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Strange Highways, Page 3

Dean Koontz

  though it had been a mirage. When it moved around the corner and out of sight at the end of the block, he could easily have been convinced that it had been another hallucination.


  THE LAWYER CONDUCTED BUSINESS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR OF A BRICK building on Main Street, above the Old Town Tavern. The barroom was closed on Sunday afternoons, but small neon signs for Rolling Rock and Pabst Blue Ribbon still glowed in its windows brightly enough to tint the rain green and blue as it fell past the glass.

  The law offices of Henry Kadinska occupied two rooms off a dimly lighted hallway that also served a real-estate office and a dentist. The door stood open to the reception room.

  Joey stepped inside and said, “Hello?”

  The inner door was ajar, and from beyond it a man responded. “Please come in, Joey.”

  The second room was larger than the first, although still of modest proportions. Law books lined two walls; on another, a pair of diplomas hung crookedly. The windows were covered with wood-slat venetian blinds of a type that probably had not been manufactured in fifty years, revealing horizontal slices of the rainy day.

  Identical mahogany desks stood at opposite ends of the room. At one time Henry Kadinska had shared the space with his father, Lev, who had been the town’s only lawyer before him. Lev had died when Joey was a senior in high school. Unused but well polished, the desk remained as a monument.

  Putting his pipe in a large cut-glass ashtray, Henry rose from his chair, reached across the desk, and shook Joey’s hand. “I saw you at Mass, but I didn’t want to intrude.”

  “I didn’t notice … anyone,” Joey said.

  “How’re you doing?”

  “Okay. I’m okay.”

  They stood awkwardly for a moment, not sure what to say. Then Joey sat in one of the two commodious armchairs that faced the desk.

  Kadinska settled back into his own chair and picked up his pipe. He was in his midfifties, slightly built, with a prominent Adam’s apple. His head seemed somewhat too large for his body, and this disproportionateness was emphasized by a hairline that had receded four or five inches from his brow. Behind his thick glasses, his hazel eyes seemed to have a kindly aspect.

  “You found the house key where I told you?”

  Joey nodded.

  “The place hasn’t changed all that much, has it?” Henry Kadinska asked.

  “Less than I expected. Not at all, really.”

  “Most of his life, your dad didn’t have any money to spend—and when he finally got some, he didn’t know how to spend it.” He touched a match to his pipe and drew on the mouthpiece. “Drove P.J. crazy that Dan wouldn’t use much of what he gave him.”

  Joey shifted uneasily in his chair. “Mr. Kadinska … I don’t understand why I’m here. Why did you need to see me?”

  “P.J. still doesn’t know about your dad?”

  “I’ve left messages on the answering machine in his New York apartment. But he doesn’t really live there. Only for a month or so each year.”

  The pipe was fired up again. The air was redolent of cherry-scented tobacco.

  In spite of the diplomas and books, the room wasn’t much like an average law office. It was a cozy place—shabby-genteel but cozy. Slumped in his chair, Henry Kadinska seemed to be as comfortable in his profession as he might have been in a pair of pajamas.

  “Sometimes,” Joey said, “he doesn’t call that number for days, even a week or two.”

  “Funny way to live—nearly always on the road. But I guess it’s right for him.”

  “He seems to thrive on it.”

  “And it results in those wonderful books,” said Kadinska.


  “I dearly love P.J.’s books.”

  “Virtually everyone does.”

  “There’s a marvelous sense of freedom in them, such a … such a spirit.”

  “Mr. Kadinska, the weather being as bad as it is, I’d like to get started back to Scranton as soon as possible. I have to catch a commuter flight out of there early in the morning.”

  “Of course, yes,” said Kadinska, with an unmistakable note of disappointment.

  Now, he seemed to be a lonely little man who had hoped only for some friendly conversation.

  While the lawyer opened a file drawer on his desk and searched for something, Joey noticed that one of the crookedly hung diplomas was from Harvard Law. That was a wildly unlikely alma mater for a small-town, coal-country lawyer.

  Not all the shelves were filled with law books, either. Many were volumes of philosophy. Plato. Socrates. Aristotle. Kant. Augustine. Kierkegaarde. Bentham. Santayana. Schopenhauer. Empedocles, Heidegger, Hobbes, and Francis Bacon.

  Perhaps Henry Kadinska wasn’t comfortable being a small-town lawyer but was simply long resigned to it, trapped first in the orbit of his father and then by the gravity of habit.

  Sometimes, especially in a whiskey haze, it was easy for Joey to forget that he himself wasn’t the only person in the world whose dearest dreams had come to nothing.

  “Your father’s last will and testament,” said Kadinska as he opened a file folder on his desk.

  “A reading of the will?” Joey asked. “I think P.J. should be here for that, not me.”

  “On the contrary. The will has nothing to do with P.J. Your father left everything to you.”

  A sickening pang of guilt quivered through Joey. “Why would he do that?”

  “You’re his son. Why wouldn’t he?”

  Joey made a point of meeting the attorney’s eyes. On this one day, even if never again, he wanted to be honest about these matters, to conduct himself with a dignity of which his father would have approved.

  “We both know the hard answer to that, Mr. Kadinska. I broke his heart. Broke my mother’s heart too. More than two years she withered from the cancer, but I never came. Never held her hand, never consoled my dad. Never saw him once in the last twenty years of his life. I called maybe six or eight times, no more than that. Half the time he didn’t know how to reach me, because I didn’t always give him my address or phone number. And when he did have my number, I always kept an answering machine switched on so I wouldn’t have to pick up. I was a rotten son, Mr. Kadinska. I’m a drunk, a selfish shit, and a loser, and I don’t deserve any inheritance, no matter how little it is.”

  Henry Kadinska appeared to be pained to hear any man criticize himself so mercilessly. “You’re not drunk now, Joey. And the man I see before me isn’t bad in his heart.”

  “I’ll be drunk by tonight, sir, I assure you,” Joey said quietly. “And if you can’t see me the way I described myself, then you’re a lousy judge of character. You don’t know me at all—and you should count that as a blessing.”

  Kadinska put his pipe in the glass ashtray again. “Well, your father was a forgiving man. He wanted everything to go to you.”

  Getting to his feet, Joey said, “No. I can’t take it. I don’t want it.” He started toward the door to the outer room.

  “Wait, please,” said the lawyer.

  Joey stopped and turned to him. “The weather’s miserable, and I’ve got a long drive out of these mountains to Scranton.”

  Still slumped in his chair, picking up his pipe again, Henry Kadinska said, “Where do you live, Joey?”

  “You know. Las Vegas. That’s where you got hold of me.”

  “I mean, where do you live in Las Vegas?”


  “I’m a lawyer. I’ve spent my life asking questions, and it’s hard to change this late in the game. Indulge me.”

  “I live in a trailer park.”

  “One of those upscale parks with a community swimming pool and tennis courts?”

  “Old trailers,” Joey said bluntly. “Mostly real old.”

  “No pool? No tennis?”

  “Hell, not even any grass.”

  “What do you do for a living?”

  “I’m a blackjack dealer. Run roulette wheels sometimes.”

sp; “You work regularly?”

  “When I need to.”

  “When the drinking doesn’t get in the way?”

  “When I can,” Joey amended, remembering his promise to himself to deal with all of this truthfully. “Pays well, with the tips from the players. I can save up for when … when I have to take some time off. I do okay.”

  “But with your work record, always moving on, you don’t find jobs in the new, flashy casinos very often any more.”

  “Not often,” Joey agreed.

  “Each job is in a seedier place than the one before.”

  “For a man who sounded so compassionate a minute ago, you sure are showing a cruel streak all of a sudden.”

  Kadinska’s face reddened with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Joey, but I’m just trying to make the point that you’re not exactly in a position to walk away from an inheritance.”

  Joey was quietly adamant. “I don’t deserve it, don’t want it, won’t take it. That’s flat final. Anyway, nobody would buy that old house, and I sure as hell won’t move back here to live in it.”

  Tapping the documents in the open file folder, Kadinska said, “The house has little value. You’re right. But the house and its contents aren’t the meat of this inheritance, Joey. There’s more than a quarter of a million dollars in liquid assets—certificates of deposit and money-market accounts.”

  Joey’s mouth went punk dry. His heart began to pound fiercely. The lawyer’s office harbored a terrible darkness of which he had been dangerously unaware, and now it was rising up around him.

  “That’s crazy. Dad was a poor man.”

  “But your brother has been a success for a long time now. For about fourteen years, he’s been sending your father a check every month, just like clockwork. A thousand dollars. I told you how it drove P.J. crazy that your dad wouldn’t spend more than a little of it. Dan pretty much just banked check after check, and through what bankers like to call the miracle of compound interest, the principal has grown.”

  Joey’s voice was shaky: “That’s not my money. That belongs to P.J. It came from him, it should go back to him.”

  “But your father left it to you. All to you. And his will is a legal document.”

  “Give it to P.J. when he shows up,” Joey insisted, and he headed for the office door.

  “I suspect P.J. will want whatever your dad wanted. He’ll say you should keep it all.”

  “I won’t, I won’t,” Joey said, raising his voice.

  Kadinska caught up with him in the reception lounge, took him by the arm, and halted him. “Joey, it’s not that easy.”

  “Sure it is.”

  “If you really don’t want it, then you have to renounce the inheritance.’

  “I renounce it. I already did. Don’t want it.”

  “A document has to be drawn, signed, notarized.”

  Although the day was cold and the office was on the chilly side, Joey had broken into a sweat. “How long will it take to put these papers together?”

  “If you’ll come back tomorrow afternoon-“

  “No.” Joey’s heart was jackhammering almost hard enough to shatter the ribs and breastbone that caged it. “No, sir, I’m not staying here another night. I’m going to Scranton. A flight to Pittsburgh in the morning. Vegas from there. All the way out to Vegas. Mail me the papers.’

  “That’s probably better anyway,” Kadinska said. “It’ll give you more time to think, to reconsider.”

  At first the lawyer had seemed to be a gentle, bookish man. Not now.

  Joey no longer saw kindness in the man’s eyes. Instead he perceived the slyness of a bargainer for souls, something with scales under the disguise of skin, with eyes that in a different light would be like the sulfur-yellow eyes of the dog that had confronted him on the front porch a while ago.

  He wrenched loose of the attorney’s hand, shoved him aside, and made for the outer door in a state close to panic.

  Kadinska called after him: “Joey, what’s wrong?”

  The hallway. Past the real-estate office. The dentist. Toward the stairs. He wanted desperately to be out in the fresh air, to be washed clean by the rain.

  “Joey, what’s the matter with you?”

  “Stay away from me!” he shouted.

  When he reached the head of the stairs, he halted so abruptly that he almost pitched to the bottom. He grabbed the newel post to keep

  his balance.

  At the foot of the steep stairs lay the dead blonde, bundled in a transparent tarp partly opaque with blood. The plastic was drawn tightly across her bare breasts, compressing them. Her nipples were visible but not her face.

  One pale arm had slipped out of her shroud. Although she was dead, she reached out beseechingly.

  He could not bear the sight of her mangled hand, the blood, the nail hole in her delicate palm. Most of all he was terrified that she would speak to him from behind her plastic veil and that he would be told things that he shouldn’t know, mustn’t know.

  With a whimper like that of a cornered animal, he turned from her and started back the way he had come.


  Henry Kadinska stood in the dimly lighted hall ahead of him. Shadows seemed to be drawn to the attorney—except for his thick eyeglasses, which blazed with reflections of the yellow light overhead. He was blocking the way. Approaching. Eager to have another chance to offer his bargain.

  Now frantic for fresh air and cleansing rain, Joey spun away from Kadinska and returned to the stairs.

  The blonde still sprawled below, her arm extended, her hand open, silently pleading for something, perhaps for mercy.


  Kadinska’s voice. Close behind him.

  Joey descended the precipitous flight of stairs hesitantly at first, then faster, figuring that he would step over her if she was really there, kick at her if she tried to seize him, down two stairs at a time, not even holding on to the handrail, barely keeping his balance, a third of the way, halfway, and still she was there, now eight steps below, six, four, and she was reaching out to him, the red stigmata glistening in the center of her palm. He screamed as he reached the last step, and the dead woman vanished when he cried out. He plunged through the space that she had occupied, crashed through the door, and staggered onto the sidewalk in front of the Old Town Tavern.

  He turned his face up into the Pabst-blue and Rolling Rock-green rain, which was so cold that it might soon turn to sleet. In seconds he was soaked—but he didn’t feel entirely clean.

  In the rental car again, he fumbled the flask out from under the driver’s seat where he’d tucked it earlier.

  The rain had not cleansed him inside. He had breathed in corruption, swallowed it. Blended whiskey offered considerable antiseptic power.

  He unscrewed the cap from the flask and took a long swallow. Then another.

  Choking on the spirits, gasping for breath, he replaced the cap, afraid that he would drop the flask and waste the precious ounces that it still contained.

  Kadinska hadn’t followed him out into the storm, but Joey didn’t want to delay another moment. He started the car, pulled away from the curb, splashed through a flooded intersection, and drove along Main Street toward the end of town.

  He didn’t believe that he would be allowed to leave. Something would stop him. The car would sputter, stall, and refuse to start. Cross traffic would crash into him at an intersection, even though the streets seemed deserted. Lightning would strike a telephone pole and drop it across the road. Something would prevent him from getting out of town. He was in the grip of a superstition that he could not shake or explain.

  In spite of his dire expectations, he reached the town line and crossed it. Main Street became the county road. Forests and fields replaced the huddled and depressing buildings of Asherville.

  Still shuddering as much from fear as from having been soaked by the rain, he drove at least a mile before he began to realize how strangely he had reacted to the prospe
ct of receiving a quarter of a million dollars. He had no idea why a sudden windfall should have terrified him, why a stroke of good fortune should instantly convince him that his soul was in peril.

  After all, considering how he had lived his life thus far, he was doomed to Hell anyway, if it existed.

  Three miles outside Asherville, Joey came to a three-way stop. Directly ahead of him, beyond the rural intersection, the county route continued: a glistening black ribbon dwindling down a long, gradual slope into the early twilight. To the left was Coal Valley Road, leading to the town of Coal Valley.

  On that Sunday night twenty years ago, when he had been on his way back to college, he had planned to take Coal Valley Road twelve miles through the mountains, until it connected with the old state three-lane that the locals called Black Hollow Highway, then go west nine miles to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He always went that way, because it was the shortest route.

  But on that night, for reasons he had never since been able to recall, he had driven past Coal Valley Road. He’d followed the county route another nineteen miles to the interstate and had taken the interstate in a roundabout loop toward Black Hollow Highway and the turnpike. On the interstate he’d had the accident, and thereafter nothing had ever gone right for him again.

  He had been driving his ten-year-old ‘65 Ford Mustang, which he had salvaged and restored—with his dad’s help—from an auto junkyard after the original owner had rolled it. God, how he had loved that car. It had been the only thing of beauty he’d ever owned, and most important, his own hands had brought it back from ruin to glory.

  Recalling the Mustang, he hesitantly touched the left side of his forehead just below the hairline. The scar was an inch long, barely visible but easily felt. He remembered the sickening slide, his car spinning on the rain-slick interstate, the collision with the signpost, the shattering window.

  He remembered all the blood.

  Now he sat at the three-way stop, staring down Coal Valley Road to his left, and he knew that if he took this route, as he should have taken it on that eventful night long ago, he would at last have a chance to put everything right. He would get his life back on track.

  That was a crazy notion, perhaps as superstitious as his earlier certainty that fate would not allow him to drive out of Asherville but this time he was right. It was true. He had no doubt that he was being given another chance. He knew that some superhuman power was at work in the fading October twilight, knew that the meaning of his troubled life lay along that two-lane mountain route—because Coal Valley Road had been condemned and torn up more than nineteen years ago, yet now it waited to his left, exactly as it had been on that special night. It was magically restored.


  JOEY EASED THE RENTAL CHEVY PAST THE STOP SIGN AND PARKED ON the narrow shoulder, on the dead-end side of the three-way intersection, directly across from the entrance to Coal Valley Road. He switched off the headlights but left the engine running.

  Overhung by autumnal trees, those two lanes of wet blacktop led out of the deepening twilight and vanished into shadows as black as the oncoming night. The pavement was littered with colorful leaves that glowed strangely in the gloom, as though irradiated.

  His heart pounded, pounded.