"Eight gray birds, sitting in dark.
Cold wind blows, it isn't kind."
The small yellow school bus crested an abrupt rise on the
highway and for a moment all she could see was a huge quilt of pale
wheat, a thousand miles wide, waving, waving under the gray sky.
Then they dipped down once again and the horizon was gone.
"Sitting on wire, they lift their wings
and sail off into billowy clouds."
When she paused she looked at the girls, who nodded
approvingly. She realized that she'd been staring at the thick pelt
of wheat and ignoring her audience.
"Are you nervous?" Shannon asked.
"Don't ask her that." Beverly warned. "Bad luck."
No, Melanie explained, she wasn't nervous. She looked out again at
the fields that streamed past.
Three of the girls were drowsing but the other five were wide awake
and waiting for her to continue. Melanie began again but was
interrupted before she'd recited the first line of the poem.
"Wait, what kind of birds are they?" Kielle frowned.
"Don't interrupt." From seventeen-year-old Susan. "People who
interrupt are philistines."
"Am not!" Kielle shot back. "What is that?"
"Crass dummy," Susan explained.
"What's crass?" Kielle demanded.
"Let her finish!"
"Eight little birds high in sky,
They fly all night till they find sun."
"Time out." Susan laughed. "It was five birds
"Now you're interrupting," lean tomboy Shannon pointed out.
"Philistine," Susan corrected.
Chubby Jocylyn nodded emphatically as if she also had caught the
slip but was too timid to point it out. Jocylyn was too timid to do
very much at all.
"But there are eight of you so I changed it."
"Can you do that?" wondered Beverly.
"It's my poem," Melanie responded. "I can make as many birds as I
"How many people will be there? At recital?"
"One hundred thousand." Melanie looked quite sincere.
"No! Really?" offered enthusiastic eight-year-old Shannon, as a
much older eight-year-old Kielle rolled her eyes.
Melanie's gaze was again drawn to the bleak scenery of south
central Kansas. The only color was the occasional blue Harvestore
prefab silo. It was July but the weather was cold and heavily
overcast; rain threatened. They passed huge combines and buses
filled with migrant workers, their Porta-Potti's wheeling along
behind. They saw land-owners and sharecroppers, piloting their huge
Deeres, Masseys and IH's. Melanie imagined they were glancing
nervously at the sky; this was harvest time for the winter wheat; a
storm now could ruin eight months of arduous work.
Melanie turned away from the window and self-consciously examined
her fingernails, which she trimmed and filed religiously every
night. They were coated with faint polish and looked like perfect
flakes of pearl. She lifted her hands and recited several poems
again, signing the words elegantly. Now all the girls were awake,
four looking out the windows, three watching Melanie's fingers and
chubby Jocylyn Weiderman watching her teacher's every move.
These fields go on forever, Melanie thinks. Susan's gaze follows
Melanie's. "They're black birds," the teenager signs.
Yes, they were. Not five or eight. But a thousand, a flock of them.
Looking down their black glossy beaks, they watched the ground,
they watched the yellow bus, they watched the overcast sky, gray
Melanie looked at her watch. They weren't even to the highway yet.
It would be three hours before they got to Topeka.
The bus descended into another canyon of wheat.
She sensed the trouble before a single clue registered in her
conscious thoughts. Later she would conclude that it was no psychic
message or premonition; it was Mrs. Harstrawn's big, ruddy fingers
flexing anxiously on the steering wheel.
Hands, in motion.
Then the older woman's eyes narrowed slightly. Her shoulders
shifted. Her head tilted a millimeter. The small things a body does
that reveal what the mind is thinking.
"Are girls asleep?" The question was blunt and the fingers returned
immediately to the wheel. Melanie scooted forward and signed that
Now the twins, Anna and Suzie, delicate as feathers, were sitting
up, leaning forward, breathing on the older teacher's broad
shoulders, looking ahead. Mrs. Harstrawn waved them back. "Don't
look. Sit back and look out opposite window. Do it. Now! The left
Then Melanie saw the car. And the blood. There was a lot of it. She
shepherded the girls back to their seats.
"Don't look," Melanie instructed. Her heart pounded fiercely, her
arms suddenly weighed a thousand pounds. She had trouble making the
words. "And put seatbelts on."
Jocylyn, Beverly and ten-year-old Emily did as instructed
immediately. Shannon grimaced and peeked while Kielle blatantly
ignored Melanie. Susan got to look, she pointed out. Why couldn't
Of the twins, it was Annie who'd gone still, hands in her lap and
her face paler than usual, in sharp contrast to her sister's
nut-brown tan. Melanie stroked the girl's hair. She pointed out the
window on the left side of the bus. "Look at wheat," she
"Totally interesting," Shannon replied sarcastically.
"Those poor people." Twelve-year-old Jocylyn wiped copious tears
from her fat cheeks.
The burgundy Cadillac had run hard into a metal irrigation gate.
Steam rose from its front end. The driver was an elderly man. He
lay sprawled half out of the car, his head on the asphalt. Melanie
could now see a second car as well, a gray Chevy. The collision had
happened at an intersection. The Cadillac had had the right of way
and seemed to have slammed into the gray car, which must have run a
stop sign. The Chevy had skidded off the road into the tall wheat.
There was no one inside; its hood was twisted and steam plumed from
Mrs. Harstrawn brought the bus to a stop, reached for the worn
chrome handle of the door.
No! thought Melanie. Keep going! Go to a grocery store, a 7-Eleven,
a house. They hadn't passed anything for miles; but surely there
was something up ahead. Don't stop. Keep going. She'd been thinking
those words. But her hands must have been moving because Susan
responded, "No, we have to. He is hurt."
But the blood, Melanie thought. They shouldn't get his blood on
them. There was AIDS, there were other diseases.
These people needed help but they needed official
Eight gray birds, sitting in dark. . . .
Susan, eight years younger than Melanie, was the first
out of the school bus, running toward the injured man, her long,
black hair dancing around her in the gusting wind.
Then Mrs. Harstrawn.
Melanie hung back, staring. The driver lay like a sawdust doll, one
leg bent at a terrible angle. Head floppy, hands fat and
She had never before seen a dead body.
But he isn't dead, of course. No, no, just a cut. It's nothing.
He's just fainted.
One by one the little girls turned to gaze at the accident; Kielle
and Shannon first of course — the Dynamic Duo. The Power
Rangers. The X-Men. Then fragile Emily, whose hands were glued
together in prayer. (Her parents insisted that she pray every night
for her hearing to return. She had told this to Melanie but no one
else.) Beverly clutched her chest, an instinctive gesture; she
wasn't having an attack just yet.
Melanie climbed out and walked toward the Cadillac. Halfway there
she slowed. In contrast to the gray sky, the gray wheat and the
pale highway, the blood was so very red; it was on everything
— the man's bald head, his chest, the car door, the yellow
The roller coaster of fear sends her heart plummeting toward the
Mrs. Harstrawn was the mother of two teenage boys, a humorless
woman, smart, dependable, solid as vulcanized rubber. She ripped
the tail of her blouse into an impromptu bandage and wrapped it
around a deep gash in the torn head. She bent down and whispered
into the man's ear, pressed on his chest and breathed into his
And then she listened.
I can't hear, Melanie thinks. So I can't help. There's nothing I
can do. I'll go back to the bus. Keep an eye on the girls. The
roller coaster levels out. Good, good.
Susan crouched too, stanching a wound on his neck. Frowning, the
student looked up at Mrs. Harstrawn. With bloody fingers she
signed, "Why bleeding so much? Look at neck."
Mrs. Harstrawn examined it. She too frowned, shaking her
"There's hole in his neck," the teacher signed in astonishment.
"Like a bullet hole."
Melanie gasped at this message. The flimsy car of the roller
coaster drops again, leaving Melanie's stomach somewhere else
— way, way above her. She stopped walking altogether.
Then she saw the purse.
Ten feet away.
Thankful for any distraction to keep her eyes off the injured man,
she walked over to the bag and examined it. The chain pattern on
the cloth was some designer's; Melanie Charrol — a farm girl
who made sixteen thousand, five hundred dollars a year as an
apprentice teacher of the deaf — had never in her twenty-five
years touched a designer accessory. Because the purse was small it
seemed precious. Like a radiant jewel. It was the sort of purse
that a woman would sling around her shoulder when she walked into
an office high above downtown Kansas City or even Manhattan or Los
Angeles. The sort of purse she'd drop onto a desk and from which
she'd pull a silver pen to write a few words that would set
assistants and secretaries in motion.
But as Melanie stared at the purse a tiny thought formed in her
mind, growing, growing until it blossomed: Where was the woman who
That was when the shadow fell on her.
He wasn't a tall man, or fat, but he seemed very solid. Muscled the
way horses have muscle, close to the skin, rippled and defined.
Melanie gasped, staring at his smooth, young face. He wore a glossy
crewcut and clothes gray as the clouds speeding by overhead. The
grin was broad and showed white teeth and she didn't believe the
smile for a second.
Melanie's first impression was that he was a fox. No, she
concluded, a weasel or stoat. There was a pistol in the waistband
of his baggy slacks. She gasped and lifted her hands. Not to her
face but to her chest. "Please, don't hurt me," she signed without
thinking. He glanced at her moving hands and laughed.
From the corner of her eye she saw Susan and Mrs. Harstrawn stand
uneasily. The second man, striding up to them, was huge. Fat and
tall. Also dressed in overwashed gray. Shaggy hair. He was missing
a tooth and his grin was hungry. A bear, she thought
"Go," Melanie signed to Susan. "Let's go. Now." Eyes on the yellow
skin of the bus, she started walking toward the seven unhappy,
young faces staggered in the windows.
Stoat grabbed her by the collar. She batted at his hand but
cautiously, afraid to hit him, afraid of his anger.
He shouted something she didn't understand and shook her. The grin
became what the grin really was — a cold glare. His face went
all dark. Melanie sagged in terror and dropped her
"What's...this," Bear said. "I'm thinking we...about
Melanie was postlingually deaf. She began losing her hearing at age
eight, after her English language skills were honed. She was a
better lip reader than most of the girls. But lip reading is a very
iffy skill, far more complicated than merely watching lips. The
process involved interpreting movements of the mouth, tongue,
teeth, eyes and other parts of the body. It was truly effective
only if you knew the person whose words you were trying to
decipher. Bear existed in a different universe from Melanie's life
of Old English decor, Celestial Seasonings tea and small-town,
Midwestern schools. And she had no idea what he was saying.
He laughed and spit in a white stream. His eyes coursed over her
body — her breasts beneath the high-necked burgundy blouse,
her long charcoal gray skirt, black tights. She awkwardly crossed
her arms. Bear turned his attention back to Mrs. Harstrawn and
Stoat was leaning forward, speaking — probably shouting, as
people often did (which was all right because they spoke more
slowly and their lip motion was pronounced when they shouted). He
was asking who was in the bus. Melanie didn't move. Her sweaty
fingers gripped her biceps. Bear looked down at the injured man's
face and tapped his booted foot lethargically against the head,
watching it loll back and forth. Melanie gasped; the casualness of
the kick, its gratuitousness, was horrifying. She started to cry.
Bear pushed Susan and Mrs. Harstrawn ahead of him toward the
Melanie glanced at Susan and shot her hands into the air. "No,
But Susan was already moving.
Her perfect figure and runner's body.
Her one hundred and twelve muscular pounds.
Her strong hands.
As the girl's palm swung toward Bear's face he jerked his head back
in surprise and caught her hand inches from his eyes. The surprise
became amusement and he bent her arm downward until she dropped to
her knees, then he shoved her to the ground, filthying her black
jeans and white blouse with dust and mud. Bear turned to Stoat and
called out something.
"Susan, don't!" Melanie signed.
But the teenager was on her feet again. Bear was expecting her and
turned around. When he grabbed her his hand found her breasts and
lingered there for a moment. Suddenly tired of the game, he hit her
solidly in the stomach and she dropped to her knees, clutching
herself and struggling for breath.
"No!" Melanie signed to her. "Don't fight."
Stoat called to Bear, "Where...he?"
Bear motioned toward a wall of wheat. He had a curious expression
on his face — as if he didn't approve of something but was
afraid to be too critical. Melanie followed his eyes and looked
into the shafts of wheat. She couldn't see clearly but from the
shadows and dim outlines it appeared to be a man, bending down. He
was small and wiry. It seemed that his arm was raised, like one of
those Nazi salutes. It remained poised there for a long moment.
Beneath him was the naked form of a person, pale.
The woman who owned the purse, Melanie understood in a terrible
No, please, no...
The man's arm descended leisurely. Through the undulating wheat she
saw the dull glint of metal in his hand. Melanie gasped.
Stoat's head bent slightly as if he'd heard a sudden noise. He
winced. Bear's face broke into a smile. Mrs. Harstrawn's hands rose
to her ears, covering them. Horrified. Mrs. Harstrawn could hear
Melanie stared into the wheat, crying. She saw: The shadowy figure
crouching lower, over the pink mound. The elegant movement of the
tall wheat, swaying in the intemperate July wind. The motion of the
man's arm rising and falling slowly, once, twice. His face studying
the pink body in lying in front of him.
Mrs. Harstrawn fixed Stoat with a stoic gaze. " ...us go
and...won't bother you. We won't..."
Melanie was comforted to see the woman's defiance, her anger. The
sturdy set of her jaw.
Stoat and Bear laughed and ignored her. They herded Melanie, Susan
and Mrs. Harstrawn toward the bus.
Inside, the younger girls huddled in the back. Bear pushed Mrs.
Harstrawn and Susan inside and gestured toward his belt, where his
gun bulged. Melanie was the last person inside before Stoat, who
shoved her into the back. She tripped and fell on top of the
sobbing twins. She hugged them hard then gathered Emily and Shannon
into her arms.
The Outside...Caught in the terrible Outside.
Melanie glanced at Stoat and saw him say, "Deaf as... All of them."
Bear squeezed his fat torso into the driver's seat and started the
bus. He looked in the rear view mirror and frowned, spun
In the distance, at the end of the ribbon of asphalt was a dot of
flashing lights. Bear pressed the pad on the steering wheel and
Melanie felt the vibrations of the horn in her chest.
Bear said, "What the fuck's...think we..." Then he turned his head
and the words were lost.
Stoat shouted toward the bushes. He nodded when, apparently, the
man answered. A moment later the gray Chevy sped out of the wheat
fields. Badly damaged but still driveable, it rolled onto the
shoulder, paused. Melanie tried to glance into the front seat for a
glimpse of the man from the wheatfield but there was too much
glare. It appeared there was no driver at all.
Then the car accelerated fast, fishtailing onto the asphalt. The
bus followed, easing forward into the faint clouds of tire smoke,
gray as the sky overhead. Bear slapped the steering wheel, turned
for a moment and barked some words to Melanie — angry words,
sharp words — but she had no idea what they might
* * *
brilliant flashing lights grew closer, red and blue and white. Like
the Fourth of July fireworks over the park in Hebron two weeks ago,
when she'd watched the streamers of color criss-cross the sky, felt
the explosions of the white-hot flash-bangs against her skin.
She looked back at the police car and knew what would happen.
There'd be a hundred squad cars all converging up ahead. They'd
pull the bus over and these men would get out. They'd put their
hands up and be led off. The students and teachers would go down to
a stationhouse somewhere and make statements. She'd miss the
Theater of the Deaf performance in Topeka this time — even if
they still had time to make it — but there was no way she'd
get up on stage and recite poetry after this anyway. That's okay,
And the other reason for her trip?
Maybe this was a sign that she shouldn't go, shouldn't have made
those plans. It was an omen.
All she wanted to do now was go home. Back to her rented house,
where she could lock the door, have a cup of tea. Okay, a hit of
blackberry brandy. Fax her brother in the hospital in St. Louis,
tell him and her parents the story. Melanie fell into a nervous
habit, twining her blonde hair around her bent middle finger, the
other digits extended. This handshape was the word for shine.
Then there was a sudden jolt. Bear had turned off the asphalt and
was following the gray car down a dirt road. Stoat was frowning. He
asked Bear something Melanie didn't hear. The big man didn't answer
but just spit out the window. Another turn and another, in hillier
country. Getting close to the river.
They passed under a wire covered with a hundred birds. Big ones.
She looked at the gray car. She still couldn't see him clearly
— the driver, the man from the wheatfield. At first Melanie
thought he had long hair, then a moment later he seemed bald or
crew-cut, then he seemed to be wearing a hat.
With a skidding turn the gray car spun to the right and bounded
down a narrow weed-filled driveway. Melanie guessed that he'd seen
the dozens of police cars up ahead — the cars racing toward
them to save them. She squinted and looked. No, there was just a
gray strip of driveway. The bus turned and followed the Chevy. Bear
was muttering, Stoat was looking back at the police car.
Then Melanie turned back and saw where they were headed.
No, she thought.
Oh, please no.
For she knew her hope about the men surrendering to the trooper who
was fast approaching was just a fantasy. She understood where he
The worst place in the world.
The gray car suddenly broke into a large, weed-filled field a
quarter mile around. At the end of the field, on the river,
squatted a red-brick industrial building, long abandoned. Dark and
solid as a medieval fort. The field in front of the plant still
held a few of the fences and posts from the animal pens that had
subdivided the area long ago but mostly the field had been
reclaimed by the Kansas prairie of mid-high grass, sedge, bluestem
and buffalo grass.
The Chevy raced right for the front of the building, the bus
following. Both skidded to a stop just to the left of the
Melanie peered at the ruddy brick.
When she was eighteen, and a student herself at the Laurent Clerc
School, a boy had taken her here once, supposedly for a picnic but
of course to do what boys of eighteen will do — and what
Melanie too wanted, she believed at the time. But once they'd snuck
inside, carting a blanket with them, she'd looked at the gloomy
rooms and panicked. She'd fled and had never seen the perplexed
boy, or the building, again.
But she remembered it. A place that was hard and sharp and
And dark. How Melanie hated the dark. (Age twenty-five, and she had
five night lights in a six-room house.)
Stoat flung open the bus door, dragged Susan and Mrs. Harstrawn out
The police car — a single trooper inside — paused at
the entrance to the field. He leapt out, pistol in his hand, but he
stopped short when Bear grabbed Shannon and put a gun to her head.
The eight-year-old surprised him by spinning around, kicking his
knee hard. He flinched in pain then shook her until she stopped
squirming. Bear looked over the field at the trooper, who made a
show of putting his gun back into his holster and returning to his
Bear and Stoat pushed the girls toward the slaughterhouse door.
With a rock Bear broke through the chain that bound the door
closed. Stoat grabbed several large bags from the trunk of the gray
car, where the driver continued to sit, staring up at the building.
The glare still prevented Melanie from seeing clearly but he seemed
relaxed, gazing with curiosity at the turrets and black
Bear yanked open the front door and he and Stoat pushed the girls
inside. The place stank of cave more than building. Dirt and shit
and mold and some sweet-sickly decay, rancid animal fat. The
interior was a maze of walkways and pens and ramps and rusted
machinery. Pits surrounded by railings and parts of old machines.
There were rows and rows of rusted meat hooks overhead. And it was
just as dark as she remembered.
Bear herded the students and their teachers into a semicircular,
tiled room, windowless and damp. The walls and cement floors
stained dark brown. A worn wooden ramp led to left side of this
room. An overhead conveyor holding the meat hooks led away from the
right side. In the center was a drain for the blood.
This was the room where the animals had been killed.
Cold wind blows, it isn't kind .
Kielle grabbed Melanie's arm and pressed her head against her
teacher. Mrs. Harstrawn and Susan embraced the other girls, Susan
gazing with raw hatred at whichever of the men happened to catch
her eye. Jocylyn sobbed, the twins too. Beverly struggled for
Eight gray birds with nowhere to go.
They huddled in a cluster on the cold, damp floor. A rat scurried
away, hunched-back, his fur dull gray like a piece of old meat.
Then the door opened again. Melanie shielded her eyes against the
He stood in the cold light of the doorway.
Short and thin.
Neither bald nor long haired but with shaggy, dirty blonde strands
framing a gaunt face. Unlike the others he wore only a t-shirt, on
which was stencilled the name L. Handy. But to her he wasn't a
Handy at all — and sure not a Larry or Lou. She thought
immediately of the actor in the Kansas State Theater of the Deaf
who had played Brutus in a recent production of Julius
He pushed inside and carefully placed two heavy canvas
bags on the floor. The door swung shut and once the ashen light
vanished she could see his pale eyes and thin mouth.
Melanie saw Stoat say, "Why...come here, man? No fucking way
Then, as if she could hear perfectly, Brutus's words sounded
clearly in her mind, the phantom voice that deaf people hear
sometimes — a human voice yet with no real human sound. "It
don't matter," he said slowly. "Nope. Don't matter at all."
Melanie is the one he looks at when he says this, and it is to her
that he offers a faint smile before he points to several rusty iron
bars and orders the other two men to wedge the door tightly
Excerpted from A MAIDEN'S GRAVE © Copyright 2002 by
Jeffery Deaver. Reprinted with permission by Signet. All rights