The night was cold and moonless. The year's first frost seemed imminent but as he passed the Toms River exit and felt the barrens gathering along the highway he sensed that the frost, were it to come, would rise up out of the dark sand rather than sweep in off the ocean. Although much of the barrens were genuine wilderness and as desolate as envy, there was also a lot of human history buried here. There once were bog iron pits and other small industries all through the area. When the iron gave out, though, the pines took over and whole communities, whole industries, whole ways of life withered and shrank back into the scrub pine. There are towns on the map through this area that just aren't there anymore. They haven't been for a long time. Its the fact that sixty miles from New York, sixty miles from Philadelphia, people tried for two hundred years to settle the land and failed that made the barrens sinister to Loomis. You don't need old stories about the Jersey Devil to give you the creeps around here. Just drive through at night.
Normally, Loomis was no better at spotting a tail than he was at running one. He tried to stay alert on this trip, but found his mind wandering from Martha to Sandra to the Ciscones to why he hadn't called his mother all week. Just past the Toms River tollbooth he pulled into the lighted plaza for five minutes to force himself to concentrate and to watch the cars. No one showed any interest in him, no one pulled off after the tollbooth. He unclipped his pistol and laid it in his lap just to focus his mind.
He got off the Parkway at Double Trouble and headed up 530. The turnoff to Dover Forge was also called 530, at least on the map. Headlights followed him up the first 530, but continued on as he turned left onto the second 530. Without his highbeams he would not have noticed passing through Dover Forge, but just on the other side the Dairy Queen was still lit up. No customers, no cars, nothing at all but a tri-colored neon glow barely penetrating the gathering chilly mists. A minute later he found the bend and parked under the Briarcliffe Estates sign. He turned off the engine and started walking back towards Dover Forge. The only sounds were his footsteps and the low buzz of the power lines. There were no street lamps. To his left, inside the bend was a cranberry bog. To his right was a low wall of pines, gnarled and dense. He couldn't see more than twenty yards in any direction.
He walked down the center of the road and the further he went the colder and unhappier he became. For a person who hated violence, avoided pain and preferred a night light he was certainly putting himself into some vulnerable situations lately. The Tilt-a-whirl at Seaside Heights, the broom closet at the Mayflower and now this. Very uncharacteristic. It must be the money. Which was pathetic since, even though it was a big score to him, it wasn't really serious money. Not enough to pretend he wasn't fooling with people who could really hurt him. His mind was wandering again. Maybe it was the cold. People who freeze to death go through raptures. He'd heard that. He hadn't ever heard of anyone freezing to death in 40N weather, though. Concentrate. Focus. He was reaching under his jacket for the bracing touch of his gun when the lights went on.
The vehicle was parked perpendicular to the road to his right and the headlights were no more than fifteen feet from him. He knew how a deer felt, stunned virtually to coma by fear and helplessness. He wondered if he was to suffer a similar fate. He heard the door open and someone step onto the sand but the whole northern half of the world was nothing but light.
"Don't. Fucking. Move."
"What'chu got under there, Loomis? A candy bar?"
"Uh, no. Actually, no, its not a, uh, candy bar."
"What is it?"
"It's, you know, a gun."
"You mind pulling it out and putting it down?"
"Well, actually, Keever, I got a problem with that. You see, I didn't come here to use it. I mean, you don't have to worry. About me. You don't want to come in, you don't have to come in. I just feel . . ."
"Lemme 'splain something to you, Loomis. If they're going to get me for a murder I didn't commit, what the fuck's the difference if I do you? They'll never find the body, I guarantee you that."
"You see? That's just what I mean. That's what I'm . . ."
"Cut the bullshit, Loomis. Put it down, kick it over or I'll just kill you and get on with my business. Do it now."
Loomis did it. He heard the door slam and saw a figure that might have been Elroy Keever or might have been Conway Twitty walk towards him, blocking one of the headlights.
"Keep your hands down. I ain't going to tie you, but I'm going to blindfold you. You see, if I know you're unarmed and you don't know where the hell you are we got a situation that's controllable. The point is, I got to be comfortable with this or nothing happens. You, you just got to stay cool and not crap your pants. If you were going to get hurt you'd know it by now. Be cool."
Loomis was patted down lightly and blindfolded. He allowed himself to be led to the side of the vehicle which, as soon as he was seated, he knew to be a pickup. Keever, if it was Keever, then went around and got in the driver's side. They sat for a moment in silence.
"You want me to go over it?" asked Loomis.
"Not here. Anyone follow you?"
"Not . . . no."
"How do you know?"
"It's my business."
"So is following people. At that you suck."
"Yeah, well, I guess that was an off day."
"You better hope this isn't another one, 'cause if someone followed you you're dead."
"No one followed me."
"All right. Just think about this. I didn't kill nobody. I don't know what the fuck's going on. I have no idea. You understand me? We're going to go someplace nice and quiet to talk this over. If I like the deal, fine. If not, I'm going to tie you up in the woods and take off. Way, way off. I'll let someone know where you are, but you'll be there till the morning anyway. That's the way it's going to be. If you got a problem with that let me know now."
"I think you'll like what I got, Keever."
"All right," he said and he started the truck.
Loomis wondered what place could possibly be quieter than where they were, but had to concede that it was at least possible that someone might drive by and see them where they were. The blindfold proved pointless, though. The route they took was simple enough and Keever made no effort to disguise it. They turned back towards Dover Forge and drove about thirty to thirty-five miles an hour for no more than two minutes. They turned left onto a sand track. Keever drove no more than a hundred feet onto that before he stopped and turned off the engine. He twisted around and seemed to be watching the road behind him.
"How come you didn't run, Keever?"
"Hah," was all he said for a minute.
"You wanna know why? I came back that night and I could see the cop cars parked around my trailer from the highway. I'm thinking its the coke, right?"
"You were just holding it for Joey."
"Yeah. The important word is 'holding'. I walk into that, what am I gonna say?"
"So how come you didn't run?"
"I figure something can get worked out. I went to Joey. He shows me this place and says stay down until we can figure something out. Maybe his brother has someone he wouldn't mind throwing it on. Couple days later he comes by and goes 'bad news'. That's when I find out the Cap'n's dead and everybody thinks I did it. No only that, he tells me the dope I was holding for him he ripped off of his brothers. Jesus. What a scumbag. But what am I gonna do?"
"I got a suggestion."
"All right. Let's go."
He restarted the engine and drove slowly for another two or three minutes. The truck dipped and swayed in the sand like a rowboat in chop. Branches slapped at the sides and the smell of the pine barrens deepened. It was a dusty, metallic pine scent, like cheap room deodorizer. The truck stopped.
"Can I take off the blindfold?"
"Yeah. Wait a minute." After a few moments Keever told him to go ahead and when he took it off he looked over at Keever holding his own Colt on him.
"Look, Loomis, I'm not figuring on having to use this. But I will, you get me? I don't want to, I don't think I'll need to, but if something funny happens I won't wait a second."
"Fair enough. But be careful. There's one in the chamber."
They got out and started walking toward an unlit shack about twenty yards away.
"One thing I wanted to ask you, Keever. The gun. They found it in your trailer."
"So what? Sandra gave it to me. The night you took our picture."
"Joey told you that was me?"
Sorry about that."
"Yeah. I bet you are."
Which reminded Loomis of another question he had. Namely, what exactly was tattooed on Keever's ass. This was probably not the time or place, though. They stepped on a concrete slab that served as a porch.
"Did anyone else know it was there?"
"Yeah," said Keever. He opened a storm door and motioned with the gun for Loomis to proceed him. He shuffled into the rank smelling interior, inching ahead in the darkness. He heard the storm door swing shut behind him and in front of him, no more than three feet in front of him the blackness exploded into thundering light. For the smallest possible moment the outline of a person stood in front of him and was consumed in the flame that followed. A thousand tiny hot needles stung his face. He felt like he was wearing iron earmuffs, many sizes too small. They had something to do with the noise; a roaring, tumbling avalanche of sound that pushed him backwards two or three steps. He turned to find the door but saw only spots, heard only cacophony, felt only the descending consciousness of shock. He took one wild misstep forward and a tap on the back of his head sent him to his knees. It seemed an absurdly small thing under the circumstances, but it was enough. He swayed on his knees for a moment, groping with his arms, wanting to touch something, wanting to lie down, looking for something, anything that was still and quiet, but lacking the means even to cry out. He received a second blow, much more intelligible than the first. It lit the night again very briefly and as he pitched forward he found a still and quiet place just before his face hit the floor.