Salem VI – Book Preview

Prologue

Burlington, Vermont, October 17, 1978

THE MAN STOOD IN THE SHADOWS, SHIVERING, rocking from foot to foot to keep his Toes from freezing and watched his breath whiten in the cold air. It was only mid- October, but up here in Vermont the unseasonably frigid night felt like January.  Across the street the lights of Davis Hall burned through the clear air and reflected a dull glow off the frost-rimmed grass.

The man checked his watch. Nearly four a.m. Most of the college kids seemed to have turned in for the night because the vast majority of the room lights were off. The man didn’t care about most of the kids at all. He cared about one single kid, in room 321, and he didn’t care about him in the way a parent might. He cared about him the way a risk management specialist cares about looming liability.  The kid wasn’t a problem yet, but the man knew he had the potential to become a big problem.  Nobody knew exactly when it might happen, but according  to people who knew more about  this than  he, the kid had  begun  to glow with  awareness  in the past couple days. It was way too early. It was pure luck that somebody with the ability to see such things had spotted him and gotten word back to Salem. Awareness didn’t normally develop, if it ever did, until much later in life, but if people said it was happening now, the man wasn’t going to argue. As a self-defined risk management specialist, his job was to nip problems like this in the bud.

He looked again at the window of room 321. It had been dark  for  two  hours,  and  he  knew  the  room’s three  occupants  were totally  dead to the world.  He’d made sure of that because  earlier  that  afternoon, dressed  as  a  University  of Vermont  janitor,  he had  picked  the lock on their  room  and injected  their  pony  keg with  a little  mixture  of his own,  a concentrate of dissolved  sleeping pills that  would  put  them down  deeper  than  the alcohol  ever could.  The whole point was to make sure they were sufficiently unconscious so the smoke and heat could do their job.

And now as he watched the window, he saw the first wisp of smoke escape.  It was very subtle.  If he hadn’t been staring at the window he never would have seen it. It meant that the  very small  incendiary  device he had  planted  in one  of the room’s electrical outlets  had  ignited  and  was starting  to feed on  the  old  dormitory’s  walls.  The device would never be detectable, not after the tinderbox dorm had fully caught fire. And it would definitely catch fire. He knew this because earlier that evening he had also disabled the dorm’s sprinkler system. The three boys in the room would be dead within fifteen minutes.  No doubt some other kids would die, too, but that couldn’t be helped.  It would be collateral damage, just like what the papers used to call it a few years earlier when the Air Force accidentally napalmed a village in Vietnam.

John Andrews tossed his head from side to side on his pillow and wondered for the hundredth time if he was going to hurl. Maybe two hours earlier when he’d gone to bed he’d suffered through the  exact  same  thing,  and  now  here  it was  back, the room  spinning  like a top.  He cursed himself for sucking down so much of the pony keg he and his suitemates had tapped. Stupid, really stupid, he told himself.

But then he corrected himself, he really hadn’t swilled that much beer. He’d drunk more lots of other nights and not felt half as smashed. Same with his suitemates.  Both guys could usually  hold  their  beer,  but  they’d both  been  slurring  their words, and when  they first went  to bed he was pretty  sure he’d heard one of them barfing out the living room window.

Now,  strangely,  he was awake  again,  and  it was still the middle  of the  night,  and  he had  the  bed  spins  for  the  second time in a couple hours.  How was this possible? Usually when he went to sleep with a load on, he slept like the dead until sometime around noon the next day.  Only something had disturbed him. He struggled to remember.  Had it been a shout?  If that was it then he’d heard it in a dream because it had been an old lady’s voice, but a harsh and forceful voice and incredibly loud, and there weren’t any old ladies in Davis Hall.

In spite of having a terrible case of the spins he was keeping his eyes closed and starting to sink back into sleep. He was so totally out of it he didn’t even care if he blew lunch all over his bed.  But then he heard the voice again.  “Get up!” The voice slammed him, as impossible to ignore as a dental drill in his ear. Actually it was even worse than  that  because it was coming from inside  his head,  like some  strange  old lady was locked in there wanting  to get out.

He struggled  to open  his eyes, working  hard  against  the heaviness  of alcohol,  feeling like a diver  trying  to  swim  to the surface  in a pool  filled with  Jell-O. Had it been beer or tequila shots he’d been drinking?  He really hadn’t had that much to drink.  How could he feel this hammered? He heard the voice a third time, a female drill sergeant shouting, “Get up!” and this time it slices through his drunkenness like a sharp knife cutting through rope.  Knowing he had to stand if only to stop the painful caterwauling in his brain, he slid one foot out of bed and put it flat on the floor.

Weird. Davis Hall had a lousy heating system so the floor should have been cold, but it was hot.  In fact it was really hot. He pushed himself up on one elbow, took a deep breath through his mouth, and right away started to cough.

Boy, am I a mess, he thought as he continued to hack. He tried to suck down another breath, but it caught in his lungs like a jagged piece of chicken bone. He sat up reflexively, and that was when he began to realize that, between the hot floor and the air, he had a much bigger problem.

He was still coughing, nearly retching, as he reached over and fumbled for his bedside lamp.  When it came on a surge of panic helped sober him because he saw that the room was full of thick gray smoke, so much that he couldn’t even make out the door about  ten feet away.

He lurched out of bed, stumbled to the window, and threw it open. He shoved his head into the cold air and took deep breaths until he stopped coughing.  Slowly, as his brain started  to work  he looked  down  three  stories  to the frozen ground, and  then  his eyes went  across  the street  to where  a man was standing  in the shadows.  The man was nearly invisible, just a shadow slightly darker than the night, but John hesitated because he thought the man was staring up at him. “Help,” he called, his voice hoarse from coughing and barely more than a whisper. “Fire.”

Strangely, the man did not move.  John blinked.  as he imagining this?  Smoke was pouring  out  the  window   all around him,  but  the  guy wasn’t  budging?  The  smoke  had to be easily visible from  across  the street,  and  yet the man continued to  stare  up  at  the  dorm  like he was  waiting  for something  to happen, or maybe like he was looking  directly at John. What was wrong with this jerk?

“Move!” Another shout pierced his brain, the feeling like somebody was stabbing the inside of his skull with an ice- pick. It made him forget about the guy and think about his roommates and all the other people on the floor. Where had the fire started?  Did they know about it? Were they already evacuating?  Why weren’t the alarms going off? Weren’t there supposed to be sprinklers?

Feeling a surge of panic he left the window open, got down on his hands and knees where the smoke was much thinner, and crawled toward his door.  On  the way he pulled  on the jeans  he had  thrown off when  he got  into  bed  and  pulled on his boots.  He didn’t bother to lace them.  The bedroom door was hot, but no hotter than the floor. He opened it and looked out. More smoke, but thankfully no sign of flames.

He crawled  into the living room,  found  a pitcher  of beer that  was  still three-quarters full then  grabbed  a crumpled sweatshirt off the floor nearby, soaked  it with the beer, and held it against  his face like a filter.  Then he crawled to the door that  led to his roommates’ bedroom. When he turned on the wall light he could barely make out two lumpy forms under the blankets on the two beds.

“Fire! Get up!” he croaked.

Neither one moved.  John crawled to the window, stood up, and heaved it open to let in some fresh air. He stuck his head out and took a quick breath so his lungs could work. “Get up! Get up!” he shouted. At that, Steve, one of the suitemates, made a groaning sound and  started  to cough.  John crawled over and jerked him out of bed and onto the floor.

“Wha’re you doin’, man?”  he mumbled, barely coherent. He seemed terrible out  of it, much  drunker than  he should have been given how much beer they’d consumed.

“The dorm’s on fire.”  John slapped him hard across the face. “Wake up!”

Steve barely seemed to register the slap. John dragged him to the window, pulled him up, and hung him out. “Breathe!” He left Steve and crawled over to Mike’s bed. Like he had with Steve, he grabbed Mike by the arm and jerked him to the floor.

“Lemme ‘lone,” Mike slurred.

John slapped him just the way he had Steve, alarmed at how little Mike responded. He dragged him over to the window and pulled him to his feet beside Steve, and a second later both suitemates were hanging out the window coughing.

“Stay here,” John said.  “Don’t leave the window unless you can get out on your own.  I’m gonna go pull the alarm and knock on the other doors on the hall. I’ll be back in a minute.”

John  crawled  toward the door  that  led into  the hallway, felt it, and  realized  it was hotter  than  the  other  doors  had been but still not in flames. He cracked the door, half afraid a wall of fire would come shooting inside. He was relieved to see only thick walls of smoke in both directions. He tried to recall where the smoke alarm was located.  They had showed him during freshman orientation, but of course he hadn’t paid attention.

To the left was a double with two girls, one from Massachusetts, the other from Virginia. He had fantasized  about getting  the  blond  from  Virginia  into  bed,  but  now  he only thought about keeping her alive. He tried the door handle, but it was locked. He banged on the door, then swiveled around, sat on his butt, and hammered the door with both feet. The third time the lock gave and the door swung inward. “Get up!” he shouted.

Fortunately the girls had gone to bed reasonably sober. They were coughing, but they woke up and got their window open.

“Get out as quick as you can, okay?” he said.

As soon  as  they  said  they  would,  he  crawled  out  and since the girls’ room  was the end of the corridor, he went in the other  direction. He kicked in three more doors and got the occupants out of bed before he managed to spot the fire alarm in the near darkness.  He stood up, broke the glass, and pulled the switch.  Suddenly the loud smoke alarm filled the hallways with noise.

With the alarm blaring, he continued on. That’s when he saw the flames glowing lurid and yellow through the smoke. He also saw the bathroom door.  Knowing what he had to do next, he crawled into the shower, turned it on, and soaked himself from head to toe, then tore the shower curtain from the rod and soaked it as well. Crawling back into the hallway, he took the biggest breath he could, stood, and wrapped the dripping shower curtain around his head and torso and ran toward the flames at the farthest end of the hallway.

His  lungs  were  burning  before  he’d gotten  halfway,  but there  was  nothing  he could  do.  The wall just past the last room door was totally in flames. He grabbed the door handle and  jerked  his hand  away  because  the  metal  was  so hot  it blistered  his skin.  He took the shower curtain, put a thick wad of it against the handle, and tried again.  The door was unlocked, and he stumbled inside, went straight to the window, and jerked it up.

He sucked down a couple quick gulps of air then went to the single bed in the room.  He tried to wake the sleeper, but she did not open her eyes. John could hear voices in the hall- way  now  as other  students  from  other  floors  responded to the alarm  and began to knock  on other  doors,  making  sure everyone was out.

“Two guys in three-twenty-one!”  he shouted into the smoke. “Get them out.”

He  went  back  to  the  window,   took  one  more  breath, returned to  the  bed,  and  heaved  the  girl over his shoulder. She was deadweight, nearly impossible to carry in his current condition. John stumbled to the door, which was now on fire. He shouldered it open, felt a lick of flame on his exposed ear and neck and kept moving, passing open doorways as headed toward the stairway at the far end of the hall. As he was going down the stairs he met two campus security officers coming up. They took the comatose student from his shoulders.

“Any others up there?”

John nodded as he bent over coughing.  “Gotta check on my suitemates,” he managed after a few seconds. “Three- twenty-one.”

“We got ‘em both a minute ago,” one of the officers said. They carried the unconscious student out and helped make sure John got down the stairs.  When  he stumbled  into  the freezing  Vermont  night,  he  realized  he  wasn’t  wearing   a shirt. At the same time the cold air lit up the burned skin on his hand and his ear and neck. The pain nearly took him to his knees, but he didn’t think  about  that.  He was thinking about  the  guy who  had  stood  and  watched  the  smoke  roil out around him when he opened the window  and who hadn’t done a damn thing to help.

John  pushed  past  the security  officer who  was trying  to get  him  over  to  an  ambulance where  EMTs  were  treating students  for  burns  or  smoke  inhalation and  headed  across the street  to where  the man  had  been standing.  He wanted to  find  the  jerk  and  drive  his fist right  into  his nose,  and he looked  around, trying to recall exactly what  the guy had looked  like. He could only remember a dark silhouette. The guy hadn’t been too short or tall and hadn’t been particularly fat or skinny. He’d probably been wearing a down parka and stocking cap like everyone else in Vermont in late October.

The only feature that had been distinctive had been the guy’s eyes. Even from across the street  John  had  felt the …what  . . . the hatred  that  had  seemed to make  them  burn brighter  than  the night.  Well, if he found the guy, John was going to make him understand what hatred really felt like.

Late the next day, wearing thick bandages on his neck, ear, and right hand and still loopy from the prescription painkillers he’d been given, John accompanied his suitemates when they got permission to go back into what had been their college freshman room.  A fireman led them up the stairs and down the corridor where water still dripped from the ceiling. What was left of the blackened carpet squished under their feet, and the reek of smoke came from every surface.  The pony keg they had tapped was now a puddle of melted aluminum.  John went into his old bedroom and saw that nearly all his clothing, bedding, books, shoes, ski and hockey gear, and UVM knapsack had been burned or badly charred.  The few items hanging in his closet that hadn’t been burned were soaked with soot-colored water that had dripped from above and heavy with the permanent stench of smoke.

He turned a slow circle, studied the devastation, remembering how little beer he’d actually drunk but how smashed he’d felt when he went to bed. It was a miracle he was still alive because he knew how soundly he slept when he’d had a few. What had woken him? Had it really been a dream?  He remembered the shouting old woman.  How could he forget her? He’d never heard a voice with so much power.

He was about  to walk out  of the room when he glanced once more at what was left of his desk and  the skeletons  of burned  books  atop  it. As he scowled at the destruction, he noticed something white on the floor. Out of curiosity he went over to see what had managed to keep its color amid all the char. On the far side of his desk where it had apparently fallen to the floor in all the confusion, he could see what looked like one of his papers.

He  bent  over  and  picked  it  up,  feeling  the  wetness  of the pages that  had  somehow  survived.  He let out a sarcastic laugh because except for some black singe at the bottom of the cover sheet, they looked almost perfect.  The paper’s title, “Rebecca Nurse:  A Wrongful  Death  in Salem’s Witch Trials,” was still crisply legible.

“Dude,   what’s funny about this?” his roommate Steve asked from the doorway.

“This.” John held up the paper. “I just finished typing it yesterday.  Somehow it survived.  I can still hand it in. Go figure.”

He looked again at the paper and below it his name and the date, Sunday, October 17, 1978.  Rebecca Nurse, his distant ancestor, he thought, recalling the family portrait of the woman that hung in his great aunt’s house. She had  been a  grim-faced  Puritan  with  a  face  like  a  Rottweiler, but  it was weird because it had almost  seemed like he had felt her presence  looking  down  on him when  he wrote  the paper.  It was probably her he had conjured up in his dream to make himself wake up. He snorted another laugh as he tucked  the paper  under  his arm  and  headed  out  of the  room.  He  was thinking   Rebecca  Nurse  was  so  ugly  she  could  probably wake the dead, so it was nothing  for her to wake up a drunk college student.

 

Chapter One

Salem, Massachusetts, October 17, 2012

JOHN ANDREWS PULLED THE COVERS BACK from his face, slowly opened his eyes, and croaked out a curse. The early dawn light that managed to make its way through his curtains hurt like a stab wound.

“Crap,” he said as he elbowed  himself into a sitting position,  put  his feet on  the  cold  floor,  and  started  to  bat  his hands  in the  direction  of the  alarm.  Some idiot announcer was saying it was unseasonably cold for late October. Like he needed to be reminded since he could nearly see his breath in the cold bedroom. He stood, shivered, padded into the bath- room to pee, then slipped on his terrycloth robe and slippers and headed downstairs to make coffee. At the bottom of the stairs he flipped the thermostat from 50˚ up to 70˚. What had he been thinking  last night?—well,   the point  was he hadn’t been thinking—then pulled open the front door and snatched the three plastic bags containing The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston  Herald.

In the  kitchen,  he tossed  the  papers  on  the  counter, hit the switch to start the coffeemaker  then started  dumping  the papers from their bags. On their one or two bounce trip from the delivery guy, across the sidewalk to his doorstep, each bag managed to pick up some street crap, which always dropped onto his counter. It made a mess, and the mess reminded him of Julie. She’d been a cleanaholic, always after him to sponge off the counters and put things away.

He missed being told to clean up. He missed the noise of another person.  That wasn’t even the start of it. He missed too many things.

He  put  the  papers  in a pile,  wiped  his hand  across  the granite  counter, and swept the crumbs  of street dirt into the sink. He glanced at the plate on the counter beside him and the dirty glass and empty bottle.  Pizza crust on the plate, a bare drop of scotch left in the glass and none in the bottle. How many straight nights of pizza, he wondered. Maybe four, maybe five. How many straight nights of scotch?  He chuckled a humorless laugh.  Way too many to count.  More to the point, how many nights had that dead fifth lasted? Two? Two and a half? Something like that.

If Julie was here she would have a fit, disgusted at his diet and his drinking. “It’s your fault,” he said to the empty kitchen.

He  got  his  coffee,  but  before  he  started  skimming  the papers  he looked  at his reflection  in the kitchen  window.  He still looked okay on the outside, he thought, giving himself a frank appraisal. Mostly  full head  of brown  hair  with  just a tinge  of gray  over  the  ears.  Trim physique, flat stomach, much flatter than he deserved.  Good genes helping to cover for bad behavior, he thought. The face was still there, too, good cheekbones, strong chin, reasonably tight skin, amazing lack of bags under  the eyes considering  how much single malt went down  his throat every night.  It was a face that still could be on national network news every night if that was what he wanted, but he didn’t. He just wanted his quiet life and his quiet little newspaper. He was done with the big leagues and the stress. He was done with love. He was holding it together, he told himself. Just barely.

Image courtesy of ParanormalKnowledge.com.

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