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In the front row, the Fan Club howled with murderous glee and plunged into the crowd, tearing and rending. Blood spurted as far as the stage in a grisly shower.

Case came to herself as Johnny's voice swelled further. The strap was off her guitar, and she held the heavy Les Paul in her left hand.

What was I doing with this?

She looked over at Johnny as the awful sounds smashed the air around her. His eyes were closed, his mouth open wide, and both hands clutched the mic stand.

Case remembered.



She wrapped both hands around the neck of the guitar, holding it like a battle-axe or a ten-pound maul. Sorry, Kerry, she thought, and she charged across the stage.

The beat stopped as Danny saw her and quit drumming, but there was no way for him to get to her in time. The Fan Club was busy now that the leash had been slipped, gorging itself on the warm flesh of the spectators, and they didn't see her either.

She brought the heavy guitar down in a high overhead arc. Danny yelled, and whether it was that or the sudden absence of drums, Johnny opened his eyes.

He was too late to stop her, but he managed to jerk his head away from the blow just in time to prevent her from smashing his skull. Instead, the guitar hit high on his shoulder. Case felt the shock travel up into her arms, and even above the screaming, she heard the crack of his collarbone as it shattered. The mic stand went flying. Johnny stopped singing abruptly.

She dropped the guitar to the stage, her wrists vibrating from the shock of impact.

Johnny turned to her. His right arm hung limp, and his body seemed out of true, slumped on that side. He lashed out with his left instead, catching Case across the face.

She stumbled and fell backward, landing hard on the stage. The offstage lighting had come up some, the spotlight on Johnny gone down. In the crowd, some of the columns of darkness moved into the bodies of spectators, turning them into something awful. Other columns wavered as though caught in the throes of indecision. Still others started to fade out.

A spasm of loss crossed Johnny's face. "You bit.c.h," he said. "You're dead. We're going to eat you slow. We're going to take turns. It's going to last a long, long time."

Then, incredibly, he turned away from her.

What the f.u.c.k? she thought, and then she understood. He was going for the microphone.

"John!" she shouted. "Don't do this!"

He whirled back to her, snarling. "I'm Johnny! Don't call me John! John's gone. John's f.u.c.king dead!"

John's in there-and Johnny doesn't like it when you get his name wrong. That she understood, rather too well. Just like calling me Steph. She doubted calling him the wrong name would do more than p.iss him off, but angry opponents made mistakes.

Like what?

More screams from the crowd she tried to tune out. From the side, she could see Danny coming around the drum kit, charging at her. Allen tried to stop him, but Danny brushed him aside like a scarecrow, hurling him across the stage. Allen hit the floor, slid, and did not get up.

Case got to her feet just as Danny reached her. He would be impossibly strong, she knew, but he didn't have any training, and his momentum was too great. She stepped toward him and dropped her body low, grabbing his arm and pivoting. A look of surprise flashed across his face, and then he was gone, sailing through the air. He landed in the crowd, in the midst of the biting, tearing frenzy that was the Fan Club. He disappeared beneath the bodies. Beyond him, somebody fell on the mixing desk. Sparks flew.

Meanwhile, Johnny had nearly reached the microphone.

"John!" she yelled again.

He stopped, looking back and forth between her and the mic.

"Come on, John. This isn't you."

He reached a decision. "f.u.c.k it," he said. "You're dead now. My brothers will have to settle for what's left." He stalked across the stage toward her, blood in his eyes. His right arm was useless, but she thought the left would be more than enough.

"Don't do this, John."

A vicious blow caught her on the shoulder, knocking her to the stage floor. She scrambled away, but he was too fast. His foot lashed out, catching her in the ribs, and hideous pain lanced through her body. Another kick, and she felt something break, then another.

She screamed. "John, it's me, Goddammit! I know you're in there!" She clawed and scrambled, but her body barely responded. With a sick shudder, she realized she'd only made it ten feet or so-just far enough to bring John right back to the microphone he wanted so badly. Stupid, she thought, and then he was on her.

He landed on her body, sitting on her chest, crushing her to the floor. His good left hand reached out, and steely fingers wrapped around her throat. She scratched at his face, gouging and tearing the skin, but he didn't even defend himself. He simply didn't care.

"John," she mouthed, no sound emerging.

His face smoothed over, and the pressure at her throat eased, ever so slightly. For just a moment, she saw the skinny, uncertain kid that had approached her in the club a thousand years ago, before all this had started.

"Oh, God, I never-" he began.

She struck. Her position had shit for leverage, but she threw the punch as hard as she could. It connected with his throat, and this time she felt rather than heard the crack of snapping bone.

His mouth gaped, but no sound came out. He fell to the floor, flopping like a fish and gasping for air.

The feeding frenzy in the crowd continued. The sparks from the mixing desk had started a fire that blazed madly as people ran to the doors. Some were stopped by crazed Fan Club members, but a few others made it out.

The columns of darkness were gone.

Case dragged Johnny toward the back.

Chapter 33.

"You okay?" Case asked nervously. "I mean, are they treating you all right?"

John scribbled something on a piece of paper and slid it across the table.

Yeah, the note said. In crayon. I haven't been out since the funeral, but they're treating me okay.

Case nodded. She didn't know what to say. Danny's body had been found among the burned after the fire department had finally put out the blaze. The funeral had been bad, and she had avoided John.

There had been a lot of funerals that week, but only a handful of the new inmates of the mental hospital were allowed to attend, and then only under heavy guard. All told, there had been four hundred killed that night, and another sixty-one had been institutionalized for an indefinite period while teams of doctors tried to figure out the cause of an apparent epidemic of psychosis. Sixty of those patients were still ravening maniacs, constantly raving about how hungry they were and occasionally taking bites out of hospital staff and other patients, from what Case had heard. The last patient, John, had calmed down considerably after a few weeks. He probably would have been released by now, if he didn't periodically try to kill himself.

Case had finally decided to visit John now, almost six months after the disaster. He seemed okay. Frail and thin-looking in his white hospital garb, but more or less okay. He'd never speak again, though, let alone sing. She had snapped his hyoid bone and torn both his vocal cords. She had heard that the doctors had tried to repair everything, but that they'd failed.

She thought that, on balance, that might be a very good thing.

"Bored?" Case asked, then immediately regretted it. It was a stupid question.

John shrugged. It's not so bad. Writing a lot of poetry.

"Yeah? Send me some when you get it done. I'd like to read it."

He nodded, but his face was still. For a brief moment, Case thought she glimpsed a hint of something ancient and awful, something horrid staring out at her, mute behind John's eyes. She didn't know if it-whatever it was-was still in there or not, but she knew she would wonder forever. None of the others had recovered, after all. Night after night, she lay awake listening to the noises in her apartment, wondering if all of the Fan Club had been accounted for. She was afraid she'd wonder about that all the rest of her life.

They talked for another twenty minutes or so, Case reading the notes John passed across the table and answering his questions as best as she could.

I miss Danny, he wrote toward the end, his eyes shining.

"Me too." It had been months before she could look at a pair of drumsticks without tears coming to her eyes. She missed Erin, too. Erin had listened to her, had gotten clear of the place before Ragman had even gotten onstage, but she wanted nothing to do with Case. She'd avoided Case at Danny's funeral, just as Case had avoided John. God, that had hurt. It still did. Maybe someday they'd be able to talk again, but Case doubted it. Allen had also made it, miraculously staggering out of the smoke just behind Case. She was actually doing some recording with him now, capturing a set of dark songs they'd written together while trying to cope. Case thought he might have kept her from losing her own mind-he was the one person with whom she felt comfortable talking about that awful tour, maybe the only person who understood.

There didn't seem to be much to say to John after that. She made her excuses before too long, and turned to go.

As she walked toward the door, she felt John's eyes on her, watching, contemplating-waiting.

John's eyes? Or something else's?

She turned around. John was watching her, but if there was any malice in his gaze she couldn't see it.

"See you later," she said.

He gave her a weak smile and waved back.

She felt him watch her all the way down the hall.

About the author:.

Joseph Garraty has worked as a construction worker, technical writer, rocket test engineer, environmental consultant, and deadbeat musician, among other things. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

For more information, visit http://www.josephgarraty.com.

end.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION