second, looking west to see the sun dropping toward the tree line and gauging how much day he had left to do this thing. The amount of day was the same as the amount of time he’d had left to live if he didn’t catch the devil right now. Once the moon was up, the tide of events would turn, and turn red.

His guitar was still strapped across his bony shoulders—it had jiggled and jounced throughout the chase and the fight but it was still there. Clear beads of cold sweat ran in steaks down his brown face and glistened like splinters of broken glass in his Afro.

Then he jumped over the edge of the hill, dropping eight feet onto the slope, running so fast that he beat the pull of gravity and kept from falling. He wore no socks and around his ankle was a dime with a hole through it strung on a piece of twine. The dime flashed in the dying sunlight with each step, and then he reached the line of shadows created by the angle of the farthest mountain, and the twinkling dime winked out. His aunt in Baton Rouge had given him that, and even though the Bone Man didn’t do vodoun, he was smart enough to keep any charm against evil. The slope was three hundred yards and almost as steep as the inside of a pilsner glass. The Bone Man could hear the devil crashing through the brush in the shadows a dozen yards below.

The Bone Man raced faster, not caring at all when tree branches whipped his face or briars tugged at his ankles. He had to catch the devil before moonrise.

He hit the bottom of the hollow hard enough to jolt him down to his knees and he cried out in pain, but he hauled himself right back up because crying about it don’t get it done. Setting his teeth against the pain and setting his heart against the fear, he ran into the shadows, his eyes adjusting to the bad light, searching for the devil and finding him almost at once. The devil had stopped to wrestle with a tree branch, trying to break it off, but the wood was green and didn’t want to die.

The Bone Man had no Luger, no skinning knife. All he had was his guitar and without even thinking about it he plucked the strap from his chest and hauled the instrument over his head just as the devil broke off the green branch. As the devil turned to face him, the Bone Man could see the man’s eyes change from blue to yellow to red. Just like that. The pupils contracted to slits and the devil suddenly laughed, his mouth opening wet and wide, and there were a lot of teeth in there. The devil looked at the stick in his hands and as his hands began to change he snarled with contempt and threw the stick away.

The Bone Man didn’t stop, didn’t flinch though his heart was turning to ice in his chest. He gripped the guitar by the neck and as he raced the last few yards he swung it. The devil was arrogant. He was into the change now and he knew what he would become. He was prideful, was the devil; and pride is a dangerous thing, even to the devil.

The guitar whistled through the air and the strings hummed with dark music as it cut around in a tight arc, powered by every ounce of strength the Bone Man possessed. The body of the guitar hit the grinning devil in the face and exploded into a million fragments of swamp ash and maple. The strings broke and twanged, singing chords of anger; the rosewood fingerboard split in two pieces. In the microsecond before the impact sent the devil crashing to the ground his face changed from a sneer of hungry triumph to a look of pure human amazement. He spun away, crying out in shock and pain, spit and blood erupting from his mouth as he fell. He wasn’t far enough into the change to be able to shrug that off with a sneer. He was still more man than wolf.

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