Twelve Gauge by Ronald Kelly by Ronald Kelly - Read Online

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Twelve Gauge - Ronald Kelly

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2014

LICENSE NOTES

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Meet the Author

Ronald Kelly was born November 20, 1959 in Nashville, Tennessee where he was raised a Southern Baptist. He attended Pegram Elementary School and Cheatham County Central High School (both in Ashland City, Tennessee) before starting his writing career.

Ronald Kelly began his writing career in 1986 and quickly sold his first short story, Breakfast Serial, to Terror Time Again magazine. His first novel, Hindsight was released by Zebra Books in 1990. His audiobook collection, Dark Dixie: Tales of Southern Horror, was on the nominating ballot of the 1992 Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album. Zebra published seven of Ronald Kelly’s novels from 1990 to 1996. Ronald’s short fiction work has been published by Cemetery Dance, Borderlands 3, Deathrealm, Dark at Heart, Hot Blood: Seeds of Fear, and many more. After selling hundreds of thousands of books, the bottom dropped out of the horror market in 1996. So, when Zebra dropped their horror line in October 1996, Ronald Kelly stopped writing for almost ten years and worked various jobs including welder, factory worker, production manager, drugstore manager, and custodian.

In 2006, Ronald Kelly started writing again. In early 2008, Croatoan Publishing released his work Flesh Welder as a standalone chapbook, and it quickly sold out. In early 2009 Cemetery Dance Publications released a limited edition hardcover of his fist short story collection, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors. Also in 2010, Cemetery Dance is planning on releasing his first novel in over ten years called, Hell Hollow as a limited edition hardcover. Ronald’s Zebra/Pinnacle horror novels are being released by Thunderstorm Books as The Essential Ronald Kelly series. Each book contains a new novella related to the novel’s original storyline.

Ronald Kelly currently lives in Brush Creek, Tennessee, with his wife, Joyce, and their three children.

Book List

Novels

Blood Kin

Father’s Little Helper (re-released as Twelve Gauge)

Fear

Hell Hollow

Hindsight

Moon of the Werewolf (re-released as Undertaker’s Moon)

Pitfall

Restless Shadows

Something Out There (re-released as The Dark’Un)

The China Doll

The Possession (to be re-released as Burnt Magnolia)

Timber Gray

Novellas

Flesh Welder

Collections

After the Burn

Cumberland Furnace and Other Fear Forged Fables

Dark Dixie

Dark Dixie II

Long Chills

Mister Glow-Bones & Other Halloween Tales

The Sick Stuff

Twilight Hankerings

Unhinged

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TWELVE GAUGE

To my current publishers

Paul Goblirsch

Richard Chizmar

Roy Robbins

&

David N. Wilson

for bringing me and my fiction back to life after a long, self-imposed coma.

Prologue

On the morning of December 25, 1978, a rattletrap Ford station wagon finally gave up the ghost on U.S. Highway 79. It was traveling a half mile north of the rural town of Cedar Bluff, Tennessee, when something gave away beneath the hood. The engine stuttered and struggled for a moment, then stalled. As its driver steered the car to the gravel shoulder, white vapor began to drift from the openings of the front grill and around the edges of the hood.

There were three occupants in the car. One was on the point of madness, while the other two were scared half out of their wits. The driver of the dead vehicle was a tall, balding man in his early thirties named Richard McFarland. The passengers were Richard’s wife, Ann, and their three-year-old son.

No one spoke as the car cruised to a halt. The only sounds that could be heard were the steady hiss of steam from the ruptured radiator and the melodic chorus of an old-time hymn echoing from the Baptist church directly across the road from where they sat. The silence that occupied the interior of the car was heavy, leaden with tension and dread. It was very much like a room choked with gas fumes, waiting for some unsuspecting fool to come along and light a match.

Ann McFarland was no such fool. She knew when to talk and when not to, and this was definitely the time for silence. Ann glanced over at her husband and felt her heart quicken. Richard glared straight ahead, past the dirty windshield and the steaming hood beyond. His dark blue eyes drew in the sullen grayness of that winter morning, while his hands clutched the steering wheel tightly. The knuckles were bulging and oddly pale in contrast to the usual ruddy redness of his calloused skin.

The woman turned her gaze away before he could notice that she was looking at him. She closed her eyes and listened to the soft verses of The Old Rugged Cross. Ann tried to recall the last time that she had set foot inside a church, but couldn’t remember. It hadn’t been during her marriage to Richard, that was for sure. They had been together for six years and never once had they treated the Sabbath as holy. Sunday for Richard was a day for recovering from Saturday night hangovers and watching afternoon football sacked out on the living room couch. Despite her own religious upbringing, Ann had passively decided to accept her husband’s lifestyle, more out of fear of the man than anything remotely resembling respect.

Now here they were on Christmas morning, stranded beside the road in the middle of nowhere with barely a hundred dollars in their possession. Ann could sense her son sitting in the back seat, fidgeting silently and staring fearfully at the back of his father’s head. For an abrupt moment, anger threatened to override Ann’s terror. She felt on the verge of speaking her mind and telling Richard what a complete idiot he was. But she caught herself from making such a mistake and elected to sit there and stew in the juices of her outrage.

They should have been in the living room of their two-bedroom rental house back in Canton, Ohio, sitting around the Christmas tree and cheerfully opening gifts. But circumstances beyond Ann’s control had altered that comfortable tradition this year. First, there was Richard’s eight-month bout with unemployment. Then there was her husband’s irrational behavior in itself. Two days ago, Richard had read an article in the newspaper about a large shopping mall under construction in Atlanta, Georgia.

Having nothing better to do, he got a wild hair to drive down and see if he could land a position as a carpenter, if only on a temporary basis. They had driven nonstop to Atlanta, only to find that the site had been shut down for the holidays.

Ann had never seen her husband so disappointed … or so pissed off. He hadn’t said five words since they had hit the road and headed north again. His apparent frustration compounded in silence and had, so far, been mercifully contained. However, the unexpected addition of the burst radiator could prove to be the valve that released her husband’s bottled anger. She sincerely hoped that she was wrong. Richard’s moods were completely unpredictable. He could be as meek as a lamb one minute and as violent as a Tasmanian devil the next.

The voices from the church lulled into silence for a long moment, then resumed with the familiar melody of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. Ann studied Richard’s narrow face once again. She quietly noted the red flush of rage as it crept into his angular jaw and high cheekbones, and darkened the pulsing vein in his right temple. She held her breath as that familiar shine of wild hatred glazed his eyes. Out of reflex, Ann shifted a couple of inches toward the passenger door and laid her hand on the inside handle, aware that Richard’s fury could come swiftly and without prior warning. She had experienced it many times before—the dizzying flurry of hard fists, the pain and the humiliation.

But the man’s emotions seemed to be focused elsewhere. Why don’t they stop? he asked in a coarse whisper. He gritted his teeth until the muscles of his jawline bulged and knotted. Why the hell don’t they just shut up?

Ann didn’t know who he meant at first, but the continuous sound of distant singing brought the realization to her. He meant the Christmas Day choir in the church house across the road.

Slowly, Richard’s hands released the steering wheel, allowing the blood to course back into the skin of his knuckles. It has to stop, he muttered to himself. I swear to God, it has to stop right here and now.

As he opened his door to get out, Ann sensed the nature of her husband’s intentions. She reached out and grabbed his arm. Don’t, honey, she urged softly. You’ll only get yourself in trouble again.

Richard twisted his head around and nailed Ann with a look of utter contempt. She released his sleeve with the same urgency she might show if she had taken hold of a hot skillet without a pot holder. She expected him to lose his temper then. She expected his fist to lash out and bring blood and deep bruises. But he stayed his hand … at least in her case he did.

Helplessly, she watched as he left the car and slammed the door behind him. He stood on the center line of the highway for a long moment, a lanky scarecrow of a man dressed in work clothes, a navy pea coat, and steel-toed boots. He simply waited there, breathing in the frosty winter air and staring at the great, white building. Then he continued onward, strolling past the wrought iron church sign and its crudely painted banner that read Annual Christmas Pageant—Sunday Morning 9:00.

Ann glanced at the clock set in the dashboard of the car. The time was seven minutes past the hour of nine. When she lifted her eyes once again and turned them back to her husband, her heart leapt with a jolt of alarm and the blood turned icy in her veins. Richard was crossing the church parking lot and heading for a red Dodge pickup truck. She watched in mounting horror as her husband wrenched open the cab door and took a pump shotgun from the rack in the rear window. He rummaged through the truck as the singers began Away in a Manger, and, by the second chorus, had found a box of shotgun shells beneath the seat.

Oh no, moaned Ann in panic. Oh, dear God in heaven, no.

At that moment, she remembered her son. She looked over her shoulder and saw him sitting on the back seat, dressed in his secondhand coat and wearing the leather carpenter’s belt that his father had bought him a few days earlier—his sole gift for that hard-luck Christmas. The brightly colored plastic of the toy hammer, saw, and screwdriver seemed disturbingly surreal on that dismal gray morning. They seemed entirely too bright and cheerful in contrast to the drab hues of the child’s threadbare clothing and the station wagon’s faded upholstery.

The boy stared innocently up at his mother’s pale face. Where’s Daddy going?

Ann couldn’t find the words to answer his question. She looked toward the front of the church building. Her husband worked the slide of the twelve-gauge and then disappeared inside.

Frantically. Ann McFarland lifted her child from the back seat and took him in her arms. It’ll be over soon, baby, she whispered as she cradled him tightly. God help us all, please let it end soon.

She scarcely had her hands over the toddler’s ears before the first booming blasts sounded from the house of the Lord. They thundered past the steepled structure of immaculate white and rolled across the rural countryside, cursing the name of McFarland forever.

PART ONE

FATHER’S LITTLE HELPER

Chapter One

One moment the church was filled with reverence and good fellowship, while an instant later it became gripped in chaos.

The congregation had been appreciatively watching the children’s presentation of the nativity with warm smiles on their faces and the joy of the holiday season in their hearts. The play was made up mostly of three- and four-year-olds who were consistent at hitting the wrong marks at the wrong times and forgetting their rehearsed lines. But the mistakes and spontaneity of the yearly pageant made the event that much more enjoyable. Little Jimmy Joe Tatum played the father, Joseph, complete with a bed linen robe and a beard cut from black construction paper, while Charlotte Weston gave a subdued performance as the Virgin Mary. The role of the infant Jesus was played by Francis Dorsey’s newborn baby boy, Daniel, who had come into the world only three short months ago. The supporting characters of the heavenly angel, the shepherds, and the three wise men were adequately cast from other children in the lower grades of the Sunday school class.

Ben Gatlin was looking down lovingly at his own twin daughters in the double bassinet between himself and his wife, Beverly, when the first gunshot thundered through the cathedral-like interior of the country church. Ben turned his head just as Beverly took the brunt of the first blast. Half of her beautiful, blonde head disintegrated in an expanding swarm of double-ought pellets. For a split second, she stared at him with her one remaining eye—an eye that held an almost comical expression of surprise—then slumped forward. Her ruined skull struck the top of the pew in front of them with a moist thud as she dropped to the varnished boards of the hardwood floor. Her slender arms and legs twitched for a moment longer before growing deathly still.

Instinctively, Ben threw himself down, protecting the bassinet with his body. He caught a glimpse of the twins’ startled faces. Their chubby nine-month-old cheeks were speckled with their mother’s blood and brains. Shock paralyzed Ben as he sheltered his children and listened to the booming reports of a twelve-gauge shotgun roar through the building time after time. He heard screams of panic and pain, as well as cries cut short with the finality of death. He lifted his head a few inches above the edge of the pew and looked toward the group of children that had re-enacted the birth of Jesus Christ. The crude manger of painted plywood was in ruins. The hay in its center was coated with fresh gore. Jimmy Joe Tatum rolled on the floor, screaming shrilly, his face a howling, crimson mask. Charlotte Weston lay motionless next to the manger. Her costume was torn and saturated with blood. The other children had escaped injury. They clung fearfully to the shelter of the front pew, wailing and sobbing for their parents.

Ben shifted his gaze to the choir loft above the pulpit just as June Langford, the preacher’s wife, fell over the banister, her chest sunken and bloody. Her daughter, Angelina, was draped over the side with a similarly ugly wound in her lower back. Her face was palely blanched and full of terror, but she was unable to pull herself up and run for the stairway door like the other members of the choir.

Another gunshot rang out. Ben ducked his head down a split second before the upper edge of the wooden pew splintered into spinning shards. He hugged the bassinet tightly, hearing the muffled cries of his daughters underneath him. Ben glanced down to where the body of his wife lay on the floor. Most of her was hidden by the seat of the pew. He found himself staring at her left hand and his heart ached with loss. He recalled the delicacy of that hand the day he placed the wedding band on her finger, as well as the gentle warmth of her touch when they had first made love to each other.

He chanced another look over the top of the pew, this time toward the back of the church. The sniper was standing on the rear balcony where the ushers counted the heads of the congregation during the morning sermon. The man was unremarkable in appearance—he was tall and lanky and half-bald—but the expression of raw fury on his lean face was definitely a departure from the norm. He jacked and fired the Remington 870 shotgun as if it were an extension of himself, spraying death and misery upon the crowd below.

Ben watched as the lunatic fired his last shell into the back of elderly Clara Walker, then coolly began to reload from a box of ammunition that sat on the railing of the decorative banister. If only he had his revolver with him, Ben would have been able to get a clear shot at the deadly stranger. But, unfortunately, he didn’t. He had promised his wife that he would never bring his job into the church, that he would never wear his deputy uniform or carry his sidearm into a house of worship. But now, with the threat of annihilation bearing down on them, Ben wished that he had his .38 Special in his hand, loaded and ready to blow the man on the balcony away. However, the Smith & Wesson was at home, locked in the nightstand drawer in their bedroom, where it couldn’t hurt—or help—anyone.

So there was nothing to be done but hope that the buckshot missed its mark as the fellow finished reloading and resumed his shooting. Ben hugged the bassinet to his chest and looked down to the far end of the pew that the Gatlin family occupied. Beverly’s mother, Emily Smoots, was being held down by her husband, John, as lead pellets careened dangerously overhead. Her screams of terror and grief shrilled in Ben’s ears and he buried his head between his wailing daughters, wanting to shut away the blossoming of blood and the stricken looks of shock and horror that were so plentiful in that temporary slaughterhouse.

Blindly, he reached down and found Beverly’s hand. He clutched it tightly, finding comfort in what little warmth remained. By the time the shooting finally stopped, it had grown as cold as a winter stone.

Ben Gatlin woke up with his face buried in his pillow and a cry of anguish barreling up out of his throat. Fortunately, the fabric of the pillowcase muffled his shout and he was the only one in the house disturbed by the recurring nightmare.

With a sigh, he rolled over and looked at the digital clock on the nightstand. It was a quarter past four in the morning, two hours earlier than the time he normally awoke. He lay there for a few minutes, willing himself to calm down and go back to sleep, but was unable to relax.

Damned nightmare, he grumbled and got up. He switched on the bedroom lamp, stuck his feet into his slippers, and pulled on a blue terrycloth robe that had seen better days. He paused in front of the cherry wood dresser and eyed the bottle of Chanel No. 5 that sat on its cluttered surface. It had been Beverly’s favorite perfume. He picked it up and spritzed the air in front of his face, breathing in the scent of his long-dead wife. He hoped that the smell would bring back soothing memories of Beverly and help dispel the aftershock of his bad dream. But it only conjured the horror of her death even more. He cussed beneath his breath as the ugly image of her mutilated face came back to haunt him.

Ben set the perfume bottle down and studied his reflection in the dresser mirror. He grimaced at the slouchy, middle-aged man that stared back at him. Upon awaking, he looked more like a homeless person than the high sheriff of Crimshaw County, Tennessee. His brown eyes were puffy and bloodshot, his black hair with the graying temples was matted with sweat and standing up in several unruly cowlicks, and his strong jawline was covered with dark stubble. He was still as tall and husky as he had been in his teenage years—six-foot-two and two hundred and twenty pounds—but suffered from a paunch that hinted of too much junk food and not enough exercise. He thought about showering, shaving, and dressing, but decided to go down for coffee first. He had plenty of time to attend to his morning grooming before leaving for work at seven.

He made his way quietly along the second-story hallway and down the staircase to the ground floor, careful not to disturb the others. The old farmhouse had been his father’s, as had the sixty acres of prime tobacco and soybean land that surrounded it. When Ben’s parents had passed away during his early twenties, he had been the sole heir to the Gatlin fortune, as modest as it was. Now the pastureland was unkempt and overgrown, and the acre lot that surrounded the house was all that was used.

Only four people lived at the Gatlin residence: Ben, his fifteen-year-old daughters, Julie and Janet, and Granny Smoots, who kept up the housekeeping and did the cooking for the Gatlin clan. They were a close-knit family, but there always seemed to be a hole left by the absence of Beverly, who had died so tragically in December of ’78. The twins had never really known their mother, and that had been particularly hard on them. Julie, the more quiet and intelligent of the two, seemed to be very well-adjusted. But her sister Janet was troublesome and rebellious, forever concocting ways to challenge her father’s authority and make herself a nuisance. Ben tried to be patient with the girl, but sometimes it seemed that she went out of her way to stay on his bad side.

Ben found the light on and the kitchen occupied when he made it downstairs. Granny was spooning ground coffee into the old steel percolator when he walked in. The elderly woman shunned modern appliances like Mr. Coffee and microwave ovens, preferring to stick to the tried-and-true coffeepot and gas stove.

Up a little early this morning, aren’t you? asked Granny. The curiosity in her bespectacled eyes turned into concern. Was it that dream again?

Ben sat down at the kitchen table and nodded sullenly. Second time this week, he said. Dammit, it’s been more than fourteen years since it happened and it still comes back to me as clear as a bell.

I know what you mean, agreed Granny. That blasted boogeyman with the twelve-gauge shotgun shows up in my dreams from time to time. But I just pray to the good Lord to get me through it and He usually always does. The woman walked over and placed a comforting hand on her son-in-law’s shoulder. Faith can help with the healing, Ben. You ought to think about going back to church, maybe meeting a nice lady and getting married again.

We’ve had this discussion a hundred times before, Granny, and you know how I feel. I’m just not ready yet. Ben turned his eyes away, embarrassed. Thanks for the concern all the same.

Granny gave him a warm smile and went back to check on the coffee. Ben stared at the stained Formica of the tabletop, feeling that familiar twinge of guilt that hit him whenever the subject of religion was mentioned. True, he had once been a church-going man. He had been baptized when he was thirteen, and he and Beverly had said their marriage vows before the entire congregation of the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church. But the massacre that had taken place on Christmas Day of ’78 had altered his feelings about faith and goodness in the world. He still believed in God, but couldn’t shake that deep feeling of bitterness and betrayal he had felt after Beverly’s funeral. The cause and effect of the awful atrocity, as well as the burning questions that it conjured, still preyed on his mind. Why had God allowed such a bloodbath to take place in His house of worship? And those poor children—Charlotte Weston and the Dorsey baby—why had God permitted their violent deaths on the most holy day of the year? Ben couldn’t bring himself to darken the doorway of the church house again until those matters became clear to him. So far, however, the answers to those questions had remained a complete mystery.

The next time Granny approached the table, she had two mugs of steaming coffee in her hands. She sat one in front of Ben and then took a seat across from him. She added sugar and cream to her coffee. The sheriff drank his straight and black.

Sure glad I didn’t wake up the girls, he said, grateful for the caffeine that slowly coursed through his system. I know I get kind of loud sometimes during those damned dreams.

Julie and Janet could sleep through a tornado, said Granny. They’ve been like that since they were babies.

They’re dead to the world the moment their heads hit the pillow. The old woman frowned. Wish I could say the same about myself. I scarcely get three or four hours sleep a night. The insomnia came on me right after Beverly’s death, and got worse after my poor John passed away.

Ben reached across the table and took his mother-in-law’s hand. Granny was one of the finest women he had ever had the privilege to know. She was feisty and strong-willed, but good-hearted and devout. She had only one vice that he knew of, and that was a leaning toward idle gossip. She simply couldn’t resist the urge to pass on a juicy tidbit of secrecy or scandal to the ladies who attended the weekly quilting class she held in the basement of the Baptist church. Ben figured that folks forgave her for that one, tiny indiscretion, because her charitable acts outweighed the minimal damage that her wagging tongue brought about every so often.

I know I’ve said it before, Ben told her, but I can’t seem to say it enough. Thanks for taking the reins when Beverly died. When it happened, I was just a wet-behind-the-ears deputy with two baby daughters and a household I wasn’t prepared to handle. If you hadn’t been there to keep things on an even keel, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Between the two of us, I think we did a fine job of raising the twins.

Granny nodded and sipped her coffee. I agree with you wholeheartedly as far as Julie is concerned. She’s a real peach of a girl, that one, with her straight A’s and honor roll. But Janet … well, she’s a horse of a different color you know.

You’re certainly right about that, said Ben. She hasn’t been doing so hot in school lately, what with all those C’s and D’s on her last report card. And her attitude just seems to be getting worse. She looks like a walking advertisement for MTV, and she has the vocabulary of an R-rated movie. I’ve tried my best to talk some sense into the girl, but she just flat out refuses to listen to me.

I’m not doing much better myself, admitted Granny. She’s just going through that rebellious phase that some kids go through when they’re that age. And she’s been hanging around with the wrong crowd lately. Been spending entirely too much time with that no-account Jimmy Joe Tatum. You know, that little sawed-off runt with the eye patch.

Oh, Jimmy Joe’s certainly no stranger to me. He seems to be our pet project down at the office lately. A Saturday night doesn’t go by when me or one of the deputies don’t haul his butt in for vandalism or hot-rodding that souped-up Chevy down Highway 79. He’s a bad apple and that’s all there is to it. I’ve forbidden Janet to see the punk, but she sneaks out anyway. Bet she’s sleeping with the little weasel too.

I’m afraid you might be right about that, said Granny, looking not at all pleased. I didn’t mention this to you before, but I reckon I ought to tell you now. I found a pack of rubbers in the pocket of Janet’s coat when I was straightening up her room the other day.

Ben looked at his mother-in-law incredulously. Condoms? My sweet baby girl is carrying condoms around with her? Anger and hurt showed in his eyes. Well, that cuts it. I’m going to have a long talk with that girl after supper tonight. I swear to God, I won’t have a daughter of mine earn a reputation as the town whore.

Granny shook her head. Now, Ben, I’m just as upset about it as you. But if you go lecturing her with that father-knows-best attitude, she’ll just bristle like a wildcat and end up getting back at you by acting twice as ornery as she did before. Just say enough to let her know that you’re concerned about her, without seeming too pushy.

Granny cradled the warm mug in her arthritic hands. To be truthful, I was kind of relieved to find those things in her coat pocket. At least we know now that she’s got some sense of responsibility, and that she won’t end up catching AIDS or getting herself knocked up. She’s smart enough to know that Jimmy Joe is too danged stupid and arrogant to take care of the precautions himself.

It still bugs me to no end, her acting like that, grumbled Ben. Thank God that Julie is the complete opposite. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and has high morals. If she was as unreasonable as her sister, I’d likely be taking up room and board at the state asylum by now.

You and me both, said Granny with a chuckle. So what do you and the guys have lined up for today?

Ben shrugged. Nothing much. Me and Jeremy Miller have some paperwork to catch up on at the office. That new radar gun we ordered just came in, so I suspect Pete Purcell will be parked at the two-mile stretch past the Cumberland River Bridge, clocking unwary speeders. You know how Pete likes to try out the new equipment. He’s like an overgrown kid playing with his toys. What about you, Granny? Got any plans for today?

After I get the girls fed and off to school, I reckon I’ll head over to Clarksville and do a little Christmas shopping. It’s only a few weeks away, you know. Granny rose from the table, taking her mug with her. Want more coffee?

Maybe later. Right now I think I’ll get upstairs and do my business before the girls wake up and hog the bathroom. What are we having for breakfast?

How do pancakes and link sausages sound?

Perfect, said Ben with a smile. He walked over and kissed the elderly woman on the forehead. I’m glad you were already up. Talking to you always seems to help put things into their proper perspective.

Granny stared at the big man for a moment, then reached up and hugged his neck. I know it’s mighty hard for you, what with Christmas just around the corner and all. But just try to remember, it’s been nearly fifteen years since that dreadful day and the monster responsible is gone now. Hopefully, that’ll make a difference in itself. Let the buried stay buried, Ben, both the innocent and the guilty, and let’s have us a humdinger of a Christmas this year. Okay?

I promise I’ll try, said Ben. But as he went upstairs to clean up, he knew that it would be just as much of an effort as it had all the years before. Even the knowledge that there was one less occupied cell on Tennessee’s death row couldn’t drive away the pain that Beverly’s absence brought every Christmas morning.

Chapter Two

The boy was around seventeen years old. He was tall for his age, as thin as a rail, and was dressed in a baggy army surplus jacket, black Metallica T-shirt, jeans with frayed holes in the knees, and scuffed Reeboks. His face was as narrow and angular as his physique, but there was a notably handsome quality to his features, despite a scattering of teenage acne and myopic blue eyes behind round-lensed glasses. His hair—which was mousy brown in color and shoulder length—was tied tightly into a ponytail.

Jay Baker, the proprietor of the Warp Zone, a used comics and bookstore in downtown Dayton, leaned against the cash register and waved at the boy as he came in out of the December cold. The kid nodded in that quiet, sullen way of his and then headed down the center aisle of bagged comics and baseball cards. Jay looked over at his wife, Tina, who was flipping through the Overstreet Guide and appraising vintage copies of Batman, The Fantastic Four, and Swamp Thing. She, too, had noticed the boy’s entrance and, like her husband, knew exactly where he was heading. As if drawn by a magnet, the lanky teenager stopped at the rack of new magazine releases. Most were science fiction and horror publications, but there were other types as well. The kind that this particular customer was interested in happened to be crime and detective magazines.

The boy selected a couple of new releases from the bottom rack—True Detective and Crime and Punishment—then headed back up the center aisle to the front counter. Jay was waiting with a warm smile, his fingers poised above the register keys, ready to total the teenager’s purchase.

How are things going today, Sonny? asked the storekeeper.

The boy frowned and shrugged. Same as usual, I guess, was all he said.

Jay glanced down at the detective magazines with their cover shots of gun-toting cops, famous criminals, and buxom, scantily clad victims lashed to chairs with rope or handcuffs. You know, sometimes I wonder about you, said the store owner with a chuckle. Most kids your age go for the comics or horror mags. But not you. You’d rather read up on mass murderers and serial killers than Spider-Man or Freddie Kruger!

Nothing to it really, replied the boy named Sonny. I’m just into that kind of stuff, that’s all.

Just promise me one thing, said Jay as he took the kid’s money and sacked his magazines. "Don’t go hacking up anyone with a machete or ending up with your face on America’s Most Wanted, okay?"

That brought a slight smile to the boy’s lips. I promise, he said, then opened the door and stepped back out into the cold grayness of the Ohio afternoon. He stuck the paper sack in the side pocket of his olive drab coat, pulled his collar up against the chill, and then headed west along Third Street.

Something about that kid gives me the creeps, said Tina. She shivered as the door closed and sent a draft of winter air her way.

Aw, Sonny’s okay, said Jay. Your classic nerd maybe, but he’s not spaced out and dangerous like some of the punks we get in here. He’s just got a fascination with crime, that’s all, like some kids have for sci-fi or guts-and-gore horror. He looked out the front window and watched as the teenager walked briskly away from the store. No, there’s nothing wrong with Sonny. Take it from me, he’s an okay kid.

Sonny Beechum strolled across the short, brown grass of the front yard and stepped onto the stoop of the two-bedroom house he shared with his mother. He fished in his jeans pocket and found his key, then unlocked the door. The cloying smell of too much potpourri met him as he stepped into the foyer and headed down the gloomy hallway. The house was silent and unoccupied. He walked past the living room to the combination dining room and kitchen. The wall clock over the refrigerator read four-fifteen. His mother was at her job now, working the second shift at the shoe factory a few blocks away. That meant that he had the house to himself until eleven o’clock.

He opened a kitchen cabinet and brought out a jar of chunky peanut butter and a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Leisurely, he made himself a sandwich, then got himself a Pepsi out of the fridge. A moment later, Sonny was in his bedroom at the end of the hall. He set the food and drink on his desk and opened the curtains of the single window, letting gray light into the room. The walls were covered with heavy metal and sports car posters. He popped a Motley Crue CD into his boom box, retrieved his after-school snack, and stretched out on the bed.

Sonny took the paper bag from his coat pocket and tossed his new magazines on the bed beside him. He flipped through the True Detective for a while, then, tiring of the obscure cases, reached for the copy of Crime and Punishment. The cover boasted articles about Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, and Ed Gein, as well as a special anniversary feature on the Christmas Day Massacre. That had been the main reason that Sonny had bought the magazine in the first place. He had an intense interest in the sordid crimes of America’s mass murderers and serial killers, and collected every book and magazine he could find on the subject. His mother frowned on his grisly hobby. She had scolded him about it so many times that Sonny had begun sneaking the stuff into the house behind her back and reading it only when she was at work. His mother was almost fanatically religious and had a loathing distaste for true-life stories of cold-blooded murder and psychological terror.

He took a bite from his sandwich and washed it down with a swallow of soda. Then he flipped the pages of the magazine until he reached the center spread. The first thing that caught his eye was the blood red headline that crossed the two pages. THE FIEND IS GONE, BUT THE TRAGEDY REMAINS! RICHARD McFARLAND AND THE CHRISTMAS DAY MASSACRE! Below that was a color picture of the culprit himself, dressed in prison coveralls of garish Day-Glo orange. He had his lean face pressed against the thick bars of his death row cell, glaring at the photographer with a mixture of malice and despair.

For some strange reason, Sonny had always had a particular interest in the mass murderer and his brief but gruesome crime. Sure, there had been bigger body counts—John Wayne Gacy had sodomized and murdered thirty-three young men, while James Huberty had raided a San Diego McDonald’s, killing twenty-one people and wounding nineteen others. Richard McFarland’s victims had numbered only twelve, with the addition of seven more seriously wounded. If anything, it was the unexpected circumstances of the Christmas Day Massacre that made the case unique in the annals of crime.

McFarland had been a loser and a potential nutcase since his early childhood, born to a manic-depressive mother and an alcoholic father, and subjected to physical and mental abuse until his late teens. He was drafted into the Army at age eighteen and served a brief tour of duty in Vietnam, but was dishonorably discharged because of his insubordination and constant refusal to