Thursday, April 07, 2011

Chapter One

This is the first chapter of my novel, THE LOST. I turned in the complete manuscript to my editor at Tor Books some time ago, but they have yet to make a decision on it one way or the other. So while they've got it, I figured I'd publish the opening chapter here at the blog. Everyone who's seen it and talked with me about this bit has been impressed. The feedback I've gotten has been encouraging. I liked the way the phrasing came to me--almost like music, or rhyme. There's a solid cadence to the prose that made me feel really good while I was writing it.

Well, enough introduction. Here it is:

THE LOST

by James Robert Smith.

Chapter One.

Wiley McCoy sipped the cold Pepsi, wishing that it were a Coke; but nauseous cops couldn't be too choosy at times like this. It was late--past one, he figured, not wanting to look at the clock on the dash or the watch on his shaking wrist. And while he had been able to drag himself out of the beery stupor in which he'd placed himself, his stomach was still crying out for horizontal. That's why he had taken his cruiser off the road and himself there, to Ben Whitaker's Grocery. Usually, he made these pit stops to grab a cup of bad coffee on third shift, but coffee wasn't what he needed. Sipping, he let out a long, silent belch that hinted of Guinness Extra Stout. Better. Much better. Foreign beers were a weakness, and he was regretting his earlier indulgences.

Wiping his lips with the back of his arm, Wiley looked up to see Ben himself appear from the storage room behind the drink and milk coolers. The big, heavy man pulled the door shut with a solid thump and winked at the young officer. Wiley squinted into the fluorescent lights above Whitaker's head and nodded back to him, acknowledging as he always did the free handout. Most of the cops expected the freebies, but Wiley remained mildly awed by the no-cost beverages and food he and the other officers were welcome to at the shops and greasy spoons in town.

Whitaker was working a lush white towel in his thick black hands, and Wiley assumed that the proprietor must have been working in the back room. Pausing long enough to toss the towel at the doorknob he had just released, Ben came over to where the young policeman leaned, hip against the drink machine: one of the old fashioned top-loading kinds. He clapped his huge paw on the kid's shoulder and squeezed--there was nothing phony about the mild display of affection.

"You don't look so good, kid. You okay?" The shopkeeper still called Wiley kid after the youth's first three years on Jasperton, North Carolina's tiny force. And he would probably continue to do so for the next twenty years or more, if both of them lasted that long.

"Yeah," he lied, "I'm fine." His face was pale to the point of bloodlessness, and the lack of color was further enhanced in contrast to Whitaker's blackblack skin. "I was just feeling a little queasy and thought I'd have a coke to settle my stomach. That's all." He raised the Pepsi can as if to prove his point.

"Well, you don't look so good, Wiley. You look pretty sick, if you want to know." Whitaker worked his hands as if still drying them with the lush towel that now dangled from a brassy doorknob. He thought for just a moment before continuing.

"That accident wasn't your fault, son. You know that. Those Rickley boys were askin' for it; been askin' for it a real long time an' their number was just up. That's all." He patted Wiley again with his crowbar fingers.

Wiley stared into the soda can, seeing carbon bubbles floating to the brown surface. "I know. But..." He clenched his left fist, recalling the moment, the screaming tires, the Trans Am vaulting the road in a weird acrobatic display. "It's jus' that I went to school with Sam. He wasn't such a bad guy. A bit wild, but not bad. Not like Phil." The can clicked lightly atop the drink case as the cop set it down.

"That Phil. Man, he was some bad news." Whitaker remembered staring down the barrel of a .38 that Phil Rickley had waved in his face two years before. He shivered, thinking of it, still hearing the thug screaming at him: Mister, you open that safe you got in the back you open it right now or I'll blow yore brains out you hear me dumbass! Just like that. The narrow .38 caliber bore had looked like the open end of a tin can that night.

Ben had felt his hand itching to touch the polished silver amulet he wore around his neck on a simple leather string, but he knew if his fingers had twitched Rickley would have shot him dead. It was blind luck that he had survived the robbery, and Ben liked to say that the only reason the Rickley boy had not killed him was that the little redneck had been so wound up he'd just forgotten to pull the trigger. Once more he patted McCoy on his young shoulder. "Don't you worry about those boys. I tell you it was bound to happen sooner or later. Bad news come to a bad end. You listen to me. I’ve seen 'em come and I’ve seen 'em go. Those Rickleys..." He shook his head. There was no way he could tell the young officer, but there was far more to the poison nature of some of the Rickley clan than Whitaker could ever say.

"Well, listen, Ben, I gotta go. Gotta head on up the road and make sure everything's sittin' right this evenin'." He grabbed up the Pepsi and saluted Whitaker with it. "Thanks for the fizz." With that, he was headed for the door.

"You jus' take it easy, kid. Take it easy tonight."

The older man's voice faded behind bright glass as Wiley strode out to his black-and-white. Wiley paused for a second in the cold, and then he climbed in. He sat there for a moment, smelling the residue of the leather polish someone at the garage had applied to the vinyl that day. Normally, he didn't mind the faintly oily scent, but tonight it bothered his stomach and he would rather have had dingy seats than something more to aggravate the remnants of the day's drunk. Despite what Ben said, despite that he knew it was true (that the Rickleys were bound for a bad end); he couldn't get the image of the accident out of his mind. Phil's Trans Am had turned so purty as it flew through the cold night air: a delicate pirouette, all shiny and yellow--spinning, spinning. Crash.

Worst of all had been the blood. Jesus what a load of blood. You wouldn't think two bodies could hold so much blood.

Wiley opened the door, leaned out, and he vomited up what remained of the eight stouts he had poured down his throat that afternoon, making a mess of the asphalt right in front of the entrance to Sand Ridge Grocery.

Before Whitaker could dislodge himself from the seat behind the counter, Wiley had started up the sedan and was pulling out of the parking lot. Rolling down his window, the young officer spat a few times and resumed sipping at the cola, feeling the cold December air knifing at his face. He burped again, felt better for it. Better than the Rickley boys, that's for sure.

For the best part of an hour Wiley tooled in and out of the edge of town, cruising slowly down Main Street, then creeping through narrow alleys behind shadowed buildings. He was delaying the inevitable. He had to make the circuit down 158, past the decrepit warehouses that were often broken into if smalltime thieves and bored vandals didn't see a spotlight at least once a night. Wiley had to go past the old warehouses and past Waker's Salvage Yard.

Someone had dropped what was left of Rickley's goddamned Trans Am right inside the front gate, where McCoy would have to see it whenever he drove by Ronald Waker's junkyard. Shit and fuck.

Leaving the wide parking lots between the warehouses, Wiley returned to 158. There had been no one poking about the long, low buildings. Hell, it was too damned cold out there to do more than huddle in one spot and pray for sunlight. So he had made quick work of his tour through that place, and now it was time to suck it up and get on with it. Wiley left a sliver of a crack in his window and smelled the sterile winter air that sliced into the sedan's interior and kept him alert. Time to take a ride by Waker's.

158 slid beneath as Wiley gunned the motor and took the car up to eighty. It was so late that he didn't fear encountering anyone on the lonely highway, and he was The Law, so what did it matter? Pin oaks and tall pines hissed as he sped past them, his high beams searing the dark for an instant before it all closed back in behind him. There was no moon and the stars were clear and bright above the strip of road between the forests. Nearby, the hills loomed blackly up toward mountains that peaked beyond the town. McCoy was getting closer and closer to the salvage yard. It was his job to stop there and check the front gate and make certain that no one had forced the chain and broken in. Just that had happened in the past, and Mr. Waker swung heavy clout in these parts: there was a lot of money in that junkyard business of his. Tonight, just get it the heck over with.

Ahead, the eight-foot chain link came eerily into view, like some ghostly wall in the lazy curve of the highway. Behind that, there were the beginnings of the acres of rows of ruined cars and trucks. The main building was invisible in the black of the night, but Wiley knew it was there. He would have to go right to the front gate. He would have to look at Phil Rickley's car.

Please, God. Please let them have moved it.

As he pulled into the wide graveled way that led into the junkyard, his gaze was pulled toward the spot where he knew the broken Trans Am would be. And there it yet remained. Oh, the blood. Phil had still been kicking when Wiley had raced down to the car; his denim covered legs shattered, sporting a dozen knees. And a man's guts really were blue. Trying not to look at the car (failing miserably), he pulled up to the gate and pointed his spotlight at the big chrome chains that snaked around the posts, holding the gate shut. They were secure. Quickly, he gunned the motor and wheeled about. The light speared the Trans Am, and for a long, frozen second Wiley could see someone sitting behind the crumpled steering wheel. There was a slice of an instant in which he saw Phil Rickley grinning at him, his face the slick and bloody mask it had been that last time he'd seen it. Wiley sucked in enough air to choke a Great White before he realized that he was seeing the headrest on the driver's side; it had been shoved high in the accident and had remained thus.

"Jesus. Shit." Wiley rested his head on his wrists, his fingers locked on the steering wheel, and he took four long, even breaths. "I gotta get over this," he told himself.

In a little while he shut his motor down and extinguished the lights. Then he climbed out of the car and walked slowly over to the fence that separated him from Phil's fragmented wheels. In the starlight his breath was pale and bright, pretty plumes in the tar. He faced off with the wreck, thinking of it as some kind of temple to his misdeed. Eventually, somehow, he had to rid himself of the guilt. "I gotta get over it. I gotta get over it." This was therapy, he kept telling himself; it was just good therapy.

There was no moon to mark time, but after a while the cold got to him and he went back to the black-and-white and started her up. He pulled back onto 158, made his way down to the little picnic area that marked the terminus of his rounds, and there he turned about.

As he made his second pass of Waker's yard, he saw the gates standing wide.

"Shit!" He jammed his brake pedal to the floor and the air around the sedan was full of the acrid fumes of frictioned rubber. His first thought was that someone had watched him drive away and had decided that he was done for the night. But as that idea was still a spark making its way logically through the corridors of his brain, he saw the headlights on Phil Rickley's Trans Am come to yellow life. And as he was frozen by the sheer impossible horror of that sight, rear wheels that should not have been able to turn suddenly spun, kicking up gravel and granite dust. The crumpled vehicle shuddered, as if in delight: then it was turning wide, scattering broken rock as it made for the opened gate.

There was somebody at the wheel, and this time Wiley knew he was not imagining things. Screaming, Wiley almost drowned out the bark of his own tires atop the worn surface of 158, his car rocketing forward.

The Trans Am was right behind.

McCoy did not stop in his panic to wonder who that might be bearing down on him. He did not pause to reason that it was merely someone playing quite the joke on him, that it could not possibly be the dead Rickley brothers come back from the other side to take their vengeance on him. No. He had gotten a good look at the shattered car that now dogged his tail, and he was quite sure that it was the same one he had inadvertently chased off the tight curve just beyond Seven-Mile Creek. And that was precisely where 158 would take him if he did not veer off and change course within the next four miles.

The ghostly car advanced to ass-kissing proximity before the black-and-white found enough juice in the pit where Wiley's right foot was jammed. He pulled away, making a small distance between them.

The city fathers of Jasperton were well aware of the love many of its less well-heeled citizens had for fast cars, and so they had provided their officers with vehicles that could deal with four barrels and spoilers. The sedan that the young officer now sent whirring down the way was as fast as any on the local roads. It could make one-thirty, one-forty if the driver knew what he was doing. And Wiley was good--hadn't he proven that he was better at it than Phil Rickley had been?

McCoy's eyes darted here and there. A fraction of a glance told him that he was doing a hundred and ten miles per hour. A look ahead told him that the road was clear until the next curve, that the night was as dark as the mayor's heart, that he was alone with what followed hot on his tail. The squint he braved in the rear view mirror sent a chunk of ice through his guts.

The dome light was on in the Trans Am and Phil was there, laughing through red, shredded lips. There was someone sitting in the front seat beside Phil Rickley, but the light did not show much there. Wiley knew it was the younger brother, Sam. Phil's car eased forward and the cop felt a tiny vibration as the smaller car tap-tapped, bumpers meeting impossibly.

"No!" Wiley screamed again and took the next curve much too fast, somehow kept the road and found a tad more speed on the incline. McCoy knew that had been just plain luck—the curve was a nasty one and God help anyone who failed to make it at speed. On the other side was a steep slope plunging down to the river.

Now he was doing one-twenty. He could see Phil laughing at him as he edged away. There was blood oozing out of Rickley's torn throat. Impossibly, McCoy could see it clearly and was so engrossed by the wet creep of it that he almost did not remember the slight dip in the road just ahead. His car actually left the blacktop: free flight.

When the sedan came jarringly down, he lost a step and had to watch as the once-glittering Trans Am hugged the smooth surface of 158 and came back to butthole-sniffing distance: one cur checking out the other. There was about to be some fucking done. McCoy made his car find its second wind so that he could take back his lebensraum. One-thirty. Behind him, what-was-left-of-Phil merely grinned. He couldn't hear anything but the whine of the motors, but he was certain the ghost was laughing at him. Almost, he could make out the awful bellowing. He had the gas pedal kissing floorboard so hard he expected to feel blacktop scraping his toes.

Seeing the speedometer, he read the gauge. One-thirty-five.

That's how fast he'd been doing when.

The sedan exited, barely, stage right. McCoy's fingers locked around the wheel as tight as a tick on a pup's ear. That effort was not enough and he could merely hold on as the front end nosed eastward, to the soft shoulder and the closely packed woods beyond. There was a mellow thud of turf against undercarriage, the hood came unhinged and bounced skyward down skyward down right the fuck off and into the cold, night breeze look at it sail. The black-and-white's rear end decided to get in on the act and began to skew toward the Atlantic three hundred miles eastward and now the whole car was looking to go flip.

But Wiley McCoy knew how to drive before he knew how to read proper and he turned into the slide. The weight of the big car helped out and he brought the front end forward and the trunk pointed where it was supposed to be. That was why he did not flip the car.

That was why he merely impacted on the big red maple that had stood for a hundred years where 158 crossed Seven-Mile Creek. He was only doing fifty.

When he woke up, the first thing he did was bring his hand to his face. There was a throbbing right in the middle of his forehead and he was afraid there might be blood. A visual examination of the eight fingers of his left hand showed him there was not. Then he recalled what was going on and where he was.

The front of the squad car was a crumpled wad. The main bulk of the engine had been forced up like a heavy pimple and it steamed there in the chilly dark. McCoy blinked, then looked in his rear view mirror, which was miraculously aimed precisely at the straightaway of 158. Phil Rickley's Trans Am still sat up there, idling away in a manner that was impossible for a car as chewed up and spit out as that one currently was. Its headlights shone sick and yellow in the night. Wiley groaned and reached for the release of his shoulder harness. At least he was down here and Rickley was still up there.

"Cold ain't it? But not as cold as it is in hell. Hiya, Pard." It was Rickley, that same high voice. Right at his ear. Wiley turned in his seat, realizing that he was not seriously injured but that he was terribly bruised at many a point on his body. The window on his side of the car was gone, shattered out. In the window was Phil Rickley, leaning almost in and looking no better than he had the last time McCoy had seen him. Rickley's jaw appeared to have been broken, which made his smile seem more awful than it might otherwise. Teeth were gone; blood leaked out of the gaps. Phil blinked and Wiley noticed that the other's eyes bulged slightly, for they had been almost forced out of his head the night he had been killed. The young cop found the release on the shoulder harness and pressed it down, liberating himself from its lifesaving grip.

"Bet you never thought you'd see me again, did ya?"

"Aaaaaagh!" McCoy screamed like a fool.

Rickley rolled his eyes and the effect of the action shut McCoy up. Jasperton's finest recoiled in his seat and waited.

"That's better, boy. I come back from hell for this, an' I ain't a-wastin' time jus' to hear you holler." Rickley's white hands gripped the side of the sedan but made no attempt to come inside.

"You gonna kill m-me?" Wiley stared and waited.

"No, I ain't gonna kill you." Rickley seemed to strain then, as if fighting against some pain. His head twisted sidewise, then skyward, then back to Wiley. His dead breath blew into McCoy' s face. "I come back to warn you."

"Warn me?"

"Not jus' you. All of you'ns. The whole town."

Wiley swallowed. "What is it?" He still thought Rickley was there to take him down.

"Somethin' bad. Somethin' really bad."

"Worse than you?"

"Oh, a hell of a lot worse than me. You just don't know." A thin crimson string crept out of Rickley's right nostril.

"What is it?"

"It won't look like much when it gets here, McCoy. A little boy who ain't from around these parts." Rickley lifted his hands away from the wrecked car and leaned back.

"A little boy? What...?"

The dead man was already walking away. He turned his head on its broken neck enough to let McCoy know he'd heard. "Just a strange little boy, McCoy. You better watch for him and you better watch out when he gets here.

"And you better do somethin' about 'im, too. You know what I mean." His dead, frigid voice began to fade.

Wiley scrambled to the door and tried to open it and could not. He thrust his arms through the windowless socket and poked his head out. "Where you goin', Phil?"

The Trans Am glittered in spots, where the body had not been bent and crimped. The Rickley brothers were side by side in there as it turned about on the narrow lanes of 158. There was an icy breeze coming down to where Wiley McCoy strained and stared. "Back to hell, Officer."

"I'm sorry, Phil," Wiley screamed. But his exclamation had been drowned out by the peal of ghost tires against roadtop and he knew it. He leaned out of the window, feeling the cold, knowing hell was like this. He cried and thought of dead men and strange little boys.

Sliding away, the Rickleys aimed for the roar of the furnace.

2 comments:

Jack said...

Excellent first chapter! I want to read the rest!

Where is Jasperton, NC

HemlockMan said...

Jasperton is a fictional town set in the mountains of NC. I based it on several small Appalachian towns I've visited from Georgia in the south to West Virginia in the north. I did have a specific village in mind, but I'll keep it to myself for a while, at least.

This novel literally took me about twenty years to complete. I am not exaggerating.