Still Coming — excerpt


Sunday, July 18th

“Hey, pal, what’re you doing?” Patrol Officer Patrick Walsh called out.

He’d pulled his cruiser to a halt on Hudson Street after seeing the white van parked in front of The Mean Bean coffee shop. Next to the vehicle was a tall, thin guy wearing coveralls, goggles and one of those masks used by the guys who spray-painted cars. He was holding a ladder that leaned against a sugar maple and disappeared into its foliage. Hearing Walsh’s question, the guy with the goggles and mask pointed a finger at his chest. Me?

“Yeah, you,” Walsh said. “Get over here.”

The van was the only vehicle parked on the street. Overnight parking wasn’t permitted on Hudson. It was six a.m. and legal parking wouldn’t start for another hour.

Walsh was in the last hour of his shift and the last year of his career. It was also the last day before he went on vacation. All that being the case, he’d rather have somebody else do the walking. He didn’t think anything serious was going on, wasn’t even the season to tap someone else’s maple tree for sap. So he didn’t think he was on to a syrup-boosting gang. But he was still cop enough to want to know what the hell was going on.

The tall guy looked up and said something Walsh didn’t catch, making it clear someone else was up in the tree. That would have been enough to make the cop suspicious if the guy hadn’t approached his unit and pushed up his goggles and pulled down his mask. Walsh could see now he was just a big kid with some kind of goop smeared on his face. Like he’d been eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream without using a spoon.

“Who are you and what’s going on with the tree?” Walsh asked. The cop wrinkled his nose as the kid got close. “And what the hell is that stink?”

The kid said, “You’re smelling N-diethyl-m-toluamide, DEET for short. The stuff that makes insect repellent work. I’m wearing the heavy-duty stuff. What I was doing was steadying the ladder so my friend won’t fall out of the tree. He’s looking for signs of Ips sexdentatus.

“What the hell is that?” Walsh asked.

“A six-spined engraver beetle.”

“What, they’re bad news?”

“Real bad,” the kid said. “Only fires do more damage to trees than bugs. State department of forestry is doing a screening for exotic bark beetles. We got the work order for your town. Try to do things when we won’t get in people’s way. My friend and I are summer hires.”

“So the two of you are what, in school the rest of the year?”


“Here in town?”

“No, we’re at Columbia. He’s a botany major; I’m biology.”

“He goes up one tree, you do the next?”


“What’re your names?”

“Bud and Lou.”

“Just like the old comedy team, huh?”

“Exactly. We’ve got state IDs, if you want me to dig mine out.”

By that time the super-DEET had almost fried Walsh’s brain. He was happy to leave the Ivy League eggheads to deal with the exotic bugs.

“Don’t bother. How can you stand that stink?”

“Be a lot worse if you got a six-spined engraver up your nose or in your ear.”

Walsh shuddered at the thought.

“Go on back to work. Sorry I bothered you.”

“No problem, officer.”

Bud put his mask and goggles back in place. Walsh drove off.

“Cop gone?” Lou called down from the tree.

Bud nodded and went back to steadying the ladder.

The two of them weren’t looking for bugs. They were planting them.

Chapter 1
Monday, July 19th

Bruce Springsteen was singing “Badlands” on Pandora when Jenny Spielman read the note that made the hair on the back of her neck rise. The unnerving message was delivered in just two words: Still coming.

The meaning of this would be vague to most people, but to Jenny it was a clear threat. To emphasize that the writer’s intent was hostile the message was printed in red, not in any recognizable font, but made to look as though the words had been inscribed using blood, the individual letters imprecise, their density uneven, each of them with a spiky little tail.

The meaning of this would be vague to most people, but to Jenny it was a clear threat. To emphasize that the writer’s intent was hostile the message was printed in red, not in any recognizable font, but made to look as though the words had been inscribed using blood, the individual letters imprecise, their density uneven, each of them with a spiky little tail.

For a dizzying moment, Jenny thought that actual blood might have been used. Repressing a shudder, she brought the sheet of paper close to her nose. The mother of three roughhousing boys, she knew the smell of blood. Thank God, this wasn’t it. Laying the note on her desk, it registered now that real blood wouldn’t have stayed bright red; it would have turned brownish the way it did on a Band-Aid pad.

She picked up the envelope in which the note had arrived, taking care to hold it with a fingertip at the top right and lower left corners. There was no return address. A first class stamp had been used and canceled. The postmark was clearly legible: St. Paul, MN. Mailed three days earlier.

The addressee was cleanly rendered in Times New Roman: Shepherdton College, Admissions Office, 10 Tacket Hill Drive, Shepherdton, NY 12507-2400. Zip+4, Jenny thought. Some little shit had done his best to guarantee prompt delivery.

Having had a moment to think things through, Jenny started to relax. She had to be dealing with a mean-spirited practical joke here. Some disappointed applicant to the college had been stewing since the admission decisions had gone out at the end of March. That, of course, was hardly unusual.

Shepherdton sent out nineteen denials for every admission. The college was more selective than Williams, Amherst or Swarthmore. Shepherdton’s reputation as the liberal arts college for the brightest young minds in the country grew by the year. Much to the dismay of the established leaders in the national rankings, Shepherdton had cracked the top ten five years ago and had climbed one spot every year since. Its ascendancy seemed inevitable.

That made it all the harder for the high school seniors whose applications were rejected. Shepherdton applicants were almost exclusively the number one students in their classes. Most of them had perfect SAT or ACT scores. Their extracurricular activities displayed passion, imagination and vigor. If they had ever failed at anything, it wasn’t to be found on their college applications—unless they had redeemed themselves in a fashion worthy of notice by the national media.

Such young people had long been given to think they could walk on water. So when 95% of them sank into Shepherdton’s denial pool many grasped for life preservers. More than a few asked for further reviews of their applications. But Shepherdton accepted no appeals. Some turned to powerful figures in business or government for intercession. But Shepherdton gave no preference to the offspring of its own alumni, and certainly extended no advantage to protégés of outside grandees. The truly desperate tried to buy their way in. While Shepherdton was always happy to accept donations to the college, it refused absolutely to connect such gifts with the acceptance of a student who hadn’t been admitted on merit.

Jenny had experience with all these strategies.

But she’d never before had anyone simply refuse to take no for an answer.

Say he was “still coming.”

She would have replied that such bullheadedness would never work, not with her, not with Shepherdton, except she didn’t have a name and an address to which she might respond. Lacking the ability to keep this obviously irrational person at a distance with a letter or a phone call, she began to feel uneasy again.

Suppose the kid just showed up one day.

She felt sure that such a disordered mind would assume his hokey threatening message would have reached the dean of admissions, Teddy Mylonas, or maybe even the college president, Dula Jennings. Fat chance. She, Jenny Spielman, single mother, recipient of infrequent child-support checks, and office manager of the admissions office opened the daily mail.

She disposed of most of it with form letter responses, dispersal to admissions officers or deposit into her circular file. Only occasionally did she intrude on the dean’s more important responsibilities, and in her eleven years at the college she had never forwarded an unsolicited letter to President Jennings.

Just the thought of doing so made her queasy.

But what if this crazy kid…

No, it was just a joke, a mean joke. That was all.

She pushed the note and the envelope aside, deciding to deal with the problem later, and reached for the next piece of mail in the bin Jerry the mailman had left on her desk minutes earlier. Her hand stopped short when she saw that the next envelope, like the one she’d just opened, also lacked a return address.

A chill ran up her spine. In all her time on the job, she couldn’t remember a day in which she’d received two pieces of mail lacking a return address. Much less two in a row. People who wrote to Shepherdton identified themselves. They wanted a response and…

Jenny noticed the typeface on the second envelope: Times New Roman. Just like the first one. It was a common font, but come on. Neither envelope had a return address and both used the same typeface. She looked at the second envelope’s postmark: Estes Park, CO. But, oh shit, just like the one from St. Paul, it had been mailed three days ago.

Whenever one of her sons got the willies about something, she always told him the same thing: “Take a deep breath and remember real life isn’t like TV.”

The boys weren’t so sure about that, but as long as she was around they settled down. Her trouble was, she was the first one in the office, as usual. The dean and half the staff were away on summer holidays; she’d be the only one there for at least another hour. There was nobody to reassure her that she was letting her imagination get the better of her.

She had to do it on her own. She reminded herself that she lived in the safest town in the State of New York. In the heart of the beautiful Hudson Valley. The sun was shining through windows that were kept sparkling clean year ’round. She was earning a good salary and her pension plan, managed by the college’s money gurus, had lost barely 5%, despite the recession. So what could possibly be scaring—

Jenny’s heart caught in her throat the moment she plucked the second envelope out of the mail bin. There was a third envelope, just like the first two, this one from Myrtle Beach, SC. Looking at the mail bin more closely now, she didn’t see the usual hodgepodge of business mailers, commercial post cards and manila envelopes, but a long, orderly, almost military file of number ten envelopes.

Never a person given to talking to herself, Jenny nonetheless said, “Oh, my God.”

“Everything all right?” a voice responded.

Jenny drew a deep breath and might have shrieked, had she not looked up and seen a young woman standing before her desk.

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” the young woman said. “The front door of the admissions office had an old-fashioned brass bell attached to it. It wasn’t loud, but Jenny had the music on low enough that she should have heard it. She hadn’t, though, not with her imagin—

No, her imagination wasn’t running away with her. She wasn’t some skittish old woman. She was barely forty with a good head on her shoulders. There was something strange going on. If she was scared, she had reason to be. If each of the envelopes in the mail bin contained the same message she’d found in the first one—

“My name’s Fay Vara,” the young woman said. Seeing she’d succeeded in attracting Jenny’s attention, she added, “I’m this year’s presidential scholar.”

The number one matriculating freshman.

Jenny snapped to, quickly grabbed the sheet of paper, mercifully folded over on itself so its blood red “Still coming” message was largely hidden, and tossed it, and its envelope, in the waste basket under her desk. She lay the envelope from Estes Park face down on her desk. It wouldn’t do for this budding VIP to see that her less fortunate peers might be up to causing mischief.

Getting to her feet and extending her hand, Jenny said, “Welcome to Shepherdton, Ms. Vara. I’m—”

Jenny lost her voice when she saw Jerry the mailman reappear, carrying another bin filled with number ten envelopes.