Read With an extreme burning Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

With an extreme burning

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Books by Bill Pronzini

The StalkerSnowboundPanicGamesThe Jade FigurineDead RunNight ScreamsMasquesThe HangingsFirewindThe Last Days of Horse-Shy HalloranQuincannon



Bill Pronzini




Copyright © 1994 by Bill Pronzini

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.

ISBN 978-1-61232-100-4



PART ONE: Slow Burn















PART TWO: Fast Burn


















Slow Burn




He awoke at his usual time, seven-thirty, and as usual in the first groggy seconds he reached out for Katy on her side of the bed. Then he remembered. Even before his fingers touched the cool, empty sheets, he remembered.

His grief was easing now, after more than three weeks; he felt one small twist of pain, nothing more. He rolled onto his back, opened his eyes. Sunlight in the room, slants and patches of it. The quality of light told him it was going to be hot again today. What day was it? Saturday. Another long weekend. Almost the end of August, though. Next weekend was Labor Day, and right after that fall classes started … first week of September this year. Easier, then—a little easier. Not so much time alone. He had better see Elliot Messner right away, before it was too late to take on an extra class or two, maybe teach a couple of rudimentary history courses in the university's extension program to fill up weeknights or Saturdays. Work and plenty of it was what he needed, at least for this semester, until more time built up between himself and the accident.

He lay listening to the quiet. There were usually birds in the big heritage oak outside the bedroom, that damned mockingbird that was worse than an alarm clock sometimes, but not today. The silence beyond the open window had a flat, padded quality. He could smell the heat gathering, absorbing the early-morning coolness; smell dust and the dry brown grass on the hillside above. For some reason, the smells made him remember an exchange during the excessive heat of early July. Katy: “Dix, I'm worried about fire this year. It's sodryup on that hill.” Him: “The grass has been mowed, there's no real danger. Why worry about things that aren't likely to happen?”

Like accidents and fire.

Like dying in flames so hot they reduced five and a half feet of flesh, skin, and bones into an unrecognizable four-foot lump of charcoal—

There was a curtain in his mind, as thick as metal, forged over the past three weeks; he yanked it down now, locked it tight. Abruptly he swung himself out of bed. In the bathroom he used the toilet and then put on his swim trunks and robe. Downstairs to the kitchen. Grind some beans, start the Mr. Coffee. And then down to the bottom level, out onto the rear terrace.

Mist in the valley below, a thin, floating strip of it that would be gone in another hour or so. At this hour and from this height, the town had a somnolent look except for the broken ant-stream of cars on the freeway that cut through the south end. Los Alegres. Population: 32,000 and growing, thanks to tract-home developers consuming east-side farmland at alarming rates. He'd been born and raised here, spent nearly all of his life here. Just seven of his forty-one years away, beginning with his army service in North Carolina during the 'Nam years. (Some people seemed puzzled when he told them he'd never left U.S. soil, much less fought in Asian jungles; it was as if they thought every male who had been drafted in those ugly days had been immediately shipped overseas, leaving the homefront military bases entirely in the hands of over-aged officers and National Guard weekenders.) Then four years at UC Irvine, earning his master's with a thesis on post—Civil War Reconstruction in the border states. And when it came time to choose a teaching post, straight back to Los Alegres to accept a position on the faculty at Balboa State. Just a country boy at heart, Katy would say, forgetting that Los Alegres was little more than an hour from San Francisco and hadn't been “country” in thirty years. My roots go deep, he would say. Trite but essentially true. Katy's had gone just as deep: She'd been born and raised here, too, and never left for more than a few months at a time. Never would, now.

When they'd bought this house eight years before, just affordable on their combined teaching salaries thanks to the $50,000 cash bond her father had left them, it was an ascension in more ways than one. High on the hillside above the town and the valley: trees that had sprung tall from their deep roots. For him, a symbol that he'd Made It. One acre of the Ridge, one acre of the American dream—and to go with it, a full tenured professorship,A Darkness at Antietamaccepted for publication, a happy marriage. No children, because Katy couldn't carry to term, but that was a small regret. Now eight years had passed, eight rapid years. And even before the accident, it had all gone just a little stale.

Teaching didn't fulfill him quite as much as it had when he was younger. Living on the Ridge didn't seem to mean as much.A Darkness at Antietamwas still his only published, only completed novel; he couldn't seem to get a second one to jell properly. The marriage to Katy had not been quite as good either. Nothing either of them could pin down; they'd tried once last year, when Katy decided to quit full-time counseling and teach part-time—one of those let's-get-it-all-out-in-the-open-so-we-can-fix-it discussions. The problems were just too nonspecific. A vague restlessness on both sides, small dissatisfactions, little frictions that couldn't be identified much less resolved. It was a case of two people married for seventeen years, entering middle age, comfortable with each other, still able to communicate verbally and sexually (although even sex had grown somewhat mechanical), yet discontented, bored. Tolerably bored, to be sure, but bored nonetheless. Maybe it was like that for most long-married couples, he'd thought. Midlife crisis in tandem. But he was sure they'd weather it somehow. Work through it. Divorce was never discussed, never a consideration. Kathleen and Dixon Mallory were fated to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, possibly their golden as well; to grow old together up here on the Ridge. He'd never had any doubt of that. Never a moment's doubt.

Until the two highway patrol officers showed up at ten-fortyP.M.on Friday, August 6.

Until they told them in their bleak, clumsy fashion that Katy was dead.

He turned away from the view, went to the back part of the terrace. He pushed the button to roll back the automatic pool cover, then shed his robe and dove in cleanly. The water was cool but not cold, just the right temperature for swimming laps. He swam fifty without stopping, counting each one off in his mind, using both crawl and backstroke. When he was done, his arms and legs ached but he was not badly winded. Getting proficient at this. One hundred and fifty laps per day now, in three sessions. Helped him get through the daylight hours, helped him sleep at night. He rubbed himself dry with one of the pool towels, noticing without satisfaction that his paunch was almost gone. Nearly fifteen pounds overweight on Friday, August 6. Twenty-two days later he was almost as trim as he'd been in his army days. Katy had been after him to eat less, exercise more; it had taken her dying to get him to do it.

Showered and shaved and dressed, he was pouring coffee in the kitchen when the telephone rang. It kept on ringing: He'd left the damn answering machine off again.

There was no one he cared to talk to. And condolence-bearers and misguided Samaritans bent on easing his sorrow by inviting him to lunch, dinner, or some little get-together depressed him. He'd tried to make it clear at the funeral, politely but firmly, that for the time being he didn't want visitors or callers; he wanted to deal with his grief in his own way. Most of his family and friends respected that, but a few were tenacious because they thought they knew better than he did what was good for him. Mrs. Tarcher, down the hill, for one. Jerry Whittington. His sister Claudia …

Still ringing. Let it ring, he thought. But he was one of the breed who is constitutionally incapable of ignoring a ringing phone, and the noise was becoming an irritant. “All right,” he said aloud, “okay.” He went to pick up the receiver. “Yes? Hello?”

Somebody breathed at him. That was all.

Oh Christ. This bastard again.

He said hello twice more; the line stayed open on the other end, the breathing slow and steady, just loud enough to be audible. “Let me tell you something,” Dix said. It was an effort to control his anger, keep it out of his voice. “You're committing a crime, do you know that? You can go to jail. Understand? Jail.”

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Dix hung up. Gently, curbing an impulse to jam the receiver back into its cradle.

Disturbed personality, probably sociopathic. Read in theHeraldabout the accident, was getting his kicks by tormenting the recently bereaved husband. It had started too soon afterward, the day after the funeral, for it to be a random thing, coincidental. There was no other purpose to it that he could see, this continued calling; four times now that he knew about, when he'd picked up the phone, and God knew how many hang-ups when the machine had been on. It certainly wasn't sexual. He'd never heard of gay men playing sick telephone games, and it was not that sort of breathing anyway. What was it that Burke, up at the university, had called this type of head case in that psych book of his? Tormentors, that was it. One of the chapters had been titled “The Age of the Tormentor.”

Well, if it happened one more time, he'd get the number changed and keep the new one unlisted. Enough was enough. He had already suffered more torment than any man ought to have to endure.

Elliot invited him to his home in Brookside Park for drinks that evening. He didn't want to accept, but he couldn't think of a way to refuse gracefully. He was asking for a favor, and Elliot meant well, and there was a certain amount of protocol that had to be observed when you were dealing with your department chair. At least Elliot didn't offer any advice on how to cope with his loss or his life; judiciously refrained from mentioning Katy or the accident. Besides, he liked the man. They weren't exactly friends—too many attitude and lifestyle differences—but they were friendly, and Elliot could be stimulating company when he was in an expansive mood. So Dix said yes, he'd come, and five o'clock would be fine.

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