Authors: Charles Grant - (ebook by Undead)
This is for Chris Carter, no question about it.
Because, quite literally, without his wonderful and addictive show, this book
wouldn’t exist, and I wouldn’t have anything to do on Friday nights but work.
The tavern was filled with ghosts that night.
Grady Pierce could feel them, but he didn’t much care as long as the
bartender kept pouring the drinks.
They were ghosts of the old days, when
recruits, mostly draftees, were bused almost daily into Fort Dix for basic
training, scared or strutting, and hustled out of their seats by drill
instructors with hard faces and hard eyes who never spoke in less than a yell.
The scared became terrified, and the strutters soon lost that smug look they
wore—it was apparent from the moment they were shorn of their hair that this
wasn’t going to be a Technicolor, wide-screen John Wayne movie.
This was real.
This was the real Army.
And there was a damn good chance they were going someplace to die.
Grady ought to know; he had trained enough of them himself.
But that was the old days.
This was now, and what the hell—if the ghosts of the boys who never came back
wanted to stand behind him and demand he teach them again and this time do it
right, well, hell, that was what they did, no skin off his nose.
What he did these days was drink, and damned good at it he was.
He sat on his stool, bony shoulders hunched, hands clasped on the bar before
him as if he were saying grace before taking up the glass. His face under the
mostly gray brush cut was all angles, sharp and dark with shadows; he wore worn
and stained fatigues loose at the waist, a too-large field jacket torn at one
shoulder, scuffed hiking boots so thin he could feel pebbles beneath the soles.
From where he sat at the bar’s far end, he could see the dozen scarred
darkwood tables, the half-dozen dark booths along the side wall, the twenty or
so customers bent over their drinks. Usually the place was close to bedlam with
top-of-the-voice, not always good-natured arguments about the Giants, the
Phillies, the 76ers, the government. Waylon would be howling on the jukebox, a
game on the TV hanging on the wall, and beneath it all the comforting clatter of balls over at the
pool table, floating green in the light of the single lamp above it. There might
even be a few working girls hanging out, joining in, not always looking for
Good thing, too, he thought with a quick grin; most of the gals these days
were a little long in the tooth and short in the looks.
Tonight, however, was pretty damn miserable.
Rain all day, changing to a hard mist at sundown. The temperature had risen,
too, slipping pockets of shifting fog into the alleys and gutters.
It was April, nearly May, but it felt a whole lot like November.
He glanced at his watch—just a few minutes past midnight—and rubbed his eyes
with bony knuckles. Time he was having one for the road, then getting on that
road while he could still find it.
He reached for the glass, one ice cube and Jack Daniel’s halfway to the rim.
He frowned and pulled his hand back. He could have sworn that that glass had
been full a second ago.
Man, I’m worse than I thought.
He reached for it again.
“You sure about that?” Aaron Noel, who was more muscle than any man had a
right to own and still be able to move, flipped a drying towel over his shoulder
and leaned back against the shelf fronting the smoke-fogged mirror. His white
T-shirt was tight, the sleeves cut off to give his upper arms some room. He was
a younger man who looked as if he had lived one lifetime too many. “Not that I’m
complaining, Grady, but I ain’t taking you home tonight again, no offense.”
Grady grinned. “You my old lady now?”
“Nope. But the weather sucks, right? And every time the weather sucks, you
get the miseries, drink too much and pass out, and then I gotta lug your sorry
ass to that sorry hole you call a house.” He shook his head. “No way Not
tonight.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Got a meeting when I’m done.”
Grady glanced at the window by the exit. Past the neon he could see the mist,
the dark street, the empty storefronts on the other side.
“So?” the bartender said, nodding toward the unfinished glass.
Grady straightened, yanked on an earlobe and pinched his cheeks. It was an
old trick to see if he was numb enough yet to go home and sleep without having
those damn dreams. He wasn’t, but he wasn’t drunk enough to defy a man who could
break his back with his pinky, either.
If the truth be known, Noel was good for him. More than once over the past
fifteen years, he had stopped Grady from getting into fights that would have
easily turned him into one of his own ghosts. He didn’t know why the guy cared;
it had just turned out that way.
He considered the glass carefully, grimaced at the way his stomach lurched
with acid, and said with a resigned sigh, “Ah, the hell with it.”
Grady slipped off the stool and held onto the bar with his left hand while he
waited for his balance to get it right. When he figured he could walk without
looking like he was on a steamer in a hurricane, he saluted the bartender and
dropped a bill beside the glass. “Catch you around,” he said.
“Whatever,” the bartender said. “Just get the hell home and get some sleep.”
Grady reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a Yankees cap, snapped it
open and jammed it onto his head, and made his way toward the door.
When he checked over his shoulder, Aaron was already talking with another guy
at the bar.
“Good night, gentlemen,” he said loudly, and stepped outside, laughing at the
way some of them snapped their heads up, eyes wide, as if he’d just shaken them
out of a nap.
As soon as the door closed behind him, the laughter twisted into a spasm of
coughing, forcing him to lean against the brick wall until it passed.
“Jesus,” he muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. “Quit
drinking, quit smoking, you old fart, before they find you in the damn gutter.”
He paused at the curb, then crossed over and moved on up the street, keeping
close to the closed shops, the empty shops with plywood for windows, and decided
as he did that he’d finally had it with this burg. As the government kept chipping away at Dix’s assignments, folks up and left, and nobody came
in to take their place.
Hell, if he was going to drink himself to death, he might as well do it
somewhere pretty, Florida or something, where at least it stays warm most of the
He hiccuped, spat on the sidewalk, and belched loudly.
On the other hand, he decided the same thing every damn night, and hadn’t
Too old, pal, we don’t need you anymore. Take your pension and split, you old
He belched again, spat again, and seriously considered going back to
Barney’s, to have a farewell drink. That would shake them up, no question about
Half a block later he stopped, scowling at himself, and squinted down the
street. The tarmac was a black mirror, streetlight and neon twisted and
shimmering in the puddles. Nothing there but small shops and offices, a distant
traffic light winking amber.
He looked behind him.
The street was deserted there, too.
Nothing moved but small patches of fog.
You’re spooking yourself, bud; knock it off.
He rolled his shoulders, straightened his spine, and crossed to the other
side. Two more blocks, a left, a right, and he’d be at the worn-down apartment complex where he had spent most of the years since his
He could find the damn thing blindfolded.
He glanced back again, thinking someone from the bar was following him.
The end of the block, and he turned around.
Damnit, there was someone back there. It wasn’t so much the sound of
footsteps as it was a presence. A feeling. The certainty that he wasn’t alone.
He knew that feeling well—it had almost driven him around the bend, over there
in the jungle, knowing they were in the trees, watching, waiting, fingers on
“Hey!” he called, glad for the sound of his voice, wishing it didn’t echo so
Yes, there was.
Screw it, he thought, turning with a disgusted wave of his hand; I don’t need
If it was another drunk, he didn’t care; if it was some kid looking for a
quick mugging, he didn’t care about that either because he didn’t have anything
But by the end of the block he couldn’t help it; he had to look.
Nothing at all.
A sudden breeze made him narrow his eyes as it sifted mist against his face,
and when he did, he saw something move at the mouth of a narrow alley about
thirty feet back.
No one answered.
And that pissed him off.
Bad enough the Army had fucked him over, and bad enough he hadn’t been able
to leave this damn place and leave the ghosts behind, but he was not about to
let some goddamn punk mess with his head.
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and marched back, breathing slowly,
deeply, letting his anger build by degrees instead of exploding.
“Hey, you son of a bitch!”
No one answered.
By the time he reached the alley, he was in full-bore fighting mode, and he
stood at the mouth, feet slightly apart, fists on his hips.
“You want to come outta there, buddy?”
A sigh; maybe the breeze, maybe not.
He couldn’t see more than five feet in—three stories of brick on either side,
a pair of dented trash cans on the left, scraps of paper on the ground,
fluttering weakly as the breeze blew again.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought the alley was a dead end, which meant the
sucker wasn’t going anywhere as long as he stood here. The question was, how far
was he going to push this thing? How drunk was he?
He took one step in, and heard the breathing.
Slow, measured; someone was trying very hard not to be heard.
This didn’t make sense. If whoever it was had hidden himself back there,
Grady would have heard him moving around. Had to. There was too much crap on the
ground, too much water. His own single step had sounded like a gunshot.
And the breathing sounded close.
“I ain’t got time for this,” he muttered, and turned.
And saw the arm reach out of the brick wall on his right.
The arm, and the hand with the blade.
He knew what it was; God knows he had used it himself dozens of times.
He also knew how sharp it was.
He almost didn’t feel it sweep across his throat.
And he almost managed to make it to the street before his knees gave out and
he fell against the wall, staring at the arm, at the hand, at the bayonet as he
slid down, legs stretched out before him.
“Goddamn ghost,” he whispered.
“Not quite,” someone answered. “Not quite, old man.”
That’s when Grady felt the fire around his neck, and the warmth flowing over
his chest, and the garbage beneath him, and the fog settling on his face.
That’s when he saw the face of the thing that had killed him.
The afternoon was pleasantly warm, the sky a sharp and cloudless blue. The
sounds of Thursday traffic were muted by the trees carrying their new leaves,
although the cherry trees hadn’t yet sprung all their blossoms. The tourists
were few at the Jefferson Memorial, mostly older people with cameras around
their necks or camcorders in their hands, moving slowly, taking their time. A
handful of joggers followed the Tidal Basin rim; two paddle boats glided over
the water, seemingly in a clumsy, not very earnest race.
That’s why Fox Mulder preferred this place over the others when he wanted
time to think. He could sit undisturbed on the steps, off to one side, without having to listen to terminally bored tour guides chattering like
robots, or schoolkids laughing and horsing around, or any of the rest of the
circus that Old Abe or the Washington Monument managed to attract.
His dark blue suit jacket was folded on the marble step beside him. His tie
was pulled, down and his collar unbuttoned. He looked much younger than his
years, his face as yet unlined, his brown hair unruly in the light breeze that
slipped over the water. Those who bothered to look in his direction figured, he
supposed, that he was some kind of academic.
That was all right with him.
His sandwich was almost done, a plastic cup of soda just about empty, when he
saw a tall man in a dark brown suit moving around the edge of the Basin, staring
at those he passed as if expecting to discover someone he knew. Mulder looked
quickly from side to side, but there was no way he could duck around the
building or into the trees without being seen.