BOOKS

photoThe Devil's Bed

La Cama del Diablo

Randall Coates turned off the Virginia highway and one last time took the narrow drive that curled through the dogwood trees toward his house. Halfway up the hill, he killed the headlights and navigated by the glow of the moon. Before he broke from the trees, he stopped the car, grabbed the night vision binoculars from the seat beside him, and got out. For several minutes, he studied his house. From a distance, everything looked the same as it had that morning when he'd left.

But Randall Coates knew that appearances could no longer be trusted.

Keeping to the trees, he circled, reconnoitering the whole of his property. With the moon at his back, he approached the house from the east and slipped along the rear wall, peering in at the windows. He leaned against his shadow on the siding and listened. Finally he slid the key into the back lock and let himself in. He left the lights off and reset the alarm. Laying the binoculars on the kitchen table, he pulled the Glock from his shoulder holster and moved through the house, securing it room by room.

When he stood again at the back door, he turned the lights on and let himself relax. "Fuck this," he said. "Tomorrow I get motion sensors."

He retrieved his car, then strolled the lazy curve of flagstone toward his front door. One last time he paused on the porch steps to study the night sky. The pale yellow eye that was the moon, one last time, studied him right back.

Inside, he shrugged off his jacket, but he continued to wear the shoulder holster and the nine millimeter that were underneath. The jacket he hung in the hallway closet.

At the bar, he poured enough Johnny Walker Black for four or five long swallows. He carried the glass to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to see what he might have on hand for dinner. It didn't matter. Although Randall Coates was unaware of it, he'd already eaten his last meal.

He was thinking at that moment about fear, something he knew well. He'd seen fear destroy men, turn them into blubbering idiots. He believed that if you had half a spine and kept your head, you'd be fine. If you truly had cojones, you used the fear, turned it to your advantage. Fear sharpened you. Fear made you ready.

As he reached for a plate of cold cuts covered in Saran-wrap, he said to himself, The hell with Moses. The asshole wants me, let him try something.

In the next moment, when the kitchen lights died and he heard behind him the voice of Moses speak his name, he wet his pants. The reaction was as involuntary as the quick suck of his breath or his desperate turning.

He spun. The whole house was dark, and his brain stumbled over the details that he'd noted in the light but had inexplicably failed to register as significant. The countertop, for example, on which that morning the electric toaster had sat but now was empty. Or the faint, out-of-place odor in the kitchen, an oily smell that reminded him of a garage.

He'd come around less than ninety degrees when Moses pulverized the cartilage in his nose. For a while, Coates went into a black nowhere.

He came to lying on his back on the hard oak rectangle of the kitchen tabletop. He was naked and spread-eagled. The middle of his face hurt like hell, but when he tried to lift his hands to assess the damage there, he discovered that each wrist had been bound with duct tape and secured to a table leg. Ankles, too. A strip of tape sealed his mouth. His shattered nose was plugged with coagulated blood, and he breathed through a straw that had been inserted through the tape and wedged between his lips.

"Comfortable?" Moses said.

Coates rolled his head to the left where the voice spoke out of the dark. He didn't see Moses, only the LED time readout on the microwave. 10:15 p.m. He'd been out nearly two hours.

"How does it feel? Your own little cama del Diablo?"

Moses tapped the wood next to Coates's head. Coates looked there quickly, but Moses had already moved.

Cama del Diablo. Coates didn't need to translate. He understood exactly what Moses meant.

"Of course it lacks the defining finish, that unrivaled lacquer, equal parts puke and shit and blood. And you're missing the ineffable stink of course. But we'll do something about that in a bit."

Coates tried to speak, to reason, but the duct tape over his mouth prevented it. All that came out was a whining mumble, pathetic even to him.

"Remember what you said to me in Agua Negra? You said, 'David, when you die you'll think hell is a vacation.' Christ, where did you get that line? A Bruce Willis movie?"

In the dark, sparks suddenly exploded between Coates's wide-spread legs. The flash illuminated Moses for an instant and also the countertop behind him. In the place where the toaster had been an old car battery now sat, covered with a film of grime and oil. Coates recognized that it had come from his own garage. In his gloved hands, Moses held two cables that were connected to the battery terminals. He brought the cable ends together once again and their kiss produced another explosion of sparks.

"You always enjoyed this," Moses said. "But then, you were never on that side of the experience."

Coates heard water running in the sink, then the filling of a glass tumbler.

"I've been thinking," Moses said. "Jesus had it easy. He had only one Judas to contend with. After you I still have two more."

Although he knew it was coming, Coates still winced when he felt the cold water splash over his testicles. He tensed when he heard the cables snaking toward him across the tiles of the kitchen floor.

"Let's get started," Moses said.

Coates screamed, a sound that died in the sealed hollow of his mouth.

The last of almost everything in his life was behind him.

But the worst was just about to begin.

 

Chapter 1

Nightmare used a combat knife, a Busse Steel Heart E with a seven-and-a-half-inch blade. He made two cuts, a long arc that half-circled his nipple, then another arc beneath the first, smaller but carved with equal care. The effect was a rainbow with only two bands and a single color. When he lifted the blade, he could feel the blood on his chest, black worms crawling down his skin in the dark of his motel room.

From the warehouse across the old highway came the long hiss of air brakes and the rattle of heavy suspension as a rig and trailer pulled out onto the pot-holed asphalt and geared away into the evening. There was an air conditioning unit under the window, but Nightmare never used it. Even in the worst heat, he preferred to keep the drapes pulled and the windows open in order to track the sounds outside his room.

In the dark, he reached to a wooden bowl on the stand beside the bed. He filled his hand with ash from the bowl, and he rubbed the ash into the wounds to raise and set them. It was painful, this ritual, but pain was part of who he was, part of being Nightmare. He performed the ritual in the dark because that was also elemental to his being. He loved the dark, as a man will love anything that has taken him into itself and made him a part of it.

It was past time, he knew, but there was no hurry. He put on his sunglasses, then took the remote from beside the bowl on the stand, and turned on the television. The set was old and the signal flowed through a faulty connection. The picture bloomed, vibrated, then settled down.

Barbara Walters was on the screen. She sat in a wing-backed chair upholstered in a red floral design. She wore a blue dress, a gold scarf draped over her left shoulder, pinned with a sapphire brooch. From a portrait above the mantel beyond her right shoulder, George Washington seemed to look down on her sternly. The broadcast was live from the Library of the White House. Barbara leaned forward, her face a study of deep concentration as she listened. She nodded, then she spoke, but soundlessly because Nightmare had muted the volume to nothing. Finally she smiled, totally unaware that on the television screen, dead center on her forehead, was a red dot from the laser sight on Nightmare's Beretta.

A different camera angle. The eyes of the man whose face now filled the screen were like two copper pennies, solid and dependable. Every hair of his reddish-brown mane was under perfect control. He wore a beautifully tailored blue suit, a crisp white shirt, a red tie knotted in a tight Windsor and dimpled in a way that mirrored the dimple in his chin. Daniel Clay Dixon, President of the United States, faced the camera and the nation. When his lips moved, Nightmare could imagine that voice, the soft accent that whispered from the Western plains, not so pronounced that it might prejudice a listener into thinking of an ignorant cow poke, but enough to suggest a common man, a man of the people, the kind of man whose example encouraged children to believe they could grow up to be anything they wanted, that nothing in this great land of opportunity was beyond anyone's reach.

Nightmare had no interest in the words the silent voice spoke. They would be lies, he knew. Anyone who rose to the top in a government always rose on a bubble inflated by lies. He concentrated on keeping the red laser dot steady on the black pupil of the President's left eye.

After Clay Dixon talked a while, he glanced at something to his right, off-camera at the moment, but obviously of tremendous importance to him.

And then it happened. What Nightmare had been patiently waiting for all week, had been considering in almost every moment of his thinking.

The First Lady appeared.

In the soft dark, Nightmare wrapped himself around a hard vengeance.

Kathleen Jorgenson Dixon's eyes were pale grey-blue. Although she looked composed, there was something immeasurably sad about those eyes. To Nightmare they seemed like two unhealed wounds. She'd been hurt, he could tell. But that didn't matter. Her suffering was nothing compared to the suffering she'd caused. He was glad for the ritual of the blood and the ash and the pain, because it kept him strong.

"For the murder of David Moses," Nightmare pronounced, "your sentence is death."

He sighted the Beretta. The laser dot settled in the dark at the back of the First Lady's throat. Slowly he squeezed the trigger, and grimly he whispered, "Bang."

 

© William Kent Krueger.