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Chapter 1

It was long past midnight on the New Jersey shore, Monday, June 19, 1988. A blue van rolled quietly along Kearney Avenue in Seaside Heights, its headlights carving weak circles into the moist sea air.

The man behind the wheel was dressed entirely in black. His round, flat face gleamed in the reflected light of the dashboard as he slowly looked left and right, his hooded eyes peering into the dark alleys and shadowy double-deck porches of the old Victorian beach houses that lined the street.

Seaside Heights, a summer town of sand and surf, was asleep. The carousel was still. The pizza joints, bars, and arcades were quiet.

A faint light shone in an upstairs window. The van slowed to a crawl, and the driver’s window slid down. A flashlight clicked on, and a narrow ray of light illuminated a rusted number on the side of a white, wooden column.

Smiling, the man parked across the street and then turned off the headlights.         

Ten minutes later, a door opened, and a figure came down the stairs. The upstairs light went out.

Two dark eyes from within the van watched as the dark silhouette stumbled down the street. The driver sat and waited and then turned the ignition key.

Under the street lamps, the kid was tall and thin and looked younger than his seventeen years. He was dressed in baggy jeans, a loose, white T-shirt, and a black baseball cap. As the headlights of the van fell upon him, the kid turned and blinked slowly at the harsh white light. He stepped aside, tripping and stumbling against a parked car, and then pulled himself upright and waited for the bulky vehicle to pass on the narrow street.

The van pulled up next to him, and the driver leaned out. “Looks like you’re in rough shape, son,” he said.

“Yeah. R-rough shape.” The kid spoke slowly, struggling with the words. “Basically, I’m wasted.” He giggled, shrugging his narrow shoulders.

“Want a ride?”

“Nah.” The kid leaned forward and peered at the man. “Wait, I know you. You’re that guy from …”

The man smiled. “Yep, that’s me. I was just having a late dinner with my sister, back there down the street.” He gestured with his thumb. “I’m on my way back to Toms River, and I’d be glad to give you a ride home.”

The kid stood unsteadily as the passenger door swung open. The voice was kind, solicitous, soft.

“You know, son, I’ve got a boy your age, and I wouldn’t want him wandering around at this hour of the night, especially over that causeway. You don’t know what kind of weirdoes might be out and about. C’mon, get in. I’ll get you home safely.”

The kid stared and tried to focus on the man’s face.

“Trust me. I’ll get you home safely,” the man repeated and leaned toward the boy.

The kid shook his head as if to clear it, and then he launched his body forward into the van. The driver’s thick arm shot forward, his stubby fingers grasping the boy’s thin arm, pulling him into the van.

The kid slumped onto the tan vinyl seat with a long sigh as he pulled the door shut. As the van accelerated through the silent town, the windows slid up with a soft whir, and the doors locked with a soft click.

“Thanks, man,” the kid mumbled. “Thanks for picking me up. I was gonna walk home.”

“No problem. Where do you live?”

“Uh, Toms River, Rambling Brook Road. Near the water tower.”

“I know the street. What number?”

“Six. Third house on the left, but you can leave me off at the c-corner.”     

“No problem.” The man’s voice sank lower. “Why don’t you lean back and relax. I’ll wake you up when we get there.”

The kid’s head fell back slowly, and his eyes closed. As the van gently accelerated, the boy’s worn Pittsburgh Steelers cap fell off. The driver laughed softly and fingered the hypodermic needle in his jacket. He hadn’t needed it after all. This one was a piece of cake.

Did he know where number 6 Rambling Brook Road is? Yes, indeed he did. He knew everything about Edsell Jones—everything. There was a pint of cheap vodka behind a dictionary on the top shelf of the kid’s locker at school. There was a stash of pot under a raggedy, old sweatshirt. In his three years at Toms River South High School, Edsell Jones had been called to the principal’s office six times. He’d been suspended twice.

Edsell had a high IQ, a low grade-point average, and few friends.

Best of all, there was no Mr. Jones, no brothers or sisters or bothersome aunts, uncles, and cousins. There was just a booze-loving single mama who worked the night shift at Rosie’s Diner.

Nelson glanced at the boy. His eyes were closed; the thin face was relaxed. Sometimes a kid stayed asleep all the way to the Barrens. That always made his job easier.

He fingered the hypodermic again. The doctor had warned him, told him to use the needle only if absolutely necessary, and Wilbur Nelson always followed the doctor’s orders. There would be serious problems if security was breached.

Nelson smiled, pressed his foot on the accelerator, and turned onto the causeway to Toms River. Fifteen minutes later, the van was in the darkness of the Pine Barrens.

Chapter 32

As the Jeep rounded another narrow bend in the road, Mark saw an old house just ahead of them.

He eased his foot off the accelerator and bumped the Jeep back into first gear. They rolled to a soft stop and sat for a moment looking at the house.

It squatted in the middle of a large clearing, a dark and forbidding presence. It was old and big, two stories with a porch across the front. An attached garage gleamed new and coppery next to the dark cedar of the main house.

A black Suburban was parked in front of the garage. Dozens of low stumps protruded like worn molars through the sand and pale wild grass that surrounded the old house. The soft dead suede of fallen pine needles carpeted the edges of the forest that circled the old building.

“Hello, what have we got here?” Mark asked.

“A house we’re about to check out,” Borderline said quietly. “Someone lives here. Someone who can afford a brand-new customized Suburban that I know sells for twenty grand or more. This is not the home of a poor, old Piney hermit-geezer.”

Mark pointed at the house. “Look. Every window has a shade on it. Why? Who’s going to look in? There’s not another house for miles.”

“Maybe this is where Nerf comes.”

Borderline and Mark stepped out of the Jeep and slowly walked toward the house.

“What if somebody comes out and they want to know what we’re doing here?” Mark asked.

“We tell them we were driving around and got lost. We need directions.”

The big house loomed above them.

“I’ll go to the front door,” Borderline whispered. “You move around to the side and stay back a little.”

Mark watched as Borderline took a few strides forward. As his foot hit the bottom step of the porch, a shade rattled up, and a window flew open on the second floor. Mark heard a crashing sound, and then a loud, harsh scream split the air, lifting and rising up and up until it hung in the air like a decibeled question mark.

Borderline was on the porch, so he leaped backward until he could see above the roofline. Mark ran around the corner of the house. They both saw a face in an open window, a distorted, young, pale face with its mouth open, its eyes bulging, a scream emanating from its mouth. Suddenly the face disappeared, quickly jerked out of the window like a Sesame Street Muppet. Exit stage right.

Borderline ran up the low porch stairs calling, “Hold on, I’m coming. I’m coming.”

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the screaming ended in a gasp. Another figure appeared in the window. An older adult face with glasses peered down. Beneath the face was a white shirt and tie.

Borderline pounded on the door. “Open the door! Open the fucking door!”

Thirty seconds later, Mark heard a loud click. The door swung back, and he saw a man dressed in black coveralls standing in the frame. He was tall and very thin, with a face from a horror flick. A large, hooked nose took up most of his face. His eyes pitched downward at the outer corners. Long, hollow cheeks ran slackly down on either side of a mouth filled with sharp, yellow teeth.

The mouth opened and spoke in a deep voice.

“This is private property. Please leave.”

As the repulsive man started to close the door, Borderline lunged forward and put his foot on the doorsill.

“Look, mister. Someone in this house just screamed his head off. What’s going on?”

The ugly man’s eyes turned into slits. The loose skin along his jawline tightened. “It’s none of your business. Please leave.”

Borderline turned to Mark and shrugged. “Fine with me. This road is called Dukes Crossing, isn’t it, Mark? I just want to make sure I have the right location when we call the police about the screams we just heard. Come on.”

As Borderline and Mark started to turn away, a second man in dark slacks, white shirt, and blue paisley tie materialized in the doorway. It was the man they had seen in the upstairs window.

“Wait, boys,” he called. “I really don’t think you should do that.”

They hesitated.          

“I’m Dr. Anton Vogel, and this place is special, very special,” the man said in a deep, cultured voice. “You’re going to make a lot of very important people unhappy if you go running to the police.”

Dr. Vogel was about forty years old with a strong, handsome, chiseled face and close-cropped brown hair. A pair of half-glasses hung on a gold chain around his neck.

Mark stood there unable to think of anything to say, but Borderline shrugged and rocked back on his heels with his hands in his pockets. “Unhappy? Someone’s going to get unhappy?” he drawled. “That dude upstairs sounds about as unhappy as anybody I’ve ever heard. Isn’t that right, Mark? There was a lot of world-class unhappiness in that scream a minute ago.”

Dr. Vogel stepped out onto the porch. He closed the door behind him, and his thin lips formed into a tight smile.

“Listen, boys. I’m not supposed to tell anyone what we’re doing here, but it looks like I’m going to have to share my secret with you. Can I trust you?”

“Maybe,” Mark said. “Why?”

Dr. Vogel sat down on the porch steps and motioned for Mark and Borderline to sit next to him.

“It’s really quite simple, boys. This is a private drug-treatment center, and that young man upstairs is one of my patients.”

“A rehab?” Mark asked.

“Yes. I take only a few young clients who have already been to other clinics and hospitals, but to no avail. Their families have spent thousands of dollars on treatments, and nothing has worked. They are brokenhearted, desperate people.” Vogel sighed and shook his head. “I accept only six patients at a time and then put them through a lengthy, very specialized course of treatment. It’s arduous, but it works. My clinic currently has an 80 percent success rate, even with the most difficult, long-term addictions.”

“But why keep it a secret?” Mark asked.

“That’s a good question, son. You’re a smart fellow, I can see,” Vogel said with a smile. “There are several reasons. First, the treatment itself is still in the experimental stage.”

Dr. Vogel paused, and three horizontal lines in his forehead deepened as he continued. “Second, you have no idea how selfishly the average citizen reacts when he finds out a drug rehabilitation center is going to be built near them. Petitions, pickets, endless protests, even lawsuits. Without any real facts and with pure emotionalism, they mistakenly assume some drug-crazed brute will escape, rape their wives, abuse their children, and steal their cars.” He shook his head and sighed. “Sometimes their biggest fear is that their property values will go down.”

Vogel stood up and looked around at the ring of silent, gnarled pine trees.

“I built this center here in these beautiful pine woods because I thought my patients would be safe here, far from the temptations of the city.” He extended his hands with the palms up. “I was hoping and praying that I would not be disturbed until my research was finished and my treatment announced to the world.” He lowered his voice. “My entire life has been devoted to helping these unfortunate young people. I’m asking—no, I’m begging you to keep my secret. Please, boys, you cannot tell anyone about my project here. Not even your parents or your friends.”

Mark looked at Borderline. He nodded.

“Sounds okay,” Mark said to Vogel. “But I don’t understand why that kid was screaming like that.”

“Try to understand that my job is a difficult one. Sometimes my patients wake up from their rest periods and have residual drug-induced hallucinations. That’s simply what you saw and heard.” Vogel shook his head and looked up at the second-floor window. “Poor Kenneth, he’s having a horrendous time during his second week of therapy. It is a very critical period now. However, I can guarantee that when he leaves here, he’ll be in an entirely new state of mind.”

Vogel extended his hand to Mark and then to Borderline.

“Good to meet you, boys. You look like such fine, clean-cut, young men. I know you’ll keep our little secret and not make any trouble for the poor souls that I’m trying so desperately to heal. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get back to my patients. Remember, boys, not a word to anyone.”

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