Mary Alice Sherwood disappeared on Halloween night. Every bit of her, right down to her crooked bunny ears and the powder puff tail pinned to her white coat, was swallowed by the chilly, bonfire-smoky dark of the Woodside suburb in which she lived. She was eight years old, trick-or-treating with her peers in her safe neighborhood under the admittedly relaxed supervision of a young sitter, and she was never seen again. The respectable, upwardly mobile households of Woodside shrank in upon themselves in shock and disbelief for a time, neighborhood watches became vigilant once again, and children were confined to their yards where parental eyes could fall upon them at any moment. Now, as Christmas approached, holiday furor and excitement displaced the sharpest spur of fear, and the Sherwoods’ tragedy had faded a bit from the forefront of neighborhood conversations. After all, no one really knew them very well. They kept to themselves, in the cul-de-sac of Hemlock Circle, where their only neighbor was an empty house for sale. The search continued for little Mary Alice, the police patrol car still made its rounds several times a day, and the residents of Woodside would have gathered in sympathy around the Sherwoods had they been welcome. They were not.
John Dillinger Connelly had been named for a legend. His mom, a wild young firecracker, had been enamored with stories of the notorious gangster’s Robin Hood persona and with the romance of rebellion. JD had grown up with a name as heavy as a mantle of state in a revolving household of well-meaning but dysfunctional relatives, and while he had not become a steely-eyed gangster, he was not without his own set of shadowy skills. The irony of his life was that those skills had made him an asset to Nick and Tess, setting him on a path of legitimate employment that even helped people. It had been the other thing, the coyote trickster in him, that had got him killed. He sat on the cane seat of a ladder-backed chair in the corner of Tess’s bedroom with his hands on his knees watching her drag shirts and leggings from her backpack and sling them onto the bed. She was angry, probably with him, and he felt the familiar sting of remorse that had so often followed his ill-considered adventures while he had lived.
He does not float. Grappled by the river’s currents, tumbled in the arms of the river, as he had tumbled in the arms of the demon, he speeds along the silted terrain where suicides have left their bones. He has become a citizen of the dark, turbulent country of the watery dead, deep under the darting fish bellies, under the silver flashes and nonjudgmental eyes of those who regard him merely as provender. But he is not a suicide, nor yet some murderer’s prey. He is a sacrifice on the altar of desire, eager and aghast at once, his heart a delicacy served up in its bloody sauce of folly. He felt it beat just once as she ground it between her teeth, and even then, he reached for her.
Her name was Ana, and she lived as a prisoner within the cage of her bones. That sense of a trapped and stunted identity was what brought her to the clinic on Bat Moon Street. It walked her along the cracked sidewalk under the cloudy night, her eyes on the concrete beneath her shoes. Sensible shoes with low heels and closed toes. Librarian shoes, clasping tender feet that rarely came out after dark. Watching her from the window above the striped awning, I could imagine the trembling thrill that gripped her. How daring she was, to leave her safe, lamplit apartment, and its familiar solitude to wander along this dim street. How brave, to enter this neighborhood of after-sunset trade alone, and small amidst the old buildings with their aggressive griminess and narrow stairwells like tunnels of night. Yes, I could feel her heart quaking from three stories up. That is how it begins here, evening upon evening, the supplicants arriving, begging to be freed.
Trudy Bigg had a walk-in freezer. We had a dead werewolf in need of preservation. We rolled into the empty parking lot at MeeMaw’s with Maudie’s lolling carcass in the Jeep, wrapped in its borrowed tarp. The bar wasn’t open yet, but we could see Trudy lounging on the porch swing of the little cottage she kept on the hillside behind it, sipping coffee. I strolled to the foot of her concrete stairs, leaving Nick to guard our precious cargo.
She rose out of the darkness of the laurels and made her way to the foot of the steps, fast and lithe, her bare feet silent. Her nakedness was terrible, her body lean and ropy with muscle, her limbs long and built for swiftness. Age had touched her little, and she rolled her powerful shoulders in something like ecstasy under the caress of the murky moonlight. She looked up at me with her leafshadow eyes, and the cognac rings around her irises burned golden.