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The cemetery was just outside the Los Alegres city limits, big, sprawling, divided into older and newer sections built on rolling slopes. Plenty of trees and ground cover throughout. No night caretaker, no regular patrols, only a few night lights widely spaced. Gates locked at night, but the fences around it were six feet high and not topped by anything dangerous. Country road that ran along the front mostly deserted after midnight. No side roads. No houses anywhere in the vicinity. One tree-shadowed turnout toward the west end where you could park without worry of being noticed.
He rolled on past the gates, slow. Two-twenty a.m., nobody on the road, every light stationary. This was the third time he'd been out here this late. Three other trips during the day to pinpoint the family plot and to memorize the routes through the grounds. Ready as he'd ever be. To-night was the night.
He felt good. A little excited, but it was tamped down. Calm. Controlled. Oh, he was ready—not just for the cemetery but for the rest of it to follow.
Turnout just ahead. Road still deserted. He shut off the headlights, swung in under the trees, silenced the engine. The backpack was on the seat beside him. He pulled it over onto his lap, held it gently when he got out, strapped it gently onto his back. Not much weight. One collapsible camping shovel, a pair of heavy gloves, two glass vials, and a cut length of cardboard didn't weigh much at all. The Kodak digital camera was in his jacket pocket. You could take decent photos with it—good resolution, good zoom, high ISO sensitivity. He preferred old-fashioned single-lens reflex cameras, but his old Nikkormat was too bulky to .t into the backpack.
Piece of cake, climbing the fence. He stayed in shape by watching what he ate, running five miles most days after work. But he made sure as he went up and over not to bump the backpack against the fence piping. The vials were pretty much unbreakable and he'd packed them in cotton batting, but he still had to be careful. Now, and in everything he did in the future. No mistakes.
Big shade tree not too far from the fence. He went over and stood under it, looking around, making sure of his bearings. Things looked different at night, the rows and shapes of grave markers big and small, the narrow gravel roads and footpaths that crisscrossed the cemetery. No moon to night, but the sky was clear and there was enough starlight for him to see by. He'd always had good night vision.
Took him only a few seconds to locate the landmark he'd picked out: tall marble obelisk jutting up from the lawn in the newer section down here. It was maybe a hundred yards from where he stood. And from there, two hundred yards and ten degrees uphill to the Henderson plot in the older section. Easy.
He made his way toward the obelisk, crossing some of the graves, skirting others when there was a path to walk on. Some kind of bird made a noise; wind rustled tree branches; his steps set off little crunching sounds. Otherwise, stillness. Down below and behind him, the country road stayed empty.
Five or six minutes and he was at the Henderson plot. He recognized it, all right, even in the darkness, but he made sure anyway. Leaned up close to the six-by-four granite monument, shaded the beam of his pencil flash with his hand, and clicked it on just long enough to read the engraving.
Rage boiled up in him. He had to stop himself from kicking the stone. Control, man, control. Too bad the marker was so goddamn big and heavy, cemented into the ground, otherwise he'd've yanked it out or knocked it over. Smashed it to bits with a sledgehammer, that's what he'd've liked to do, except that that would make too much noise.
He spat on it instead, as he had each time before.
Spat on the grave below it.
Then he took off the backpack, brought out the pair of heavy gloves and the shovel, and began to dig.
Didn't take him long. The earth under a layer of sod grass was loamy, easy to scoop into. Henderson had been cremated, the urn with his ashes planted here, and gravediggers didn't go down very deep when they were burying an urn. The shovel blade clanked on it and he dug it out, picked it up. Spat on it and laid it down next to the hole. Opened the backpack again and took out the two vials and unscrewed the cap on the smaller one. Slow and careful, slow and careful.
He bent forward, legs spread and feet planted, and extended the vial over the urn, just about an inch above it. Then he let the acid spill out.
It made a hissing sound, like a snake, as it ate into the bronze. Vapor came up, stinking. He stepped back. Kind of a wild laugh in his throat, but he didn't let it come out. Calm. Don't ever let yourself lose your cool.
But he said out loud what he was thinking. Had to say it, had to let that much come out.
"You son of a bitch," he said, "now you're burning for sure!"
To the backpack again for the second, larger vial. Opened that one, stepped cautiously around the smoking, burning remains of Lloyd fucking Henderson, leaned toward the monument in the same stance as before, and hurled the acid at the smooth granite face.
More hissing, more stinking vapors.
The name, the dates, the words "Beloved Father" began to disappear.
Now for the pix. One of the smoldering urn and ashes, one of the burning headstone. He made sure the road below was still deserted before he leaned up to shoot. Didn't have enough time to make each one perfect, not that he could have done that anyway with the digital camera, but it had a fairly sophisticated light meter built in, and you could count on the electronic .ash to work every time.
Almost done. One more thing, the final touch—the sign that would let the rest of them know what they were in for. Do it quick, he'd been here long enough. But his hands inside the gloves felt itchy, dirty. There was a water tap on the lane nearby that he'd spotted the first time he came here; he went to it, washed his hands as best he could without soap. Should've thought to bring a bar along with him. Well, it wouldn't be long until he was back at the motel. Do a proper job then.
He flap-dried his hands, eased them back into the gloves. Then he took the piece of cardboard from the backpack, unfolded it, propped it against the low cement border at the front of the plot. He'd thought about adding one of his initials at the bottom, but there was no need for that. It wouldn't mean anything to them. The five words he'd painted in big bloodred letters were enough.
Damn straight, he thought.
He caught up the backpack, spat once more on what was left of the gravesite, and made his way, slow and careful, back to the van.
Excerpted from SCHEMERS by Bill Pronzini
Copyright © 2009 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
Published in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.