<p><b>Chapter   1    ~    2007<br></b><br> <br>Snow fell.<br> <br>It drifted down slow as morning mist, settling white on brown, white   on silver, white on white. It fell so thickly that Nicholas could see no more than a meter or so ahead. His hair, normally the color of dry grass, was white with it. His hands on his hips, flecked coral, blood red, and indigo, grew steadily paler as he stood in the steady downward wash of white. His eyes, the darkest part of him, were all that moved as he watched the figure above him. A ghost, swaying its arms to the milky sky, waving. Or a summoning angel. A spectral thing, unmindful of him.<br> <br>He stared a long moment, then pulled off his earmuffs.<br> <br>The snow was driven by the roar of an orbital sander. The machine's   electric hornet buzz was so amplified by the soundbox of the ceiling   that it seemed some lunatic was on the roof tumbling an endless stream   of rocks down the tiles. A stepladder was perched half-in and half-out   of the bath, and atop it Cate strained upward as she sanded around the   vent in the bathroom ceiling. Plaster dust was everywhere, making the   small room a blizzard world of indeterminable size.<br> <br>She attacked the ceiling in broad strokes that belied her size,   swooping mightily over the plaster filler like a baker spreading dough   or a shipwright planing planks. He watched the way her arm muscles   moved under their geisha patina, the way her calves stretched.<br> <br>It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon. While Cate prepped the bathroom,   Nicholas had been chiseling up tiles in the minuscule laundry. Because   they worked in separate rooms, it was all the more enjoyable to come   together, picking their ways through the battlefield of paint cans,   balled drop sheets, takeaway curry containers holding limey water and   soaking brushes, to find some clean little beachhead in the madness,   wipe the dust off each other, kiss, and encourage themselves that the   renovations would indeed end and this would soon-God, please, soon!-be   the sexiest little flat in Ealing.<br> <br>The dumb sky outside grumbled darkly, making the small bathroom in   false winter seem even cheerier.<br> <br>A tearing sound, and Cate switched off the sander.<br> <br>"You effing . . . shit." Her lips pursed tight, as if fighting to dam   a wild ocean of obscenities.<br> <br>Nicholas tutted. "The language. It never fails to shock me."<br> <br>She turned to him-an albino alien, goggled and masked.<br> <br>"Funny boy. How long have you been skiving off there, pervert?"<br> <br>Nicholas shrugged. "Why the foul mouth?"<br> <br>Cate preferred not to swear, but that didn't mean she wouldn't. At a dinner party eighteen months ago, the host had asked Nicholas what   date his and Cate's wedding anniversary fell on and he had momentarily   drawn a blank. In the car on the way home, Cate had described the   moment as "fucking humiliating." Delivered quietly in her round,   wholesome vowels, the words cut with surprising efficacy. Less, for Cate, was more.<br> <br>"A nailhead tore the sandpaper. Again. Last sheet."<br> <br>She lowered her dust mask and lifted her goggles, revealing skin   almost as pale as the plaster dust. She climbed down off the ladder,   over the bath, to the floor. She was small. She spread her arms wide.   Without thinking, he stepped into them-a beautiful trap. She slapped   her arms around his waist-thup!-releasing a huge cloud of white dust.<br> <br>"Sucka!" she cackled, and stepped back to survey her handiwork: a huge white patch on his front and a belt of white powder around his waist.   She grinned.<br> <br>Nicholas shook his head in mock disgust. "You lured me. You used your   body as bait and lured me."<br> <br>"Sucka!" she repeated, grinning more broadly. And opened her arms again.<br> <br>This time she closed them around him slowly, and they talked through   their kiss.<br> <br>"How are you going?"<br> <br>"Good. Bored."<br> <br>"Lazy slag." Cate slapped his bum. "Get back to it. I'll drive in and   get some sandpaper."<br> <br>"I'll go. You're dirty. A dirty, filthy girl."<br> <br>He felt her lips smile under his.<br> <br>"And now you're a dirty, filthy boy."<br> <br>It was four years ago, in a flat like this on a rainy evening, that   he'd met her. They'd talked for an hour, danced drunkenly and badly   for ten minutes, and kissed-smiling and clicking teeth-until the hosts   called them a cab and, with no small relief, sent them home together.   Maybe that was why he so liked their little apartment: because it felt   like Cate. New love, and lovely at it.<br> <br>"Be careful, bear," she said. "It sounds like rain outside." She   patted his backside again and clambered up the ladder.<br> <br>She was right: rain fell, steady and chill.<br> <br>Nicholas shoved his hands in his pockets and stumped toward the curb.   Their flat might become the sexiest in Ealing, but it still didn't   have off-street parking.<br> <br>He stopped and swore under his breath.<br> <br>Their '03 Peugeot was neatly trapped between a Yaris and the new   neighbor's Land Rover. Again. He owns a truck capable of climbing   Kilimanjaro, thought Nicholas, but still catches cabs to get to   Paddington. But he was in a good mood and didn't want it ruined by   having words. He'd take the motorbike.<br> <br>A minute later, Nicholas pulled on his helmet, twisted the throttle,   and his BMW let out a baritone rumble as it eased out from its stable   behind the dustbins onto the street. He'd be soaking wet before he got   to the hardware, and thoroughly dissolved by the time he got home, but   he couldn't be arsed going back inside to fetch his slick or facing   Cate's insistence that the urban adventurer next door get a talking-  to. The lumpy side panniers would keep the sandpaper dry.<br> <br>The world was painted from a palette of grays. There was next to no   traffic. The rain on his face stung lightly enough to be pleasant, and   the bike rumbled contentedly. As he turned down past Walpole Park,   Nicholas resolved to enjoy the icy wet. He would be cold and happy   with it: a pasha on his mount, a cavalier on royal duty; a man with an   excuse to become naked before his beautiful wife in a quarter of an   hour. He smiled to himself and glanced at the green park flashing past.<br> <br>The grove always drew his eye. It was tucked in the corner of the   park, its old trees cloistered together, huddled close as weary   soldiers under grim umbrellas. Neglected and conspiring. Secretive.   Their trunks were dark as tar in the late light and the gray rain, and   their tops were huge inverted bowls of sea black-thick green and   rambling and restless.<br> <br>Between the dark trunks was a face.<br> <br>A man's face . . . yet not human. Larger. Older. In the instant before   it retreated into the night-black shadows of the grove, Nicholas saw   that from the corners of its mouth grew-<br> <br>A sharp, sick symphony of collapsing metal and shattering plastic,   then he was arcing through the air. For a long moment, his eyes were   filled with cloud-bruised acres of sky and telephone lines and   silence. Then a small cracking sound and his lungs filled with   mercury. Pain as hard as ice jolted through him like electricity. He   was still moving: not flying now, but sliding on his back along the   wet bitumen, frozen in a breathless world of insane agony. Sliding.   Slowing. Stopped.<br> <br>Gray rain and dark leaves. Silence.<br> <br>And pain so solid that he felt carved from it-lungs spasming, wanting   to work but unable to, more winded than he'd ever been during high   school rugby or behind-the-shed fisticuffs. He could do nothing but   lie there and will his burning lungs to please, please, please inhale!<br> <br>A face loomed over him. Brown teeth behind thin fish lips. Wide eyes,   deep frowns. Two faces. Then, like a tide returning and bringing waves   with it, the world's noise returned with his breath-with a rattle, he   sucked in cold, wet, beautiful air.<br> <br>". . . an ambulance!"<br> <br>"Don't move him!"<br> <br>He let out a whistling breath and tried to sit up, but the movement   brought fresh icicles of pain.<br> <br>"He's okay!"<br> <br>"Oh, Terry, he's okay!"<br> <br>Nicholas, wanting to contribute to the optimistic mood, tried to   whisper, "I'm okay," but all that came out was a weak sigh.<br> <br>A man and a woman stood above him, their details vague through tears   of wretched pain.<br> <br>Words spilled out of the woman like marbles from a split sack. "We   just backed out and didn't look and we are so, so sorry-"<br> <br>"Don't say you're sorry!" hiss-whispered her husband.<br> <br>"I didn't say sorry."<br> <br>"You did!"<br> <br>"Phone?" wheezed Nicholas.<br> <br>The couple clarified: a horse-faced pair in matching tweed, looking   down at this wounded, talking marvel.<br> <br>"Of course." The man handed over his mobile. Nicholas's thumb shook as   he dialed. He loosened his helmet as the LCD screen blinked: Calling.<br> <br>"My bike?" he whispered.<br> <br>The man lifted his chin and peered between the top of his glasses and   the brim of his tweed driver's cap.<br> <br>"Pretty well buggered. You know you're bleeding?"<br> <br>"Oh, God! He's bleeding?"<br> <br>Nicholas held up a hand for silence. A click as the other end picked up.<br> <br>"Hello?"<br> <br>Cate. Nicholas's heart slowed. Relief as warm as sunlight washed   through him.<br> <br>"Cate."<br> <br>"Hello, bear. What's up?"<br> <br>"Cate." He was so happy to hear her. Why? He'd only left her a moment   ago . . .<br> <br>"Nicky? Where are you? Are you on the road?" Concern in her voice now.   "I heard the motorbike and-oh, God, have you had an accident?"<br> <br>Her voice was growing fainter.<br> <br>"I'm fine, nothing. A little bingle. You, though. Are you all right?"<br> <br>He was so happy. Happy and amazed. She was fine. Why had he worried so?<br> <br>Evening seemed to be falling fast. The equestrian couple was darkening   in shadow, their faces growing as lean and hidden as the evening trees   themselves. The rain was a steady hiss.<br> <br>"I'm worried about you! Where are you? Nicky? Nicholas?" Her voice was   thin and distant, words from the bottom of a well.<br> <br>"I'm here . . . but you're all right?"<br> <br>"Nicholas?"<br> <br>Bump.<br> <br>A gray pall fell over the world, rapidly making everything dimmer and   darker. Gray became black. Evening became night.<br> <br>"You're all right . . ." he whispered.<br> <br>Bump.<br> <br>Bump.<br> <br>Just a little nudge, stirring a tinkle of ice. Bump. A flick of paper   somewhere.<br> <br>Nicholas opened one eye a fraction. It was night. Well, dark,   certainly. And his face was cold and damp; chill hissed down on him.   Was it still raining? His vision was swimmy.<br> <br>Bump.<br> <br>He opened the other eye, and blinked.<br> <br>The aircraft cabin was as dark as a cinema. Hard plastic window shades   were pulled down. The cool air was loosely laced with body odor and   cologne. Passengers lay motionless with blankets drawn to necks,   mouths agape, sleeping. Most lights were out, but a few private oases   of yellow or blue peppered the gloom, a woman reading here, a man   wearing headphones watching a small screen there. Up the aisle, a   flight attendant checked on her wards, walking between passengers as   silently as a benevolent spirit.<br> <br>Someone behind Nicholas was drinking: ice ticked on thin plastic.   Across the aisle from him, a girl of six or seven sat awake, coloring   a picture.<br> <br>"Oh, God . . ."<br> <br>Nicholas turned at the desperate whisper, before realizing it was his   own. His nose was blocked. He touched his face. His cheeks were wet   and cold under the air hissing from the vent above.<br> <br>He'd been crying in his sleep.<br> <br>If I shut my eyes now and go to sleep, he thought, I can go back. Back   to the beautiful lie that Cate had answered the phone, worried, but   alive.<br> <br>But the truth of things rushed through floodgates, dousing him wide   awake. He was alive and leaving Britain. Cate was dead: three utterly   dreadful months in the ground. She'd fallen getting down the ladder to   answer his telephone call after the motorbike crash, splintering her   neck on the bath edge.<br> <br>The cold weight of the realization sank Nicholas deeper into his seat.   He swallowed back bile and wiped his nose. The little girl across the   aisle glanced at him disapprovingly. The flight was an eternity. He   angled his watch to catch what little light there was.<br> <br>"Are you all right, sir?"<br> <br>He blinked.<br> <br>A flight attendant looked down at him, brows drawn in tight concern.   Her face was pale but her cheeks were pink and her nose freckled. Young.<br> <br>"Excuse me?"<br> <br>The flight attendant leaned closer, whispered again, "Are you all   right, sir? You . . . made some noise in your sleep." She held a   tissue toward him.<br> <br>"Oh." Not knowing what else to do, he took the tissue. "I'm fine." A   lie to send her on her way.<br> <br>"Bad dream?"<br> <br>"Yes." Another lie. So, now she could go.<br> <br>But she lingered. The little girl across the aisle had stopped   coloring and was sitting upright.<br> <br>"That's no good. We like our passengers to sleep well." The flight   attendant's white smile was disconcertingly bright in the darkness.<br> <br>"You really don't have to charm me. I'm already on the plane."<br> <br>The woman's smile faltered. "But we'd like you to come back. Another   blanket?"<br> <br>Movement across the aisle caught Nicholas's eye. The little girl was   shaking.<br> <br>"Hey, you okay?" He pushed himself out of his seat, but was held back   by the buckled belt. "Jesus, look."<br> <br>The little girl was convulsing now, her legs jack-hammering and her   hands clawing at her tiny neck. Her face was sharp red and her mouth   was opening and closing like a hooked fish's.<br> <br>The flight attendant followed Nicholas's glance, then looked back at   him, concerned. "Or a pillow?" she asked quietly.<br> <br>"Help her!" said Nicholas loudly, finally unclasping the strap.   "She's . . ."<br> <br>The little girl was turning blue, her eyes so wide they showed a   finger's width of reddening white around the irises.<br> <br>Nicholas stood too quickly, smacking his head on the luggage   compartment. Other passengers began to stir at the noise.<br> <br>"Help who?" The young woman's voice was sharp. "Sir?"<br> <br>The silently gasping girl fell to the floor right at the attendant's   comfortable flats. The child's pink and yellow top tore open, wrenched   by invisible fingers, exposing a pale fluttering little chest and   ribs. Nicholas stared in horror as the attendant took an awkward half-  step back . . . and her foot passed through the girl to rest solidly   on the carpeted floor.<br> <br>Nicholas trembled. His heart smashed in his chest, vibrating his body.<br> <br>The little girl's back arched, and her head wrenched back at a hideous   angle. She jerked mightily, a landed trout flopping with horrible,   drowning violence. Then, like a sandcastle undermined by a wave, she   collapsed on herself and grew still.<br> <br>"Sir?" whispered the attendant sharply. "Could you sit down please,   sir?"<br> <br>Nicholas felt the pressure of the young woman's grip on his wrist, and   looked into her face. A tough, forced smile was on her face, her   cheeks red. Nicholas saw other passengers turning to look at him,   murmuring, whispering to one another.<br> <br>He glanced down at the aircraft floor.<br> <br>The little girl's dead eyes stared at the cabin ceiling for a long   moment . . . then rolled to fix on Nicholas's.<br> <br>"Sure." His voice was a sandy whisper. Shaking, he sat back into his   seat. "Sorry."<br> <br>The attendant shook her head, as if his behavior was perfectly normal,   and sent a quick, calming smile around to the other passengers.   Nicholas forced himself to focus on rebuckling his belt, on not   looking at the dead girl the attendant was standing upon.<br> <br>"Can I get you something?" the young woman asked. "Water? Tea?"<br> <br>"What did the little girl die of?" he whispered.<br> <br>The attendant blinked. "I beg your pardon?"<br> <br>Nicholas looked across the aisle. The little girl was suddenly in her   seat again. Her blouse was whole. She watched Nicholas, eyes   unreadable. Her hands, as if with minds of their own, picked up the   coloring book and crayon and recommenced their childish business.<br> <br>Nicholas knew he should just shut up. But the words came of their own   accord.<br> <br>"A little girl just died here, didn't she?"<br> <br>The woman stared at Nicholas, her mouth working as she made some   decisions. He knew the look: the how-did-he-know-that, is-he-a-  reporter, is-he-mental, is-he-dangerous look.<br> <br>"How do you -" Her words were clipped. No politeness now.<br> <br>The little girl was coloring her book with tedious slowness. Her face   was in shadow. The passenger beside her rolled in his sleep and put   his arm right through her head.<br> <br>The flight attendant straightened her skirt. "I have no idea, sir.   Information like that is kept by the airline. I must ask you not to   talk about . . . such things on the flight, sir."<br> <br>She glanced once at the empty seat opposite Nicholas, then moved away,   a little too fast, up the dark aisle.<br> <br>Nicholas looked over. The girl's hands stopped coloring. Her gaze was   on his as she started shaking and turning blue again.<br> <br>He rolled away from her and closed his eyes.<br> <br>  <br> <br> </p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Dead Path</b> by <b>Stephen M. Irwin</b> Copyright © 2010 by Stephen M. Irwin. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.