TWENTY – JOE RATHBURN
After his fourth walk around the Green Hills site, Joe Rathburn returned to his battered Dodge. He plunked himself down in the driver’s seat and turned the heat on full blast. Then he retrieved his lunchbox from the floor of the passenger side and fished out the thermos.
He reclined his seat just a bit and poured himself a cup of coffee, heavy on the caffeine. He took a long sip and tried to relax.
Thank God tonight had been quiet. A couple of curious teenagers had come poking around over the weekend, but Joe’d scared them off. Tonight, though… nothing. Thank God. Joe had enough on his mind already.
Overall, keeping an eye on the site after the cops went home had been a good gig. Sure, the hours were long, and it was pretty damn chilly, but the pay more than made up for the inconvenience. And it got him out of the house at night, too.
This last was something of a bonus. Joe’s marriage had gone downhill lately. His years of drinking took a toll on his wife, May. Even now, though he’d been sober for a couple of months, the old baggage—problems he thought they’d gotten past—kept coming up.
Of course, Joe couldn’t blame her. She’d put up with his shit for the better part of sixteen years. At least they didn’t have any kids. Joe was glad he hadn’t inflicted his problems on young and impressionable minds.
On the other hand, being childless was a sore spot with May, as well. But what could Joe do? May was past her prime child-bearing years, and they didn’t have money for any expensive fertility treatments. And it seemed to Joe just a little late in life to be adopting. Joe couldn’t picture himself bouncing a child on his knee during retirement—not his own child anyway.
So, maybe with him out of the house for a couple of nights, May would have some time to relax and get his troubles out of her system. Maybe, apart, they could figure out a way to make peace together.
Joe loved his wife, still, though he supposed he didn’t have any reason not to. She was the one who’d suffered through his addiction. He could hardly criticize her for not believing that he’d stay on the wagon this time.
Nope. He couldn’t blame her for being mad at him. He just hoped that, given time, she’d be able to forgive him.
He sighed and wished—for just a moment—that the drink in his thermos was something stronger.
Joe took another sip of coffee and stared out the car window into the darkness. He hoped that the crew would be able to get back to work on Green Hills soon, although the strife at work tore at him almost as much as the trouble at home.
Joe and Randolph Byrd had been friends for a lot of years. Byrd kept him on the job and covered Joe’s ass many times over the years. Most other guys would have just canned Joe; when he drank, Rathburn was a very marginal worker.
But Byrd had worked under Joe when Abner first hired the younger man into the company. Joe had been fair with him, and Byrd never forgot. Whatever his other faults might be—and he had many—Randolph Byrd was loyal.
Probably too loyal. Joe shook his head at the thought. Even now, Byrd remained devoted to the late Abner Winslow. Abner had been an indifferent task master at best, and a cruel one at worst. The old man would have just as soon fired a worker as looked at him.
Joe found only two things to admire about the old man. One, he was rich. Though Joe knew Abner had probably done a lot of bad things to get the money, it was hard not to envy the miser his wealth. Two, Abner possessed a fine taste in women, at least to judge from the lookers he kept around the office.
Jill Collins had been a babe, and Kay Bailey possessed a kind of confused, smoldering sensuality that Joe found very distracting. He had trouble talking to her without tripping over his tongue.
Of course, the old man didn’t treat women very well. Even inexpert as he was on that front, Joe could see that. And Abner never would have promoted Bobbi Weis or Farrah Smith within a crew—not unless he thought he could get some pussy from them.
Joe chuckled to himself. Fat chance even old Abner could have gotten any out of Bobbi.
That was another thing Joe had to give Byrd credit for: he allowed a person, whether male or female, to do a job. Even though he probably could have canned Bobbi, and despite the fact that she’d given Byrd more trouble than anyone but Grant recently, Byrd still kept her on. Despite his quips and the resentment he felt toward her, Byrd knew Bobbi was good at her job.
Joe wondered how long the two of them could go at each other without something blowing up.
And if Byrd did try to fire Bobbi, would Grant step in and fire Byrd?
Joe knew that Bobbi and Grant had become friends quickly. Why not? Sexual preference aside, they were both about the same age and they seemed to have similar tastes, if not backgrounds.
Joe wondered what it would be like to grow up rich like Grant. Sure, Grant didn’t act much like a rich kid. He was very self-sufficient, and not at all spoiled. Maybe the fights he used to have with his uncle and the time Grant had spent away from home in the Navy… no, Greenpeace… had something to do with it.
Joe bumped the side of his head with his hand, as if to make the Greenpeace information stick. Getting past Abner’s lies could take a lot of time. Abner Winslow had been good at lying.
But Grant… He didn’t seem to have much guile in him. Maybe that’s why Joe found himself liking the boy, despite the fact that Grant and Byrd were at loggerheads currently.
Grant was hard to dislike. Joe wasn’t really sure why Byrd had so much trouble with the Winslow heir.
Yes, maybe Abner had promised Byrd a cut of the business—but Abner said anything to get what he wanted. If he couldn’t buy what he wanted with words, then he used money. If it wasn’t words or money, he used fear. Joe figured it was a combination of all three that bought Randolph Byrd.
Even now, old Abner had his hooks in Byrd from beyond the grave. Joe hated the idea of having to choose loyalties between the guy he’d known for so long and the young man he admired.
Sure, the new kid had a lot of strange ideas, but wasn’t that what life was about: learning new things? Why was Byrd so resistant to change? Heck, Joe figured if an old boozer like him could change, anybody could.
He took another sip of coffee. Then something outside caught his attention: a noise loud enough to be heard over the sound of the car’s heater.
Joe peered into the darkness but couldn’t see anything.
The first night after the bones had been discovered, some kids came out to the site to rubberneck. Joe had chased them off, and he hadn’t had any trouble (other than from the occasional raccoon) since.
But the noise outside didn’t sound like a coon.
Joe stepped out of the car and switched on his high-power flashlight. He saw nothing. Had another batch of kids decided to satisfy their morbid curiosity?
“Hey, anybody out here?” he called.
The darkness gave no reply.
Deciding the sound came from near the big machines, Joe trudged off through the mud in the direction of the bulldozers. As he walked, he played the flashlight around the site, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He chuckled to himself, the action suddenly reminding him of the opening to old NBC Mystery Movie series. He resisted the urge to whistle the theme song.
He saw nothing. Just the mud and the trees. No people, no animals. Nothing.
Until his light passed over one of the bulldozers.
Something shiny sat on the hood of the machine. The object was about the size of a large lunchbox. It took Joe a moment to realize what it was.
Beer. Two six packs. Just sitting there on the hood in front of the dozer’s cab.
“Okay, kids, you can come out now,” said Joe. “Party’s over.” He shone his light around the machines, but saw no sign of anyone.
“Hey, come out of there,” he said, pretending he’d seen someone. Still no answer. Joe wished he had a gun.
He walked around the other side of the bulldozer, between it and a couple of other earth movers. But found no one there.
Joe pointed his flashlight toward the ground and looked for tracks. With all the mud, he’d surely be able to find some trace of the intruders.
But he saw no sign. Nothing.
This puzzled Joe. Why would kids sneaking into a construction site bother to cover their tracks? Why would they put down two six-packs and then run away without even trying to retrieve the beer?
It didn’t make sense, but there the alcohol sat. Joe took off one of his gloves and touched the cans.
They were cold, colder than the night air, like they’d just come out of a liquor store cooler.
Joe licked his lips at the thought.
It had been a long time since he’d knocked back a cold one. Too long. Especially with all the shit that was happening at work and home.
Three or four of these babies could make that all go away. And there they lay, twelve of them. A dozen perfect, pristine cans of Coors—Joe’s former beverage of choice. Close enough that he could almost taste them. He could imagine hearing the crisp “Fsst!” of the pop-tops.
Joe discovered his mouth had gone dry. His tongue felt like straw.
He put his glove back on, tucked one six under his left arm, and picked up the other with his right hand. In his left hand he kept the flashlight. He played it around the area some more, but he still saw nothing. Cautiously, he walked back toward where his car sat idling.
A sudden thought occurred to him. Someone left this for me.
Was it a present, or a joke?
Or maybe a test.
Sure. Maybe Grant was testing him, seeing if he could be trusted to stay on the job.
The Winslow heir had dropped out the other night to see him; maybe he’d come back.
And he’d brought the beer. To test Joe.
Maybe the kid was sneaky, just like his uncle.
Joe frowned. He hadn’t seen anything in the young Winslow that would indicate this level of treachery. But maybe Joe didn’t really know him. Maybe no one did. Grant hadn’t been home that long. He hadn’t come back for his uncle’s funeral.
He hadn’t even come back for his parents’ funerals.
What did anyone really know about him?
Joe felt anger and betrayal welling up within him. His thirst for the cool golden liquid vanished.
He took the six in his hand and flung it into the woods, out of range of his flashlight. He heard a satisfying clunk and hiss as the beer hit something and exploded into a cloud of spray and foam.
Smiling, Joe pulled the other six from under his arm and pitched it as well. He waited for the impact.
“Ouch!” said a voice from the darkness.
Joe froze. Something inhuman in the high-pitched, nasal tones turned his spine to ice.
“It’s a sin to waste good beer, Joe,” the voice said mockingly.
Joe realized there was something familiar about the voice, thought he couldn’t place it. “Who are you? What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked, shining the flashlight into the woods. “Where are you?”
“We’re everywhere, Joe,” said the voice. “Like the worms.”
Joe could see them now, many pairs of glowing green eyes peering at him from out of the woods. The construction man’s heart fell nearly into his shoes as he realized just how badly he was outnumbered.
“What’s the matter, Joe?” asked the voice Joe still couldn’t place. “Don’t want to come to our party?”
Get to the car, Joe, whispered a more familiar voice in the back of Joe’s head. Recognizing the wisdom of his confused thoughts, Joe started to edge in that direction He kept his light trained on the glowing eyes, trying to ward them off with the brightness.
“I don’t think he likes us,” said a second, more feminine voice.
“Maybe he’s forgotten how to have fun,” hissed the first. Maybe we need to show him.”
Joe didn’t wait to hear any more. He turned and ran toward the car as fast as he could, cursing his years as a couch potato.
Behind him, he heard rustling in the woods: leaves being brushed aside, twigs snapping. He wondered how much time he had before the creatures would break into the clear.
“Don’t run, Joe,” said the female voice. “Come back and play with us!”
Terror gripped his heart as Joe reached the car. His hand found the door latch and yanked it open.
I’m safe, he thought, panting. They can’t catch me now.
Then two bony hands reached out from under the car and grabbed his ankles.
The flashlight flew out of Joe’s hand as the creature under the Dodge yanked on his legs.
Joe screamed. The flashlight hit the ground and went out. Joe’s fingers groped for something to hold onto, but the car’s chrome trim came off in his hands.
Joe was a strong man, but the claws holding him possessed inhuman strength.
With one more tug Joe found himself yanked into darkness. Soon only the echoes of his screams and the tittering laughter of the ghouls remained.