the dead town - Page 17


And his mind wandered repeatedly to the California detectives, Carson and Michael, who had paid him a visit in the late afternoon. They told him a patently false story about working on an inheritance case, searching for an heir. He had known they were stonewalling him, and they had known that he knew, but he had liked them anyway.

In spite of the couple’s personable nature and, at times, even lighthearted demeanor, Addison had been aware that they were tense and worried, even though they were hiding it well. Worried might be an inadequate word. His newsman’s sixth sense told him that they were scared, which had been most evident when they had talked about the End Times Highway. If something frightened two former homicide detectives who had worked a tough city like New Orleans, perhaps Addison needed to be concerned, too, for the people of this town.

These thoughts kept distracting him—until suddenly he wondered if there might be some connection between the detectives’ case and the failure of phone and Internet service. The weather could not be responsible. At most, two inches of snow were on the ground, which most locals would dismiss as flurries. Full-scale blizzards rarely disrupted services because everyone here was prepared for extreme winters.

The Gazette’s receptionist, Katie Ormond, kept a radio on her desk. Addison went out there to switch it on and see if KBOW might be reporting anything about the phone problems.

Mason Morrell seemed to have lost his mind. Or not. While the talk-show host’s usual material held no interest for Addison, he knew the man was not one of the tinfoil-hat crowd. The media community in Rainbow Falls was arguably the smallest social circle in town; he and Mason often found themselves at the same functions. Never had Mason said a word about alien abductions or black helicopters, or anything else to suggest that for him reality and the Syfy channel were one and the same. He wasn’t a conspiracy theorist who thought Osama bin Laden was secretly a Zionist and that the Holocaust was all a lie invented by the same crowd that faked the moon landing.

Besides, Sammy Chakrabarty, who lived for the radio station and would have slept there if permitted, would never allow Mason to rant like this if the talk-show host had come to work stoned. Sammy had big plans and, given his intellect and drive, he had a good shot at fulfilling them. Sammy would pull the plug on Mason rather than let him ruin both their careers.

Something else chilled Addison: Mason sounded sober, afraid, and sincere. Indeed, there was almost something Churchillian in the force of his delivery—but no faintest note of hysteria or inebriation.

But mass murder? Brain probes? Replicants? Monsters among us? It defied belief.

“… collecting people in these big blue-and-white panel trucks and taking them to warehouses where they’re killed, having been replaced by their replicants.…”

Still listening, Addison put on his Stetson, coat, and neck scarf. He lived near the heart of town and always walked to work. Now he intended to go home, get his SUV, and drive out to KBOW to discover firsthand whether this was some kind of ill-advised stunt to promote the radio station or an inexplicable descent into madness by the talk-show host.

He clicked off the radio, switched off the lights room by room, stepped outside, and locked the front door behind him. As he turned toward the street, before he stepped onto the lamplit sidewalk, he saw an approaching panel truck—blue cab, white cargo section—just as in Mason Morrell’s warning.

In the lightless recessed entryway, Addison shrank back against the door. The truck was the sole vehicle on Beartooth, which usually wouldn’t be this deserted even in the early stages of a snowstorm. He could discern two people through the windshield, but he doubted that they would spot him in this dark pocket.

Maybe his imagination had been overheated by what he’d heard on the radio, but the night felt wrong, the only sound being the engine of the truck, no pedestrians passing even though the hour was not yet late. The street hadn’t been plowed or salted, although the town’s maintenance department always hit the pavement by the time the first inch was down, to stay ahead of the storm. The wrongness wasn’t in those details alone. There was also an eerie atmosphere that Addison felt but could not easily define.

Because he was intensely watching the suspicious truck, he saw the tall hooded figure, immense across the chest and the shoulders, appear out of thin air on the running board on the passenger side of the vehicle.

Magically.

Materializing like an apparition.

Gripping the assist bar at the back of the cab, the giant smashed the side window with his fist and wrenched open the door as the truck braked, skidded slightly in the snow, and came to a halt.

Chapter 34

One second Papa Frankenstein’s prodigal son wasn’t there, the next second he was very there, and fragments of the shattered window cascaded in upon Michael without harming him. The door came open, and Michael shouted his name—“Michael, Michael, me, me, it’s me!”—so that the big guy wouldn’t break his neck, although even as he cried out and even as Carson braked, he saw that he had been recognized.

Deucalion dropped off the access step as the truck came to a stop, and Michael clambered out. “Thanks for not killing me.”

“Anytime.”

Michael didn’t know why Deucalion should look even bigger in the falling snow than he had looked in other environments, but he seemed to be a lot bigger. Maybe it was because heavy snow at night created a magical mood in any circumstance, which emphasized Deucalion’s nearly supernatural appearance. Maybe it was because this was the start of Armageddon, they were in the quick of it, and Michael was so happy that Deucalion was on their side that he imagined the giant to be even bigger than he was.

“I’m babbling,” Michael declared.

Deucalion frowned. “You only said five words.”

“In my head. I’m babbling to myself in my head.”

Carrying her Urban Sniper, Carson hurried around from the driver’s door to the giant. “What have you learned?”

“Does the truck have a radio?” Deucalion asked. “Have you been listening?”

“We haven’t really had time to be diggin’ any tunes,” Michael said.

“I convinced the radio-station staff. They’re warning anyone who might be listening.”

“Convinced them how?” Carson wondered.

“Killed the replicant of their general manager, slashed open his gut to show them what was inside.”

“Vivid,” Michael said.

“I get the feeling this thing is coming down faster than we can form a resistance to it,” Carson worried.

“Why do you say that?”

“Listen.”

She had switched off the truck engine. The silence of Rainbow Falls was the silence of an arctic outpost a thousand miles from any human habitat.

“Significant but not decisive,” Deucalion decided. “The weather keeps some inside. And anyone listening to KBOW will be fortifying their homes to better defend them. We’ve told them the roads out of town are blockaded, so it would be foolish to try to drive out.”

Carson shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m no quitter. The way of the world is you kick ass or you die, and I’m always going to kick. But we’ve got to be real. A lot of people are dead already, and a lot more are going to die. I don’t want to see children dying. Not any that we might just save.”

Michael thought of Arnie and Scout, back in San Francisco. He wondered if the day would come when he and Carson, if they survived Rainbow Falls, would find themselves on the shore of that western bay, with nowhere left to run, only the sea at their backs and a city full of replicants coming for them.

“We’ve already got a dozen kids at this house, the Samples place,” Carson told Deucalion. “We’ll have more soon. Only you can drive them out, with that trick you have, take them to Erika.”

Deucalion agreed. “It’s strategically smart. The adults will put up a better fight if they don’t have their children at hand to worry about.”

“You can use this truck to transport them,” Michael said, “once we get rid of the dead replicants in the back.”

Something drew Deucalion’s attention to a nearby building. Carson saw it, too, and leveled the shotgun.

Following their lead, Michael recognized Addison Hawk as he stepped out of the recessed entryway to the offices of the Gazette. More than ever, he looked like a town sheriff in an old Jimmy Stewart Western.

Carson did not lower the shotgun. The publisher had evidently been alone in his office. Maybe the real Addison Hawk was sitting in there in the dark, a bead of silver face jewelry on his left temple.

“I heard the radio,” Hawk said, “but I didn’t think I could believe it.”

“Believe it,” Carson said, “and stop right there for a minute.”

“I want to help,” the publisher said. “What can I do to help? This can’t happen, not to this town, not to this town of all towns.”

“How can we be sure of him?” Carson asked Deucalion.

“You mean short of opening him up and looking inside? I don’t know. But we have to decide quickly. Not just about him. Everyone we encounter from here on.”

This night provided Michael’s first experience of snow. None in Louisiana, none in San Francisco. He expected it to be beautiful, which it was, but he didn’t expect it to be unsettling, which it also was. The millions of flakes whirling, movement everywhere, so much movement that you couldn’t trust your peripheral vision or your visual instinct to identify something hostile if it was approaching with any subtlety. In the windless dark, the graceful descent of the flakes, still fluffy although a little icier than before, was as lulling as it was alluring, fading the hard edges of things, by its beauty ceaselessly selling the lie that the world was a gentle place, soft, with no sharp edges.

Michael said, “Carson, you remember those guys who came into the restaurant to get Chrissy Benedetto’s mother? How they were?”

Denise Benedetto, muted and brain damaged, a silver bead on her temple, had somehow gotten away from her captors. Two policemen and one man in civilian clothes had come after her, into the restaurant where Carson and Michael were having dinner.

“They were bold,” Carson said. “Arrogant. Cold bastards.”

“I’ve lived my whole life here,” Addison Hawk said with some distress, “except when I was away in the service. My dad and mom are here. My aunt Brinna, she’s all alone now. Uncle Forrest and Aunt Carrie. What’re you telling me is going to happen to them? What’re you telling me?”

“Arrogant, cold,” Michael agreed, “and something almost dead in their eyes.”

After a hesitation, Carson lowered the shotgun. “I guess sometimes … we’ll just have to trust and hope.”

Chapter 35

At first Ariel seemed all right with Nancy’s need to bring some order to the littered floor of the barn. There was a push broom for the purpose of doing exactly that, and Nancy wielded it diligently, starting near the door by which they had entered and working her way back toward the tack room. She had no intention of cleaning out the stalls—mucking them out was the correct term—and she felt sure that she could resist that temptation as long as she didn’t look inside them.

Horses were engines of disorder, dropping all their road apples, pawing their hooves at the soft covering of their stall floors until little clouds of dust and minced hay and probably feces billowed out from under the doors. They were no messier than other animals, of course. Pigs and cows and chickens and goats, dogs and cats, birds and fish, all of them crapping, on land and in the sea and in the air, pissing and crapping every day, every hour, every minute. All of nature was a filthy, untamed chaos, a riot of plants that cast their seeds and spores everywhere, growing in wild tangles, relinquishing their fruit to rot on the ground, growing until they collapsed and rotted themselves and then grew again out of their own disgusting rot. All of it topsy-turvy, unsymmetrical, pure confusion, muddle, jumble, all living things a bedlam, pandemonium, since time began. Someone had to put an end to it, to the chaos, and the Community was ready for the job.

Nancy was particularly ready for the job, sweeping the scattered stalks of hay into little piles, and then sweeping the little piles together into bigger ones. If she could have swept the horses into piles, she would have done that, too, the horses and the mice. No doubt there were dozens of mice quivering in corners all over the barn, quivering and crapping.

Eleven minutes and forty-one seconds after she began to sweep the barn floor, Nancy Potter became aware of Ariel’s screaming. She realized that the girl had been shrieking for a while, perhaps for a minute or longer. Initially the sound didn’t seem sufficiently important to allow it to distract Nancy from the sweeping, and she didn’t register the source; it was just a mildly annoying background noise. Reluctantly, after hesitating another twenty-three seconds, she paused in her sweeping and turned to the girl.

Ariel trembled violently as she screamed. More than merely trembled. Vibrated. She was like a machine with several flywheels coming loose inside all at the same time, connecting rods knocking, cranks rattling against crankshafts, overlapping waves of succussion loosening every weld and rivet and bolt and screw.

The horses were growing agitated. The mares whinnied in fear. The stallion began to kick the barn wall at the back of his stall. His quarters hadn’t been fortified with steel plate because he was supposed to be the first to be processed, in which case it would be the mares who, standing witness, might attempt to kick out of their stalls.

“All right, Ariel, all right,” Nancy said, “just let me finish sweeping. Then I’ll bring Commander out here, I’ll prep him, you can tear him down and get started. I need a few minutes to finish the sweeping, to do it exactly right, and then I’ll wash out the bristles of the broom. I can’t put the broom away when the bristles are full of hay bits and mouse crap.”

Ariel’s scream escalated for a moment, and then her mouth grew so wide that the corners of her lips extended to her earlobes. She gagged, choked off her scream, and spewed forth a thick stream of silvery nanoanimals, such a violent disgorgement of her essence that she appeared to deflate. She pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of collapsing inward, sort of folding up, and disappearing into the tail end of her spew.

Airborne as a dense cloud of buzzing-hissing nanoanimals, Ariel became frenetic and appeared to ricochet around the room, diving and soaring. She ate a hole through the barn roof and disappeared into the night—only to reappear through another hole, plunge into the dirt floor, and tunnel across the room. The swarm resurfaced under Nancy’s left foot, surprising her, consumed her leg to midthigh in an instant, and raced away.