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Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Horror, #Suspense, #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers

Darkness Under the Sun (5 page)

BOOK: Darkness Under the Sun
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With a mortal
thunk
, the thrown knife embedded in the door frame, two inches to the left of Howie’s head.

He threw the stone in his right hand, heard it thwack something even as he turned to flee, heard Blackwood grunt, shouted—
“Mom, get your gun!”
—crossed the porch, plunged the stairs, spun around, threw at a window, which shattered as he raced to the maple and snatched up two more smooth stones. He had lost his baseball cap somewhere, but he scored a hit on another window and rearmed himself as on the second floor lights bloomed bright and as Blackwood rushed down the porch steps, the throwing knife in his hand.

Howie expected Blackwood to come at him as fast as a bullet, snatch him up, slice him open, and spill his steaming guts on the lawn. But the big man’s nose was bleeding, his blood black in moonlight, and at any moment some neighbor might appear. He couldn’t kill the whole neighborhood, though he looked like he wanted to, so he hung back, pointing at Howie to emphasize his threat. “You tell them
anything
about me, I’ll return some night, tear off your mama’s face. I’ll spend a month cutting Corrine up alive. Keep your mouth shut, and I’m gone forever. There’s a world of bitches like them. I don’t need them unless you rat on me and make me
have
to come back.”

Blackwood turned and seemed to fly across the lawn, through the night, faster than any man could run, magic-fast toward St. Anthony’s and the graveyard, and Howie ducked as a large bird—a raven?—flew so low over his head that he felt its talons comb through his hair and graze his scalp.

He almost wet his pants then, it was a close thing, but instead he ran toward the house, throwing one stone, then another, shattering two more windows. He reached the top of the porch steps as his mother appeared in the open doorway in her pajamas, holding a pistol that she pointed at the floor.

“Howie, what’re you doing, what’s happening?”

Although Howell Dugley was only one week short of his eleventh birthday, he’d known more pain than most grown men ever would, more loss than was right for any child to suffer, more humiliation more humbly endured than might be sufficient to ensure the beatification of a saint, and although he had still been naive until this terrible night, he was naive no more. He realized things that other boys his age would not, including that life was hard but sweet, that life was a long series of losses and that you had to hold on tight to what you loved as long as you had any strength left. He knew that evil dwelt behind kind and familiar faces but that not all evil was hidden, that sometimes evil was brazen because it knew you didn’t want to believe it existed, and it mocked you by its brazenness. He realized that no one could save the world because the world didn’t want to be saved, that all he could hope to rescue from the fires of this world were those who were most precious to him, his family and—if he ever had any—his friends, and that it was prideful in the extreme to think he could do more, just as it might be damning not to try.

Those things understood, he made his choice there on the porch with his mother. If he couldn’t at that moment clearly see the full consequences of his decision, he had a sense of what they might be, and he perceived that remorse might be a weight he would have to carry in years to come. Believing Blackwood’s threat and the big man’s ability to fulfill it, still feeling the talons that had grazed his scalp, Howie decided to leave the world to its self-destruction and save those he might be able to save.

To his mother, as sirens rose in the distance, he said, “It was just stupid kids, those kids that always rag me and knock me around. I was still awake, reading in my room, when I heard them and came down. I didn’t see faces, I can’t name names, but it was them, all right, throwing rocks at the house, and I chased them off.”

When the police arrived moments later, Howie told them the same story. He told it well and sincerely. Howie’s history of being an object of torment for the cruel of heart lent credibility to his simple tale. Furthermore, he understood that good policemen could read your eyes to detect whether you were telling falsehoods and that when you looked away from them, you made them suspicious. He met their eyes directly and did not once look away, because he knew that
his
eyes were harder to meet than theirs. They would worry about him seeing the pity in their eyes and would be concerned that they might glance at the ravaged side of his face and be caught staring at his scars. Therefore, they would spend more time
looking at their notepads as they took down the basics of his statement, would not allow themselves to doubt anything he said, and in the morning would hold their own children tighter than usual.

Howie was lying, and he loathed having to lie, in part because he didn’t want to be a liar like his father. He told himself that his falsehoods were not meant to spare himself, that they were intended instead to spare his mother and sister, but maybe that was mostly—rather than entirely—true.

Later, after the police left, Howie found the square of glass that Blackwood cut from the back door, where it had been set aside on the porch. He cracked it into pieces underfoot and put the fragments on the kitchen floor with a stone. He could not—and didn’t need to—explain the divot in the front-door frame where the throwing knife had embedded after missing his head by two inches.

5

RON BLEEKER WASN’T REPORTED MISSING BY his parents until the following morning, because they had been out drinking all evening at a place called the Drop Inn. When they got home, past midnight, they assumed their son must be safe in his bed. Blackwood had left no other trace of his stay in the old Boswell building—not the bag of trash from their lunch, not the unfinished chips or cookies, not the torn photos of the Dugley house and garage—but he did leave the alley door ajar, evidently by intention. Mere hours after a missing-child alert hit the wire, a patrolman spotted the door and moments later found the body, which was not pinned to the wall but crumpled on the floor. The murder weapon was not left behind. The victim’s ears were found clenched in his fists, which the killer had tied shut using twine. With each ear was a black feather, though no one knew why.

They buried Bleeker not in the cemetery beside St. Anthony’s but in a public graveyard. Carved on his headstone, in addition to the name and dates, were three lines: OUR BELOVED SON / TOO GOOD FOR THIS WORLD / NOW AN ANGEL IN HEAVEN. A photograph of the deceased had been transferred to a
ceramic oval embedded in the dark-gray granite; his handsome face and sweet smile were much like the faces and smiles of angels in movies.

Two months after the funeral, when Howie rode his bike to the graveyard shortly after dawn, a big bouquet of plastic flowers stood in the recessed urn in the base of the headstone; sun and weather had faded them. Bird crap streaked the granite, and the grass close around the base of the stone needed to be hand-trimmed. Howie came to say that he was sorry, that he wouldn’t have left Bleeker to his fate if he had known that Blackwood intended something worse than laying down new rules. He should have said his piece the moment he dropped to his knees on the grass, but at first embarrassment and guilt knotted his tongue. He knelt there in silence long enough for the engraved words and the ceramic photograph and the faded plastic flowers and the bird crap to work on him, which they did, worked like gasoline residue in a third-degree burn long after the flames were out. By the time that he could speak, he
wouldn’t
because he was unable to tolerate the falseness of it all, just could not
stand
the falseness—whether it was deception or delusion—that was everywhere here. He had never seen Bleeker smile like that, not innocently like that. ANGEL wasn’t true. The bird crap and the faded plastic flowers and the untended grass put the lie to BELOVED. Howie knew that if he tried to speak, he would only scream in frustration and abhorrence, and so he got to his feet and stood there until the
shaking stopped, until his heart quieted. Then he walked his bike across the grass to the cemetery lane and rode home.

In another summer, on the one-year anniversary of the day that he had spent with Blackwood on the roof of the old department store, when Howie was one week short of his twelfth birthday, he received a letter postmarked from a town half a continent away. He was home alone when the postman delivered, and because he thought his grandma Alice, his mother’s mother, might send him a card with money for his upcoming birthday, he sorted through the mail as he walked from the curbside box to the house. He was surprised to see his name on a white business-size envelope, which bore no return address and was clearly not from his grandmother. It contained a single sheet of paper that enfolded a raven feather, which fluttered to the porch floor at Howie’s feet. The simple six-word message was in handwriting so neat that it almost looked as though a machine had produced it:
I still remember your delicious sandwiches
.

He tore the letter into small pieces and buried it at the bottom of the trash in the kitchen waste can. He took the glossy feather into the backyard, flung it up into the breeze, and watched solemnly as it sailed away toward St. Anthony’s and the cemetery.

Since the day at Ron Bleeker’s grave, ten months earlier, Howie understood what penance he must perform: For the rest of his life, he must never tell another lie, not so much as a little fib; he must never
engage in even the most innocent deception of any kind, for any reason, no matter how justifiable it might seem. A pledge of truth was his only armor against the horrifying consequences that surely would result from his having made his deal with Blackwood. If his mother or sister found the feather and the mysterious message about sandwiches, he would have been honor-bound to explain it, to tell them all about Blackwood—and thereby rob them of their peace of mind forever.

6

THAT FOLLOWING OCTOBER 25, ALTON TURNER Blackwood made the news posthumously. Howie was in the kitchen, helping his mother by setting the table for dinner, when the story came on the small TV that stood on a counter. In a far city, Blackwood had over a few months murdered four entire families, raped the girls and the women, tortured and mutilated some, before he was killed by the last surviving member of the fourth family, a boy of fourteen named John Calvino, who shot the monster in the face. The news provided no photo of Blackwood because none existed, but there were pictures of the victims. All the young girls reminded Howie of Corrine, and all the mothers reminded him of his own. Flatware rattled in his hands as he laid down the forks, the spoons, the gleaming knives at three place settings on the dinette table.

Blackwood had kept a journal in which he wrote of others he had killed throughout the years, all across America. Over the next day, Howie waited to hear Ron Bleeker’s name and then to be identified as an unwitting accomplice. But the killer’s journal didn’t include the names of the victims or the locations where they were murdered—not until
Blackwood began to slaughter entire families. He had felt that his numerous one-off homicides were in some way beneath him, and he believed that he had achieved greatness as a killer only when he began annihilating whole families. Howie was folding napkins to put on the table when, on the second evening that the story topped the news, he heard that Alton Turner Blackwood had been inspired to murder families by someone whom he described only as “a young boy who made good sandwiches.”

Here were the consequences that Howie dreaded, and they were so terrible that during the next few weeks they gradually laid him as low as any disease might have done. He began to sleep most of the day and to lie in listless distraction when not sleeping. He had no appetite, and sometimes when his mother insisted that he eat, Howie vomited soon after. By mid-November, he had lost five pounds, and although he had no fever, the doctors began to suspect an exotic virus of some kind. Depression was the only virus afflicting him, depression like murky waters into which he sank and sank and seemed sure to drown. Days passed without him being much aware of them, so numbed by sadness that he half heard voices as if through muffling fathoms. He saw little more than shadow and light, as a dying boy might see the world with his back pressed in the mud of a pond and his lungs full of water. His sadness was so deep that even in his all but constant sleep, he experienced neither good dreams nor bad ones, and thus escaped Blackwood, who would have
raged through his nightmares if catatonic sorrow had not spared him from them.

The next time he knew what day it was, he had lost more than two weeks, and it was the second of December, a Sunday, though he didn’t at first know the date when his mother’s weeping began to call him back from the darkness. Through slitted and crusted eyes, he found himself in a hospital, his right arm connected to an intravenous drip. He could tell that he had lost more weight. He felt like a creature of straw and paper. He heard some man say “dehydration from the vomiting and the night sweats. But also
willful
dehydration, not something you see often.” When Howie tried to raise his left arm, he didn’t possess enough strength to move it off the bed.

His mother’s weeping was a wrenching sound, the wretched sobbing of a woman beyond all consolation, and it so pained him to hear her that he couldn’t retreat into darkness again but felt compelled to comfort her. As his thoughts clarified, he heard her say, with such terrible anguish, “Howie saved my life, he saved me from despair by the way he coped with his burns.” The man’s voice seemed to belong to a doctor. Howie didn’t care about the man, what he said. He wanted to hear more from his mother, and in a while he did: “I bought a gun. To kill my husband. For what he’d done, the fire. But by the time they set bail and he found a way to post it, I saw Howie wasn’t just going to live, he was going to thrive. I had to control my rage for Howie’s
sake. Day after day, year after year, he’s been my hero, such courage for a little guy like him. He has such strength, and he’s always been the source of mine.”

BOOK: Darkness Under the Sun
4.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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