Not a very nice man.
One afternoon not long after July became August,
Deke Hollis told her she had company on the island. He called it
the island, never the key.
Deke was a weathered fifty, or maybe seventy. He
was tall and rangy and wore a battered old straw hat that looked
like an inverted soup bowl. From seven in the morning until seven
at night, he ran the drawbridge between Vermillion and the
mainland. This was Monday to Friday. On weekends, "the kid" took
over (said kid being about thirty). Some days when Em ran up to the
drawbridge and saw the kid instead of Deke in the old cane chair
outside the gatehouse, reading Maxim or Popular
Mechanics rather than The New York Times, she was
startled to realize that Saturday had come around again.
This afternoon, though, it was Deke. The channel
between Vermillion and the mainland -- which Deke called the
thrut (throat, she assumed) -- was deserted and dark under a
dark sky. A heron stood on the drawbridge's Gulf-side rail, either
meditating or looking for fish.
"Company?" Em said. "I don't have any company."
"I didn't mean it that way. Pickering's back. At
366? Brought one of his 'nieces.'" The punctuation for
nieces was provided by a roll of Deke's eyes, of a blue so
faded they were nearly colorless.
"I didn't see anyone," Em said.
"No," he agreed. "Crossed over in that big red
M'cedes of his about an hour ago, while you were probably still
lacin' up your tennies." He leaned forward over his newspaper; it
crackled against his flat belly. She saw he had the crossword about
half completed. "Different niece every summer. Always young." He
paused. "Sometimes two nieces, one in August and one in
"I don't know him," Em said. "And I didn't see any
red Mercedes." Nor did she know which house belonged to 366. She
noticed the houses themselves, but rarely paid attention to the
mailboxes. Except, of course, for 219. That was the one with the
little line of carved birds on top of it. (The house behind it was,
of course, Birdland.)
"Just as well," Deke said. This time instead of
rolling his eyes, he twitched down the corners of his mouth, as if
he had something bad tasting in there. "He brings 'em down in the
M'cedes, then takes 'em back to St. Petersburg in his boat. Big
white yacht. The Playpen. Went through this morning." The
corners of his mouth did that thing again. In the far distance,
thunder mumbled. "So the nieces get a tour of the house, then a
nice little cruise up the coast, and we don't see Pickering again
until January, when it gets cold up in Chicagoland."
Em thought she might have seen a moored white
pleasure craft on her morning beach run but wasn't sure.
"Day or two from now -- maybe a week -- he'll send
out a couple of fellas, and one will drive the M'cedes back to
wherever he keeps it stored away. Near the private airport in
Naples, I imagine."
"He must be very rich," Em said. This was the
longest conversation she'd ever had with Deke, and it was
interesting, but she started jogging in place just the same. Partly
because she didn't want to stiffen up, mostly because her body was
calling on her to run.
"Rich as Scrooge McDuck, but I got an idea
Pickering actually spends his. Probably in ways Uncle
Scrooge never imagined. Made it off some kind of computer thing, I
heard." The eye roll. "Don't they all?"
"I guess," she said, still jogging in place. The
thunder cleared its throat with a little more authority this
"I know you're anxious to be off, but I'm talking
to you for a reason," Deke said. He folded up his newspaper, put it
beside the old cane chair, and stuck his coffee cup on top of it as
a paperweight. "I don't ordinarily talk out of school about folks
on the island -- a lot of 'em's rich and I wouldn't last long if I
did -- but I like you, Emmy. You keep yourself to yourself, but you
ain't a bit snooty. Also, I like your father. Him and me's lifted a
beer, time to time."
"Thanks," she said. She was touched. And as a
thought occurred to her, she smiled. "Did my dad ask you to keep an
eye on me?"
Deke shook his head. "Never did. Never would. Not
R. J.'s style. He'd tell you the same as I am, though -- Jim
Pickering's not a very nice man. I'd steer clear of him. If he
invites you in for a drink or even just a cup of coffee with him
and his new 'niece,' I'd say no. And if he were to ask you to go
cruising with him, I would definitely say no."
"I have no interest in cruising anywhere," she
said. What she was interested in was finishing her work on
Vermillion Key. She felt it was almost done. "And I better get back
before the rain starts."
"Don't think it's coming until five, at least,"
Deke said. "Although if I'm wrong, I think you'll still be
She smiled again. "Me too. Contrary to popular
opinion, women don't melt in the rain. I'll tell my dad you said
"You do that." He bent down to get his paper, then
paused, looking at her from beneath that ridiculous hat. "How're
you doing, anyway?"
"Better," she said. "Better every day." She turned
and began her road run back to the Little Grass Shack. She raised
her hand as she went, and as she did, the heron that had been
perched on the drawbridge rail flapped past her with a fish in its
Three sixty-six turned out to be the Pillbox, and
for the first time since she'd come to Vermillion, the gate was
standing ajar. Or had it been ajar when she ran past it toward the
bridge? She couldn't remember -- but of course she had taken up
wearing a watch, a clunky thing with a big digital readout, so she
could time herself. She had probably been looking at that when she
She almost passed without slowing -- the thunder
was closer now -- but she wasn't exactly wearing a thousand-dollar
suede skirt from Jill Anderson, only an ensemble from the Athletic
Attic: shorts and a T-shirt with the Nike swoosh on it. Besides,
what had she said to Deke? Women don't melt in the rain.
So she slowed, swerved, and had a peek. It was simple
She thought the Mercedes parked in the courtyard
was a 450 SL, because her father had one like it, although his was
pretty old now and this one looked brand-new. It was candy-apple
red, its body brilliant even under the darkening sky. The trunk was
open. A sheaf of long blond hair hung from it. There was blood in
Had Deke said the girl with Pickering was a blond?
That was her first question, and she was so shocked, so fucking
amazed, that there was no surprise in it. It seemed like a
perfectly reasonable question, and the answer was Deke hadn't said.
Only that she was young. And a niece. With the eye roll.
Thunder rumbled. Almost directly overhead now. The
courtyard was empty except for the car (and the blond in the trunk,
there was her). The house looked deserted, too: buttoned up and
more like a pillbox than ever. Even the palms swaying around it
couldn't soften it. It was too big, too stark, too gray. It was an
Em thought she heard a moan. She ran through the
gate and across the yard to the open trunk without even thinking
about it. She looked in. The girl in the trunk hadn't moaned. Her
eyes were open, but she had been stabbed in what looked like dozens
of places, and her throat was cut ear to ear.
Em stood looking in, too shocked to move, too
shocked to even breathe. Then it occurred to her that this was a
fake dead girl, a movie prop. Even as her rational mind
was telling her that was bullshit, the part of her that specialized
in rationalization was nodding frantically. Even making up a story
to backstop the idea. Deke didn't like Pickering, and Pickering's
choice of female companionship? Well guess what, Pickering didn't
like Deke, either! This was nothing but an elaborate practical
joke. Pickering would go back across the bridge with the trunk
deliberately ajar, that fake blond hair fluttering, and --
But there were smells rising out of the trunk now.
They were the smells of shit and blood. Em reached forward and
touched the cheek below one of those staring eyes. It was cold, but
it was skin. Oh God, it was human skin.
There was a sound behind her. A footstep. She
started to turn, and something came down on her head. There was no
pain, but brilliant white seemed to leap across the world. Then the
world went dark.
Excerpted from JUST AFTER SUNSET: Stories © Copyright 2011
by Stephen King. Reprinted with permission by Scribner. All rights