The Drifter - Chapter 1

There was a pit bull under the front porch and it didn’t want to come out.

Young Charlie Johnson said, “That dang dog’s been there for weeks, sir. It already ate up all the cats and dogs around here. I can’t even let my dang little brother out the front door no more.”

The hundred-year-old house sat on a narrow lot on the edge of a battered Milwaukee neighborhood that, like the house, had seen better days. It was early November, not warm, not even by Wisconsin standards. The leaves had already fallen from the skeletal trees that towered overhead.

But the sun was out, which counted for something. And the sky was a high, pale morning blue. Not a morning for static. Not at all.

Peter Ash said, “Just how big is this dog?”

Charlie shook his head. “Never seen it up close, sir, and never in daylight. But it’s awfully dang big, I can tell you that.”

“Didn’t you call animal control?”

“Oh, my mama called,” said Charlie. “Two men came, took one look under there, got right back in their truck and drove away.”

Charlie wore a school uniform, a light-blue permanent-press dress shirt, dark-blue polyester dress pants, and giant polished black shoes on his oversized feet. He was the kind of skinny, big-eared, twelve-year-old kid who could eat six meals a day and still be hungry.

But his eyes were older than his years. They didn’t miss a thing.

He was watching Peter Ash now.

Peter sat on the closed lid of a wooden toolbox, his wide, knuckly hands on the work-worn knees of his carpenter’s jeans, peering through the narrow access hatch cut into the rotted pine slats enclosing the space under the porch. He had to admit the dog sounded big. He could hear it growling back there in the darkness. Like a tank engine on idle, only louder.

He had a .45 under the seat of his pickup, but he didn’t want to use it. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, not really. It was hungry and scared and alone, and all it had was its teeth.

On the other hand, Peter had told Charlie’s mother, Dinah, that he would fix the rotting supports beneath her ancient porch.

She hadn’t mentioned the dog.

Peter really couldn’t blame her.

Her husband had killed himself.

And it was Peter’s fault.

**

Peter was lean and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra. His long face was angular, the tips of his ears slightly pointed, his dark hair the unruly shag of a buzz cut grown wild. He had the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change.

Some part of him was always in motion—even now, sitting on that toolbox, peering under that porch, his knee bobbed in time to some interior metronome that never ceased.

He’d fought two wars over eight years, with more deployments than he cared to remember. The tip of the spear. He’d be thirty-one in January.

As he bent to look through the narrow access hatch under the porch, he could feel the white static fizz and pop at the base of his skull. That was his name for the fine-grained sensation he lived with now, the white static. A vague crackling unease, a dissonant noise at the edge of hearing. It wasn’t quite uncomfortable, not yet. The static was just reminding him that it didn’t want him to go inside.

Peter knew it would get worse before he was done.

So he might as well get to it.

The space under the porch was about three feet high. Maybe twelve feet wide and twelve deep, with a dirt floor. About the size of four freshly dug graves, laid sideways. The smell was rank, worse than a sergeant’s feet after two months in a combat outpost. But not as bad as a two-week-old corpse.

Light trickled in through the slatted sides of the porch, but shadows shrouded the far corner, some kind of cast-off crap back there. And that growl he could just about feel through the soles of his boots.

It would be good to do this without being chewed on too much.

He went out to his truck and found a cordless trouble light, some good rope, and a length of old handrail. White oak, an inch and three-quarters thick, maybe eighteen inches long. Nice and solid in the hand. Which was a help when you were contemplating something spectacularly stupid.

Serenaded by the growls from the crawl space, he sat down on the toolbox and took out his knife while young Charlie Johnson watched.

Not that Peter wanted an audience. This certainly could get ugly.

“Don’t you have someplace to go, Charlie? School or something?”

Charlie glanced at a cheap black digital watch strapped to his skinny wrist. “No, sir,” he said. “Not yet I don’t.”

Peter just shook his head. He didn’t like it, but he understood. He figured he wasn’t that far from twelve years old himself.

He cut three short lengths from his rope and left the remainder long, ten or twelve feet. Tied one end of a short piece of rope tight to each end of the oak rail. Looped the last short rope and the remainder through his belt a single time, so he could get at it quickly.

Then he looked up at Charlie again. “You better get out of here, kid. If this goes bad, you don’t want to be around.”

Charlie said, “I’m not a dang kid. Sir. I’m the man of the family.” He reached inside the door, brought out an aluminum baseball bat, and demonstrated his swing. “That’s my dang porch. My little brother, too. I ain’t going nowhere.”

Charlie’s dad always had the same look behind the Humvee’s .50 turret gun. Eyes wide open and ready for trouble. Daring any motherfucker to pop up with an RPG or Kalashnikov or whatever. But when his wife, Dinah, sent cookies, Big Jimmy Johnson—known inevitably to the platoon’s jokers as Big Johnson, or just plain Big—was always the last to eat one.

Peter missed him.

He missed them all. The dead and the living.

He said, “Okay, Charlie. I can respect that.” He put his eyes on the boy and held them there. “But if that dog gets loose you get your butt in that house, you hear me? And if you hit me with that bat I’m going to be seriously pissed.”

“Yessir.” Charlie nodded. “Can’t promise anything, sir. But I’ll do my best.”

Peter smiled to himself. At least the kid was honest.

After that there was nothing more to do but lean back and kick out the slats on one side of the porch, letting in more daylight. The space was still small. The tank engine in the shadows got louder. But no sign of the dog. Must be lurking in that trash pile in the far corner.

Not that it mattered. He wasn’t turning away from the challenge. He was just planning how to succeed.

The familiar taste filled his mouth, a coppery flavor, like blood. He felt the adrenaline lift and carry him forward. It was similar to the static, rising. The body’s preparation for fight or flight. It was useful.

He peered under the porch, and the static rose higher still. The static didn’t care about the snarling dog. It cared about the enclosure. It jangled his nerves, raced his heart, tightened his chest, and generally clamored for his attention. It wanted him to stay outside in the open air, in the daylight.

Breathing deeply, Peter took the piece of oak and banged it on the wood frame of the porch. It rang like a primitive musical instrument.

Despite everything, he was smiling.

“Hey, dog,” he called into the darkness. “Watch your ass, I’m coming in!”

And in he went, headfirst on his elbows and knees, the stick in one hand and the trouble light in the other.

What, you want to live forever?