Cover image for Wetbones
Shirley, John, 1953-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Leisure Books, 1999.

Physical Description:
332 pages ; 18 cm.
General Note:
Originally published: Shingletown, Calif. : M. V. Ziesing, 1991.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Into a Southern California rife with the machinations of Hollywood, the lure of drugs, and the slick sheen of sex, comes a nameless, ancient evil, a destroyer that completely ravages its victims, body and soul, leaving behind only wet bones. Blending supernatural horror worthy of Lovecraft with a razor-sharp, outlaw street savvy, Shirley presents a visceral, terrifying tale sure to sear the psyche of unwary readers. Winner of the International Horror Guild Award.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

In his new horror novel, Shirley serves up the bloody heart of a sick and rotting society with the aplomb of an Aztec surgeon on Dexedrine. Satiety and viscera fill a fair number of the book's pages, but, as with works by the better writers of splatter fiction, there are some solid moral and ethical issues being addressed. Set mostly in the L.A. area, the story follows the quest of a father to free his daughter from the control of a demonic cult. The cult members are manipulated by and also receive paranormal powers from transdimensional vampires called the Akishra. These ethereal creatures exploit human frailties, deriving sustenance from pleasure and pain squeezed from flesh-and-blood victims. To complicate things, the Akishra are breeding and are on the verge of being able to physically cross over into our world. Shirley's book is a solid contribution to the horror genre; the only potential cop-out on the part of the author is the delegation of a big chunk of the responsibility for personal and societal degeneration to an outside force. ~--Elliott Swanson



You can rot here without feeling it. --John Rechy, on Los Angeles). Chapter One Los Angeles, California They slid her body out in a long aluminium drawer on small, well-oiled rollers in a room that was sterile and cold, so cold he could see his breath: a little cloud steaming out over her, dissipating, pluming again, vanishing.     She was under a plastic wrapper, like something in a supermarket meat department. The morgue orderly peeled the plastic wrapper back so Prentice could see her face; her torso down to the sternum. Blue gray. Wasted. That's the word the doctor had used. The wasting of her.     She looks like a fucking mummy, Prentice thought.     Less than a day dead and she looked like a mummy, gray skin clinging to her skull, sharply outlining her jawbone, her collarbone, her ribs. Her eyes - it was as if someone had plucked out her eyes and replaced them with peeled grapes. Lips skinned back, flat and blue, as if painted on, exposing her teeth in a grimace. Gums so receded you could see the roots of her teeth. Long, thick white scars braided her right arm, rope-like scar tissue that pinched the sections of flesh together, and a jagged reddish-white scar bisected her right breast, just missing the shrivelled blue nipple.     Self mutilation, the doctor had said. The body was barely recognisable as Amy, but there was the grinning-bat tattoo above her left breast, a breast flattened, now, to an old woman's droopy pouch.     Faintly, he could smell her. Acid splashed up into his esophagus. "Okay," he rasped, and the orderly slammed the drawer shut with a clang.     Prentice wanted to belt the guy for not showing more respect; but it would have been absurd. Respect? Life and death had already shown Amy its fullest contempt. Prentice turned and walked out. He went looking for the L.A. sunlight. Hollywood "Look," Buddy was saying wearily, "I've been pitching you heavily to Arthwright, telling him you're not one of these Hollywood hacks. Tom, you're a screenwriter. An A writer fuh Chris' sakes. This guy is special, I'm telling him. He hears that stuff a lot from agents, how's he supposed to know it's true for Tom Prentice? You don't show up, he's gonna think you're a flake."     "Look -- if you'd seen her --" Prentice began, his knuckles white on the hotel phone. "She was all ..." He broke off not knowing how to explain it in a way that wouldn't make him seem, yes, flaky. A whiner. Buddy was his agent, not his therapist.     "I know how you feel," Buddy told him. "But you can't cancel on Arthwright. Isn't done. Especially not you and not now." Buddy's telephone voice had the distant cave-echo quality that meant he was using his speaker phone. He almost always used the speaker; fussing around his office, scribbling notes and signing papers or maybe mixing a drink while he yelled across the room at the phone's remote mike.     "I don't want to cancel," Prentice said. "I want to postpone." He was sitting tensely on the edge of his bed, in his hotel room.     "It's the same. He isn't gonna have time for you whenever you're damn ready."     "Come on, Buddy. He'd understand if you told him about Amy."     "He'd understand, but that don't mean he'd find time for you later on. You know? He'd promise but would he do it? Not very fucking likely."     Prentice nodded to himself. In the back of Arthwright's shrivelled little producer's heart, the son of a bitch would feel that appointments with him were more important than anything else in your life. Including grieving for the dead who, after all, were not consulted in movie marketing surveys.     And, really, Prentice had known what his agent would say about cancelling the meeting. He knew Buddy, though he'd only actually met him twice, both face to face meetings quite brief. Prentice had told himself he was going to cancel the meeting anyway. But now, pressing the phone against the side of his head so hard it hurt, Prentice felt the shaky feeling that meant he was weakening, was probably going to give in. Especially not you and not now , Buddy had said. Like putting a rubber stamp on Prentice's forehead: He was on the Out List. He had to get back in. It was just too good a gig to lose. He couldn't handle the humiliation of going back to the only other work he knew how to do. Bartender. Maybe end up serving a cocktail to Arthwright. "Well Hi, Tom ... Prentice? Right, how are ya, doin' a little moonlighting from scripting huh? Hell, Tom, I may be in here washing dishes or something myself, if I don't jumpstart some box office rentals here. We'll have to talk sometime. Ummm -- I'll have a margarita and this lovely young lady here takes, I think, a tequila sunrise? Great. Thanks Tom. So anyway, Sondra ..."     "Tell me something, Buddy," Prentice said now, venting some steam. "How do people get to be on the Out List in this town anyway, huh? There are all these guys, they write films that make no goddamn money, they get no critical recognition, but they still get contracts. Just because they had something produced once? Then I get one bomb and I'm supposedly on the Out List. How's that happen, huh?"     "Look, don't get pissed at me, how the fuck do I know, Tom? It's pure caprice, right? It's gossip or something, probably. Some guys, when things go sour, they don't get talked about, they don't get blamed, Some do. I don't know. Maybe it's because you're out of town until now, you're not here networking, you didn't make Warner's season-opener party, you're not at the Golden Globe receptions, people notice who's there and who isn't, you know --"     "I tried to rearrange my schedule so I could fly out for the Globes reception, but I had this thing --"     "Prioritize, Tom, you know? Got to prioritize. You've got to be here hustling close to the bone, schmooz any time you can, keep the relationships going so people stay loyal. They're always looking for somebody to backbite. If you're not around, it's your back that gets bitten ..."     "Okay, okay, you're right. I'm here now, But Buddy -- when I saw Amy's body today--" His voice broke. He swallowed, and got the masculinity back into it. "The guy said she lost fifty pounds in two days. Without liposuction, without surgery, and it wasn't losing blood and it wasn't losing water weight. It was -- It was just her ."     "Fifty fucking pounds in two days? Bullshit! Somebody screwed up, clerical error in the hospital records, you know? Couldn't have been that much. She lost some weight, well the woman wasted herself on drugs, you know than--" A double peep in the background as Buddy's secretary informed him someone was on the line for him. "Just a minute, Tom. Lemme--" A couple of dry clicks. Static. Another click. "Tom? I gotta go here, I've got to call somebody back. But uh ... Well, hey, about Amy: She was probably doing crack or crystal or something. You can't feel responsible."     "She was my wife, Buddy, dammit."     "Not for years, not really. You were divorced, and let me tell you, I know -- my therapist, he put me on to this: the secret is, you got to let go. Let go of resentment, responsibility, after a divorce. Just write the checks and write it off." Again, the background peeps of Buddy's secretary, letting him know he had another call. This time there were three peeps, a signal that let Buddy know it was someone important, a key client or a major player. Prentice knew Buddy's phone habits the way another man knows his partner's facial expressions. "Hey," Buddy was saying, "I got to take that, Tom. Look, show up for Arthwright. Pitch him. Then do your grieving, what have you. Work is therapy. And you can't afford not to take that meeting. Got to go--"     "Buddy --"     Click. Buzz. Gone.     Prentice banged the phone down on the receiver. Pitch Arthwright, then do your grieving, what have you .     "What have you?" he muttered. "Christ." Prioritize, Tom, prioritize.     Prentice stood up. Wobbled for a moment on his legs as the circulation shivered painfully back into them. He put on his sunglasses, thinking: Go ahead, get self righteous about the way people are in L.A. But you know you're relieved Buddy talked you into going to the meeting ...     Amy. Was there someone he should inform? Her dad had abandoned the family when she was little. Her mother was dead. Cirrhosis. Her brother was a biker somewhere. Where, was anyone's guess. Prentice could call his own parents, but they'd never liked Amy, they'd been glad when she'd left him. His Mom had bugged him about finalizing, getting a divorce, settling down with "someone more stable. God knows, you need someone more stable."     He looked at the paper sack that held Amy's effects. Now he knew why she'd sent his last two checks back; why she'd burned her bridges with him. She'd been getting money somewhere else. Even a Gold Card. The card was in the sack, along with her wallet, a gold chain ankle bracelet, an address book. No addresses in the address book, just cryptic scribbles and two phone numbers. It was like her: she kept most of her addresses on little scraps of paper in her wallet. Used to drive him crazy. He was fanatically methodical about addresses. Rolodexes, black-leather-bound planners. Now he even had an electronic address book that looked like a calculator.     If he didn't click with Arthwright, he might have to hock that calculator soon. Prentice looked once more at the detritus of Amy's passing on the bed. Like the nest of a dead pheasant, the American peacock, found in the tall grasses, after the hunter's downed the bird. Nothing left but a handful of feathers and dead grass. He went downstairs, jangling his hotel and rental car keys together in his hand. Alameda, California just Across the Bay from San Francisco Ephram chose a girl he saw working at the cash register, in Dresden's Hardware Store.     She was at Cash Register Three. Maybe it was the faint pattern of freckles on her cheekbone, the same configuration as the negative constellation. The constellation Kali, that no one saw but him: Ephram Pixie, who saw so much, ha ha, that no one else saw.     The girl was plump but pretty. Soft brown eyes with a little too much eyeliner. Tammy Fayeish eyelashes. White gloss on lips that carried on the Zaftig theme of her slightly oversized body. Full breasts for a girl, oh, sixteen or so. Her honey-blonde hair charmingly ruined by being up in one of those strange do's that teenage girls were affecting lately, a "pump," it was called: a little ridge of hair jutting straight up above the forehead, like a radar scoop of some kind, yet delicate and bound in place by lots of big blowzy curls. The esthetic blindness of it fascinated him. Here was real innocence.     And she wore a little charm bracelet made of small gold hearts about one wrist. He counted them: there were seven little gold hearts. Seven of hearts: his omen card in the Negative Deck. Another sign.     About her neck was her name in gold, hanging from a necklace. C-O-N-S-T-A-N-C-E. Constance? Oh, really? Ha ha.     She wore a raspberry coloured dress, with a frilly collar; raspberry Adidas tennis shoes, that looked gauche with the dress, but again she was unaware of that. The sneakers weren't gauche with her dress at her high school after all, ha ha.     Ephram was buying a coil of rope when he spotted her. He felt a warm, sweet tingle when he saw the girl and at the same time became sharply aware of the rope's texture in his hands. The delicious coincidence of it ...     The rope was quarter-inch soft white synthetic fibre, and it would do very well.     "Hi, how are you today," she said, automatically, not quite looking at him. Looking at the price tag on the rope and ringing it up.     "I'm glad you don't use those machines to read the -- what are they? -- those atrocious little bar-symbols that computers read," Ephram said. Just to get her to say a few more things to him. To dawdle there as he got a fix on her.     "Hm?" she said, blinking at him, "Oh, those computer price reading things? Bar codes, I think, it's called. I wish we did have theme A nervous little laugh like a trill on a toy piano. "-- because, um, like, they're faster. The lines get long in here and everybody gets, you know, they want to get in and get out.... That's three-ninety-five."     "Here you are. Yes, well, that's a shame. I like ... lingering here, myself. This is a charming hardware store. So cluttered and old fashioned."     She looked at him, to try to decide if he was serious. People didn't talk like that, in her little world, with words like lingering , describing a hardware store as charming. He smiled broadly at her. Not hoping to interest her in him, no, ha ha. He was a squat little man, with a soft wheel of fat at around his middle, his oversized head mostly bald, a few colourless hairs slicked across it. An astrological glamour just barely visible, if you looked close, in the back of his deep-set green eyes. And if you looked closer ...     But all she saw, he knew, was a funny looking little fat guy grinning at her from the other side of the counter. She stared at him, beginning to feel the feather antenna of his first probe in her brain. And then another customer came up and she turned gratefully to him: a black teenager with an earring and a Mercedes Benz hood ornament hanging on a chain around his neck. He was buying spraypaint. Fairly obvious, Ephram thought, what the boy was going to do with that, the vandal. Inexplicably, the girl squirmed with pleasure when the boy said something vaguely flirtatious, and shook her head, saying, "I'm sure ."     The boy really ought to be arrested, Ephram thought, for stealing that Mercedes ornament off someone's car.     Carrying the rope out to the car, Ephram found himself thinking of calling a cop on the little son of a bitch ...     And then he laughed aloud at himself. Absurd that I of all people should be thinking of calling the police on anyone ... Ha ha . When Garner saw Constance coming up the walk, he found himself looking to see how steadily she walked, and if her eyes were glazed.     There was no reason at all to suppose his daughter was on drugs. Really, there was none. She stayed out too late sometimes, she didn't take school seriously -- she worked in spurts to maintain a C average -- but she was a careful girl, in most ways, and she didn't smoke or drink. As far as he knew.     Probably unrealistic to think she'd never had a drink It was fucking 1990, man. The kids drank or were scorned.     But when your old man is a drug counsellor -- three days a week, when he wasn't doing pastoral work -- you probably didn't get into drugs. Did you?     Easy does it, Garner counselled himself. Let go, stop obsessing. This is Alameda. She's all right.     Alameda, after all, is an island. An island of safety and an island geographically, neatly packed with houses and parks, with San Francisco Bay on one side and an estuary on the other. There were big signs just this side of the bridges onto Alameda: DRUG FREE ZONE. This Community mandates double penalties for drug violations .     There weren't any drug free zones in America. The signs stood at the ends of the bridges to warn ghetto gangsters who drifted over from Oakland.     The town was mostly an enclave of upper-middle class safety, tough cops, a big Navy base, half a dozen marinas, a 25 MPH speed limit. The local kids were fairly straight, and stuck to their own community. There was no open drug dealing at all. But there were lots and lots of liquor stores and bars, thanks to the military, and just a mile across the estuary was Oakland's East 14th, and anything could be had, there ...     Stop stressing out, he told himself again. She's all right.     "How was work?" Garner asked, when Constance came in. Knowing how she'd answer.     "Okay, I guess," she said. As always. What was there to say about working in a hardware store for the summer?     Without pausing as she bustled by, she slid her purse onto the hall table, making the vase of dusty silk flowers rock. It was a clumsy blue and pink ceramic vase she'd made for him in a sixth grade art class; he grabbed it just before it toppled, turned to ruefully watch her walk into the kitchen to get herself the inevitable Diet Coke. Singing a George Michael song absently to herself. He thought about telling her that her skirt was too short. He stopped himself, amazed, not for the first time, to find himself turning into his own father. In the late 60s, when Garner came of age, Constance's skirt would have been prudishly long.     Garner went to sit on the living room couch, looking out the picture window at the sunny suburban yard. July in California.     Somewhere above, in the province of passenger jets, fighter jets from the base's carriers, and the birds that choked on the jets' exhaust, a cloud drew itself over the sun. Far below, the cloud shadow spilled slowly and inexorably across the lawn.     Clunk, clunk, Constance kicking off her shoes in the hallway. "Hey, Daddy Dude," she said, coming in with her can of Diet Coke, sitting in the easy chair across from him, feet tucked partly under her. She had those awkward little white socks they were wearing now, and a thin gold ankle bracelet. In the 60s she'd have had white gogo boots. At least she hadn't got one of those ugly fannypaks yet.     Garner was wearing jeans, sneakers -- real Converse sneakers, which were hard to find -- and his Oakland Street Ministry t-shirt. He knew the trappings of the Ministry embarrassed her a little, but she liked the t-shirt because its graffiti-style design was at least marginally hip. He knew she was proud of him, too, because he was cooler than some other dads. He let her stay out later, let her watch the movies she wanted, was tolerant of profanity up to a point, let her go to rock concerts alone, never said a word about loud music, though he couldn't stand most of the bands she liked. What was that band? Bon Jovi ...     She liked her father being politically liberal; it was hipper to be P.C., because MTV was mostly slanted that way. They both liked the Beatles and the Stones. He wished she'd known her mother. For one thing, her mother would know how to tell her she wore too much makeup ...     "Daddy Dude," she began, smiling sweetly.     "Let me guess. The car. Had your license two months and you think you get to wheedle the car."     "I'm sure, it's not like the only thing I ever talk to you about is wanting something, I mean --"     "Not the only thing, no. But when you call me Daddy Dude, in that sweet voice, it's a dead giveaway."     "Whatever. Daddy ... Daddy Dad. We just want to go to the mall and the arcade."     "I'm staying around here this evening because we're having a counselling group here. They're painting the Volunteer Centre in Oakland so it's got to be here. So yeah, okay. But if you hurta my car I breaka you face!"     She laughed. Then her expression went ludicrously earnest. "Did anyone call for me?"     "No, hon, he didn't call, whoever he is. What's his name? Is he in puberty yet? Does he have pubic hair?"     "Da -ad!" Ephram thought about doing away with Megan. He thought about it as he drove his '88 Porsche to the condo he'd rented near the beach, in Alameda. On the way, he drove through a neighbourhood of Victorian and Queen Anne houses, most of them prettily restored and trimmed, ostentatiously gardened. The matronly old houses seemed to wear the lush foliage of the street's many oaks and maples like fir stoles. He would have preferred one of the fine old houses to a condo. But anonymity was better, and you were more anonymous in a condo.     He left the old town neighbourhood, drove into the area of housing projects and condos and beach front apartment buildings; an area of town rather glaringly open to the sky. It was a sweet summer evening for a drive by the beach, a few clouds strikingly purple against the lemon glow of the horizon. It was an evening to savour, an epicurean's evening, and Ephram regarded himself as the last word in epicureans.     A nice night to do away with Megan. She was mostly used up. There wasn't much left but the sticky, impure stuff at the bottom of the bottle that was her brain.     He always thought of it that way: Doing away . It was such a pleasantly euphemistic expression. It made him think of the way Valentine Michael Smith had rid the world of unwanted people in that novel, that bit of silliness from the 60s. Stranger In ... something. Valentine Smith would simply think them out of existence.     He couldn't do that with Megan, just think her out of existence when he was done with her. And having to do away with them physically, personally, was his least favourite part of the whole process. Well, the actual killing was all right, but the disposal -- the away of it -- was was a bore and a mess. Literally, a mess. There was no truly pristine doing away, he thought. Not even incineration. There was always a mess of some kind. A cadaver leaving its mutely insistent signature on the scene, if only a little grease and ash.     Nothing for it but to roll up his sleeves ...     Ephram arrived at the cluster of two-story security condos and pressed the door signaller that would let him into the parking lot. The gate lurched a little, then rolled aside. He drove through and neatly into his parking place. He was not a man to waste movements.     He went into his condo without bothering to check his mailbox. There shouldn't be anything in it except bills and trash. No one knew he was here. And, of course, there was no one alive who would write him a letter, anyway, ha ha.     Megan was right where he'd left her, under the sink in the bathroom.     Part of her naked, pale, pinkwhite body was set aglow by a long bar of light that expanded from the hall when he opened the door. She had her back to him, lay on her side, curled up around the sink pipes like a snail around a stem. Her long red hair -- now matted and oily -- fanned across the bathroom tiles. Freckles across her back. He often chose freckly girls, or girls with birth marks. Marks on the skin were signs to him.     She groaned when he switched on the bathroom light, but of course she couldn't move. He hadn't given her leave to move. She was still cerebrally locked. He reached oat with an exploratory impulse, the probe making her shudder and gag a little as it passed through her skull. He tasted the pleasure centres of her brain. The reward receiver of the brain, as Ephram thought of it. There was some capacity left. Some cells not yet wrung out. More than he'd thought. Best use her once more before the doing away. Waste not, wanton. Ha ha.     He first had to unlock her brain. He reached out mentally and undid the partial paralysis. She spasmed like a sick dog and defecated thinly and wetly on herself, then flopped onto her back. Ephram wrinkled his nose at the smell and switched on the bathroom's ventilator fan; he took a little can of air freshener from the glass shelf over the sink and sprayed it around a bit. Honeysuckle.     He put the can away and inspected her. The marks he'd made were scabbing over, but rather badly. Some of them were purulent. This definitely did have to be the last time with Megan.     She tried to speak, managed to croak, "Listen ... just once ... listen ... I can't believe you don't ... you can't ..."     "You should believe it," he said, sending a probe into her cerebral punishment receiver. She gave out a cawing sound that was all the scream she could manage anymore and arched her back. Ephram felt his penis harden. It hardened a bit, anyway.     He moved to stand beside the bathtub and said, "Come over here and get in the tub. Facing me."     The look on her face. Her eyes going dully to the door. Thinking about pushing past him, running. Not having the strength -- and knowing he'd never let her get a step toward the door, anyway.     He savoured the completeness of his triumph over her. She had fought him all the way. She was better than some, who'd capitulate in some kind of role reversal madness, beginning to identify with him, losing their grasp on identity. That was a bore. But Megan fought to the last breath, bless her.     All she could do was say, emptily, "No.".     Psychically, he speared her again. She writhed and tried to weep, but the tears were long since dried up. Her lips were cracked from dehydration.     She struggled to her feet. She swayed.     Ephram reached over and turned on the water, started the shower going, lukewarm. He didn't want any steam to obscure his view. Then he said, again, "Get in the tub."     She took a wobbly step toward it. She might not make it ...     His mental probe encircled her reward receiver; grasped it, almost squeezed it like a sponge. His use of her this past week made the extra exertion necessary. She struggled, but the pleasure rippled through her, prompted by Ephram's control of the master switch in her brain, the nexus of all biological switchboards ...     Raspily sobbing, she struggled across the floor to the tub and, with great effort, climbed over its rim, stood miserably in the shushing water. He waited till her fouled thigh was rinsed, then bent to the portable cassette stereo he kept on the floor -- what people called a "ghetto blaster", ha ha -- and Mozart unreeled sweetly from its speakers, the music bouncing tinnily from the tiles in the little room.     Ephram closed his eyes and listened. He took a deep breath, refining his senses, and opened his eyes.     He grabbed Megan by the hair, turned her about in the shower to lubricate her. He unzipped his pants. His psychic probe found the last pleasure receivers that could still be stimulated in her ... She wailed and commenced involuntary humping motions with her hips. He put a hand around her throat and forced her to her knees, directed his semi-erect penis into her crusted mouth ...     His hand closed slowly around her neck; as the crispy tissues of her throat collapsed under his strong, practiced fingers, his penis briefly hardened to something like complete tumescence.     A minute after the Mozart cassette ended, he withdrew from her, mentally. Withdrawing with excellent timing: just as she died. He dared not experience her death more closely, with the psychic probe. That would set up etheric repercussions and the Akishra would hear. They would find him again. The soulworms would find him. His freedom from them must be scrupulously guarded.     He wasn't sure if he'd killed her with the choking, or if she'd simply died from being used up, from exhaustion. She was rather emaciated. It didn't matter.     Now he had to clean up the mess.     There was always a downside, in life. "Did Constance come back there, Mr. Garner?"     "What? Isn't she with you, Terry?" Garner told the cold, clutching hand of his imagination to let go of his guts. Constance's friend Terry phoning from the mall -- he could hear the video arcade going bing, bam, bong in the background. The girl was looking for Constance. Who, dammit, was supposed to be with this girl Terry. But there could be a lot of explanations. "Terry ...?"     "No, uh, she was with me, but, it's like, she goes, `I'm gonna go to the restroom', you know? And I'm like, `Okay but hurry up because you have to drive me home before eleven or my dad'll get really gross on me, you know?' And she's all, `I'll be right back'. But then she doesn't come back and doesn't come back and --"     "She hasn't shown up here, either. Did you check for her car?"     "No. You think she'd, you know, actually ditch me at the mall like that?"     "No. I just want to make sure she's still in the mall somewhere. Can you check and call me back?"     "Um ... Sure. Bye."     They hung up and Garner went back to the group. Nothing he could do till Terry called back. Just get on with the group and try not to think about it. If you freaked out every time your kid misplaced herself for a few minutes, you'd get some kind of chronic stress syndrome.     Group was in the living room. It smelled of stale coffee and cigarettes. It went on for ten minutes more, with Mrs. Wineblatt wallowing in self pity about her shambling marriage; the others struggling bravely to keep their interest in Mrs. Wineblatt's share, though they'd heard it all a half-dozen times and generally felt she was playing out some heavy denial about a necessary divorce ...     Garner shook his head, thinking that his attitude toward Mrs. Wineblatt was slanted by his anxiety about Constance. He'd had a bad feeling about Constance all day and it made Constance's losing touch with Terry at the mall seem more important than it probably was.     The minutes dragged by. Mrs. Wineblatt was snivelling, Harry Dugan seemed an irritating old cynic, James seemed a pouty, self-indulgent college sophomore. Damn Constance. This kind of thing was just not on. She had to be responsible, because he had to be responsible ...     Or maybe she ...     The doorbell rang. Garner jumped up, announcing the end of group though James wasn't quite done with his share yet. Garner could see the boy's pout deepen, the kid taking it as a personal rejection.     Tough. Garner nearly sprinted to the front door, expecting to find a cop with a long face on his doorstep.     But on his doorstep was a twenty-five-year-old white woman, six months pregnant. Aleutia Berenson. He'd been counselling her for three months, on and off. She was a crack addict.     "Come on in, Aleutia," he forced himself to say. Looking up and down the street, before he closed the front door.     He escorted Aleutia into his study. She smiled at him, her eyes wet, the skin under them looking bruised. She was working up some kind of manipulative addict trip to pull on him. She sat on the sofa.     This wasn't her appointed counselling day, but he made time for pregnant women with drug problems. You help a pregnant drug addict get clean, you've scored a twofer.     His face may have been a little wooden, though. Waiting for the phone to ring. Terry to call back. What was taking so long? (Continues...) Copyright © 1993 John Shirley. All rights reserved.