Determined to possess the Holy Grail, Saladin, a dark sorcerer, kidnaps ten-year-old Arthur Pendragon, who possesses the Grail, and it is up to Hal, a former FBI agent, to rescue the young king and save Camelot. By the authors of Grandmaster. 75,000 first printing. $50,000 ad/promo.
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Molly Cochran was written more than 25 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the bestsellers Grandmaster, which won the Edgar Award, The Forever King, and Dressing Thin, a nonfiction work. Born in Tokyo, of Japanese and Irish-American extraction, Cochran graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and has lived in many countries.
Cochran's other novels include World Without End and two sequels to The Forever King, The Broken Sword and The Third Magic. She has taught writing at numerous writers conferences. Cochran lives in Pennsylvania and is the mother of one.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He was there again.
The bright orange blaze was scorching, suffocating in the July afternoon heat. Through the din of cracking timbers and the air-sucking whoosh of the impossibly high and angry gasoline flames the frantic voices of the firefighters sounded muffled and small.
Hal Woczniak swallowed. His hands rose and fell in a jerky motion. The features of his face were contorted, still wearing the expression of shock that had followed the explosion. Nearby, sweating and helpless, stood a small army of useless men--six members of the FBI, a fully armed SWAT team, the local police. A heavyset, balding man unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it into his mouth.
"Forget it, Hal," he told Woczniak.
The house blurred and wavered in the heat. Two firemen dragged a body--what was left of it--out of the doorway.
"Leave him!" Woczniak shouted.
The heavyset man raised a hand to Woczniak's chest, a gesture of restraint.
"Chief, there's a kid inside!" Woczniak protested.
"They know that," the Chief said placatingly. "But they just got here. They've got to move that body. Give them a chance."
"What kind of chance does the kid get?" Woczniak growled. He shoved the Chief's hand away and ran for the house. Into the thick of the smoke pouring from the building, his lungs stinging from the black air, his legs pumped wildly.
"Woczniak! Hal!" the Chief shouted. "Somebody stop him, for God's sake!"
Two firefighters flung themselves at him, but Woczniak leaped over them effortlessly and hurtled himself into the inferno.
It was pitch-black inside except for high licks of orange flame that shed no light in the dense smoke. Coughing, Woczniak tore off his shirt and pulled it over his head as he crawled spider-like up the fragile, superheated wooden stairs. A timber broke with a deafening crack and fell toward him. He slammed against the far wall at the top of the stairs. In the blind darkness, a shard of glass from a broken mirror cut deep into his cheek. Woczniak felt only a dull pain as he pulled it from his flesh.
Stooped and groping, he found a door. He pulled it open.
The boy will be there, tied to the chair. The boy will be there, and this time I'll get to him. This time Jeff will open his blue eyes and smile, and I'll muss his carrot hair, and the kid will go home to his folks. This one will escape. This time.
But it was not the boy with the carrot-red hair tied to the chair. In his place was a monster, a fire-breathing dragon straight out of a fairy tale, with eyes like blood and scales that scraped as it writhed. It opened its mouth, and with its foul breath came the words:
" You're the best, kid. You're the best there is."
And then the creature, the terrible beast Hal Woczniak had somehow known all along would meet him in this room, cackled with a sound like breaking glass.
Screaming, Woczniak ran up to it and clasped the saurian around its slimy neck. It smiled at him with triumphant malice.
Then, fading as if it had been fashioned of clouds, it vanished and the reality of his life returned. In the monster's place was the red-haired boy, tied to the chair…dead as he had been all along, dead as he always was in these dreams.
Woczniak was still screaming. He couldn't stop.
He woke up screaming.
* * *
"Honey. Hey, mister."
Hal gasped for breath. His sweat was slick and cold.
"You musta had a bad dream."
It was a woman's voice. He looked over at her. It took him a moment to orient himself to his surroundings. He was in bed, in a dingy room he reluctantly recognized as his own. The woman was beside him. They were both naked.
"Do I know you?" he asked groggily, rubbing his hands over his face.
She smiled. She was almost pretty.
"Sure, baby. Since last night, anyway." She snuggled against him and flung her arm over his chest.
He pushed her away. "Go on, get out of here."
She's not even angry, Hal thought. She's used to it. He pulled the filthy covers off them both, then saw the bruises on the woman's body. "Did I do that?"
She looked down at herself, arms spread in self-examination. "Oh. No, hon. You was real nice. Kind of drunk, though." She smiled at him. "I guess you want me to go, huh?"
She didn't wait for an answer as she wriggled into a cheap yellow dress.
"What…ah…What do I owe you?" Hal asked, wondering if he had any money. He remembered borrowing twenty from Zellie Moscowitz, who had just fenced some diamonds for a second-story man in Queens. That had been yesterday. Or the day before. He pressed his fingers into his eyes. Hell, it might have been last week, for all he knew. "What day is this?"
"Thursday," the woman said. She wasn't smiling anymore. Her shoulders sagged above the low-cut bodice of her dress. "And I ain't no hooker."
"Yeah." She zipped up her dress. "But now you mention it, I could use cab fare."
"Sure." Hal swung his legs woodenly over the side of the bed and lurched toward a pair of pants draped over a chair. They reeked of stale booze and cigarette smoke, with a strong possibility of urine.
There were four one-dollar bills in his wallet. He handed them to her. "It's all I've got."
"That's okay," she said. "My name's Rhonda. I live over in Jersey. In Union City."
"Nice to meet you," Hal said.
As he replaced his wallet, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the broken triangle of a mirror above the sink. A pair of watery, bloodshot eyes stared stupidly at him above bloated cheeks covered with graying stubble.
"I said, who are you?"
Hal stood motionless, transfixed by the sight. "Nobody," he said softly. "Nobody at all."
He didn't hear the woman let herself out.
* * *
You're the best, kid. The best there is.
That was what the chief said when Hal had turned in his resignation to the FBI. The best there is.
He turned on the tap in the sink. A thin stream of cold water trickled out, disturbing two roaches that had apparently spent the night in a Twinkie wrapper stuffed into a brown-speckled Styrofoam coffee container.
Hal splashed water on his face. Hands still dripping, he touched the scar on his cheek where the piece of glass had cut him during the fire.
That was the problem: Too much of the dream was real. If it were all dragons vaporizing on contact, he could handle it better. But most of it was exactly as things had really been. The fire, the boy, the laughter…that crazy bastard's laughter…
-- Look, Woczniak, nobody else could have saved the kid, either. You went into the burning building, for chrissake. Even the fire department couldn't get into a gasoline fire. SWAT couldn't go in. You've just spent five months in the hospital for that stunt. What'd you expect, magic?
-- Well, welcome to the real world. It's got psychos in it. Some of them kill kids. That's not the way we want it, it's just the way it is. I'm telling you, you did a good job. You're going to get a citation as soon as you're out of here.
-- A citation.
-- That's right. And you deserve it.
-- The kid's dead, Chief.
-- So's the psycho. After four months, you were the one who found him. You were the one who figured out why he went after the kids.
-- I was the one who let him kill the last one.
-- Nobody expected him to blow himself up.
-- I could have stopped it.
-- I could have shot him and covered the grenade.
-- With what? Your body? Jesus Christ. How long you been with the Bureau, Hal? Fifteen years?
--That's a long time. Don't throw it away just because you got too close to one kid's family. Believe me, I know what it's like. You see pictures, home movies, you have dinner with the parents 'cause you've got nothing else to do at night…
-- I'm out, Chief.
-- Listen to me. You find a girl, maybe you get married. Things are different with a wife.
-- I said I'm out.
* * *
Hal Woczniak left the hospital five and a half months after the fire that killed Jeff Brown and his abductor. He left with no future and a past he wanted only to forget.
Funny, he thought as he walked down the glistening hospital sidewalk toward the bus stop. He had just spent half a year in the same hospital where the killer had found Jeff.
His name was Louie Rubel, Hal remembered. He had worked as an orderly in the Trauma and Burn Unit from which Hal had just been released. Using the Visitors' Registration records, Rubel would pick out boys of the right age among the visitors and then stalk them on their home turf. Before he got to Jeff Brown, he had already killed and mutilated four other ten-year-olds. Each murder reenacted the first killing, that of his better-favored younger brother.
Woczniak led the FBI team that cracked the case just as Rubel was about to murder the Brown kid. It had looked like a perfect collar, with evidence in place, the boy alive, and a confession. No one had counted on the killer's own sense of drama.
As the authorities approached the house, Louie Rubel announced that he had sprayed the place with gasoline. Hal ordered everyone on scene to freeze. When they did, Rubel took a grenade out of his vest pocket and pulled out the pin with his teeth.
The next few seconds were pandemonium, but Hal remembered only silence, a silence welling and gradually filling with Rubel's high, shrieking, monstrous laughter. He laughed until the grenade exploded. He blew himself to bits in full view of the police, the FBI, SWAT, and an ambulance crew.
A moment later the house went up like a torch, but Hal could still hear the laughter.
He had run into the fire, run to save the red-haired boy, kept running even after the shard of glass had ripped his cheek in two and the flames burned away the hair on his arms and chest and head, had run into the upstairs room where the boy was sitting, tied to a chair. You're safe, Jeff. Just a second here, let me get these ropes off you…Jeff…
And he carried Jeff Brown out the window and tried mouth-to-mouth on him right there on the roof while the SWAT boys nearly roasted themselves pulling a tarp over to the wall beneath them. But it was too late.
Hal had come to in the hospital a week later. His first thought was the memory of the boy's lips, still warm.
You're the best, kid, welcome to the real world you'll get a citation for this what'd you expect?
* * *
It had been almost a year since the incident.
The face in the broken mirror above the sink, the loser's face, shook as if it were powered by an overheated engine. His eyes--a stranger's eyes--were glassy and staring. His teeth were bared.
He turned off the water. The roaches returned.
"Screw it," he said. It was time for a drink.
It was always time for a drink.
Copyright © 1992 by M.C. Murphy
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