To make sure the sheriff and his four-armed pal didn’t notice us, we pushed the truck in neutral for a couple of blocks before I turned on the ignition and we hopped inside. And I didn’t turn on the headlights until we were a mile away.
We didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, as I slowed to make the turn toward my place, Stella said, “No, not yet – we need to get to Pete’s. I have to tell him about this.”
“Just drive, Hank.”
It didn’t make sense, but nothing else was making sense that night, so I drove.
“Should we call ahead?” I said and immediately realized how stupid it was to ask that.
“Pete’s off the grid,” she said, stating the obvious at the same instant I said, “Never mind, how dumb am I?”
And then I finally pulled out of the shock enough to blow up.
“What just happened, Stella – or Kathleen or whoever you are?” I shouted. “How did the sheriff just happen to show up, and WHAT in HELL was that with Belloc?”
“I don’t know how they found out,” she said, clipping off the words.
This time, Pete did not come out with a big grin. He knew the sound of my truck, and seeing as he knew about our caper and that we weren’t planning to stop at his place, he came out to greet us with a concerned look and a rifle.
“What happened?” he said, foregoing the big handshake and any other pleasantries.
“Buzz is dead,” I said. “Shot by some kind of electric ray gun – I know it sounds nuts, but –”
“We saw one, Pete,” Stella said. “They’re real and just as big as we’d heard.”
Now, here is where I made the sharp right turn from denial to anger in the classic five stages of grief. First, I needed a stunned couple of seconds of incoherent stuttering until I could get to the point.
“What – how – what – you mean, you know what that damn monster was?! What the hell is going on here?”
“Not now, Hank,” Pete said, turning me back toward my truck. “You need to get home to bed.”
“Not without you telling me what just happened!”
Pete Bratcher grabbed hold of me by the shoulder and looked me dead in the eye. I was looking into what I had thought was the most kind and honest face I know, but he had held something back from me, and he wasn’t looking happy right this minute.
“Hank,” he said, and paused a beat to make sure I was listening. “This is life and death here. You have to get home. You’re Buzz’s best friend and the closest thing to family he’s got. Sheriff Belloc is going to go to your place for the death notification. He’s going to be wondering what the hell Buzz was doing down by the train station. If you’re not home, he’s going to be wondering where the hell YOU went.”
It made sense, but I still needed to know.
“But what’s going on, Pete?” I said, beaten down.
“Time enough for that later,” he said. “You come back here around 10, and I’ll tell you all I can then. Promise. Now get home. Who’s got the coin?”
I pulled the medallion out of my pocket.
“OK, I got this,” Pete said, reaching for the coin, which I held back.
“What’s going on, Pete?” I said. “Tell me and you can have the coin.”
Pete sucker-punched me in the gut and withdrew the coin from my hand while I was doubled over trying to catch my breath.
“How many times do I have to tell you there’s no time?” he said, pushing me toward the truck. “Go home and, for the love of God, you make sure when the sheriff gets there you behave like you’ve been sleeping like a dead dog since 10 o’clock and this is all a surprise. He has to believe you, Hank, or you’re a dead man. You hear me? Kathleen, you stay here. Anyone gonna find your car where you stashed it?”
“We’ll pick it up tomorrow. I’m real sorry, Hank, I promise I’ll tell you more when you come back. Now get.”
“Are you the buyer, Pete? Tell me that much. We fetched the coin for you?”
“Yeah, you did,” Pete said, and then like a drill sergeant, “Get out of here, man. Now!”
The one thing Pete said that made sense was how the sheriff would come looking for me once they had the scene secured, so I got going.
“We saw one, Pete” – that grim statement slapped me in the face and bounced around my head as I drove to the cabin. The two of them knew what the four-armed monster was, or at least they’d heard about it – about them, I mean, because she said “we saw one” like she knew there were more than one of ’em. How much did they know? How much had they been keeping me in the dark, and why? How did Pete figure into this, anyway? What WAS this, anyway?
I parked the truck and hoped Belloc wouldn’t get there until long after the engine cooled.
I dressed for bed so fast you’d think I had an overnight guest waiting there. I climbed in and lay under the covers thinking and waiting, turning the night over in my brain.
Buzz – I got Buzz killed dragging him into whatever this was. You’d think that fact alone would keep me adrenaline-fused and in agony all the rest of the night, but I guess I was in shock or exhausted or something, because after less tossing and turning that I expected, I actually dozed off.
There was just the slightest hint of dawn in the sky when the sound of tires in my driveway woke me back up. I pulled the curtain aside and saw the sheriff’s squad car parked behind my truck in the driveway.