By now Nummy saw where the new guy came from. Behind Mr. Lyss’s stolen car stood an old Chevrolet, engine running, driver’s door open wide.
Although his ears were still ringing, Nummy could hear Mr. Lyss say, “You shoot so precise, you must be some kind of lawman from one of the more determined agencies, but I won’t hold that against you.”
“Frost,” the new guy said, “FBI.”
“Kill me,” Xerox Bose said.
“Don’t kill him,” Mr. Lyss said. “He’s one of them but special.”
“One of them?” Mr. Frost said, alarmed, and backed away a couple of steps. “One of them chewed through my partner, Dagget, like it was a wood-chipper and he was nothing but balsa.”
“That’s a Builder,” Mr. Lyss said. “This is a different kind of them. He’s a Communitarian. He’s bad but not as bad as them bastards, he doesn’t eat people.”
A hard shot cracked, and the windshield of one of the dead monsters’ SUVs exploded.
On the roof of KBOW, huddled against the parapet and watching through the open crenel, Sammy Chakrabarty held his fire as the three got out of the car, waiting to see what they would do, which might tell him whether they were human or not.
One was in a police uniform, which was problematic. If the cops were co-opted, then this wouldn’t be a friendly listener inspired to visit by Mason Morrell’s stirring rhetoric. He seemed oddly placid, standing by the car in the snow, arms slack at his sides. He wasn’t wearing a coat or hat.
One of the other two was a dumpy little guy. Something seemed odd about him, too, although Sammy couldn’t see what it was through the sheeting snow.
The third was a grizzled old guy in a long coat. He fetched a shotgun from the backseat, which didn’t make him either a villain or a hero in the current situation, though his hair was wild and from a distance he looked a little crazy.
When the two SUVs burst onto the scene and twelve men bailed out of them, Sammy was pretty sure they had mayhem in mind, but he couldn’t be certain of their alien nature. He couldn’t fire down on them until they attempted to force the front door. They never got a chance. The number of shots required to kill them proved they weren’t human.
Sammy didn’t know if man-made men might kill one another the same way human beings did, but he was inclined to think they wouldn’t. So most likely the three that got out of the first car and the shooter who showed up in the Chevy were his kind of people, with real blood in their veins.
Nevertheless, he wanted to have a dialogue with them before he let them into the station. He got their attention with a single rifle round through the windshield of one of the dead men’s SUVs, and then he shouted down, “Who are you people?”
When the guy on the roof asked them who they were, Mr. Frost shouted that he was from the FBI and waved some ID, but Mr. Lyss right away took offense.
“ ‘Who are you people?’ ” the old man said, repeating the roof guy’s question but making it sound as if it had been said in a snotty way, which it hadn’t. “ ‘Who are you people?’ You going to let in only fancy people who went to universities where every fool wears a tuxedo and spats, only people drink tea with their damn pinkies raised? This town’s falling apart worse even than Detroit, and you have your nose in the air? You’re not going to let in some funky old hobo because just maybe he stinks a little—which he damn well doesn’t!—because he’s not wearing a top hat?”
Nummy thought that Mr. Lyss would wait for an answer to his question, but instead the old man sort of snorted a deep breath that puffed out his chest and lifted him taller, and he went on in his most angry voice. His face was so hot-red in the parking-lot lights that he ought to have melted the snow that stuck in his eyebrows. He talked right over the poor man on the roof, who started to say something:
“Who we are is the very people who might save this miserable jerkwater from the plague of monsters your fruity announcer’s been jabbering about on the air. I’m a hobo, this one here beside me is a dummy by anyone’s reckoning, and one look at us would tell any fool we’re as human as human gets. Go on boy, do your part, tell him you’re a dummy.”
Nummy said, “He’s right. I am. I’m a dummy and always been one. I don’t mind him saying it. He don’t mean it in a mean way.”
Mr. Lyss said to the guy on the roof, “This creature that looks like Officer Bozeman is one of the two kinds of monsters your town let overrun it. He’s not one of the people-eating kind, and anyway he’s broken, he’s no threat to anyone, though he’ll test your sanity if you let him near a piano. All this morbid bastard wants is for me to kill him because his program won’t allow him to kill himself, but damn if I’ll kill him until he tells us everything we need to know to find what nest these sonsofbitches come from so we can go in and burn it out. That’s who we are, and if who we are isn’t good enough for you, then you can just get in your Mercedes-Benz and drive yourself straight to Hell.”
Nummy realized that Mr. Lyss must have had his feelings hurt about a lot of things over the years, maybe since he was a little boy. That was really something to think about.
The seeming void silent and dark above, the snow materializing out of that inverted abyss, the houses bright or dark but each as still as a mausoleum, and the deserted white street from which this swaddling winter might have robbed all dimension if not for evenly spaced streetlamps dwindling toward other neighborhoods …
As the band and collet and prongs of a ring existed to display the gemstone, so it seemed to Rusty Billingham that everything his senses perceived in this glittering scene existed to display the jewel of a woman at the center of the intersection. From a distance of seventy feet, as he approached her, walking the middle of the street, she promised to be extraordinarily beautiful, and when he was still sixty feet from her, he knew that promise would be kept, perhaps more fully than he could imagine. Although it must be but a trick of lamplight and diamonded threads of snow, she appeared radiant, luminous from within.
Rusty was certain now that she’d been the one who screamed, because she was clearly in a state of shock. Standing there with snow well above her ankles, perhaps barefoot, wearing a short silk robe that offered no protection against the night, she seemed to be oblivious of the piercing cold. She had fled from something, out of a house into the street, but now she didn’t run to him as a frightened woman seeking protection ought to have done. He asked her again what was wrong, and this time she didn’t even ask him to help her, just stared at him as if in a trance.
As he closed to within fifty feet of her, Rusty realized that his reaction to her was as unusual as was her catatonic stare. Seeing a woman in distress, whether she was beautiful or not, he would have ordinarily hurried to her, but he moved not slowly but deliberately. Unconsciously, some experience cautioned him, some reference to the past that he could not in the instant recall—and when the engine sound of a fast-moving vehicle rose from the west, Rusty came to a halt, still more than forty feet from the woman.
She turned her head to her right, peering along the cross street toward the approaching vehicle, suddenly bathed in its headlights. She made no attempt to get out of its way, seemed rooted or perhaps frozen to the pavement.
Braking, snow chains stuttering, a Chevy Trailblazer appeared and came to a stop beside the woman, its headlights now past her. Four or five people were in the SUV.
The front passenger window purred down, and a grandmotherly figure leaned out. “Honey, are you all right, you need some help?”
Suddenly Rusty knew why he’d been inexplicably cautious. Four years back. Afghanistan. A woman in a burka, only her eyes revealed. She approached a checkpoint with U.S. Army security. He happened to be at a window half a block away when she detonated the bomb strapped to her body, out of the danger zone but witness to the horror.
The blonde’s silk robe revealed the contours of her voluptuous body so completely that no bomb could have been concealed under it—but in some way that Rusty could not comprehend, she proved to be a bomb. The grandmother in the Trailblazer leaned out of the passenger window, asked the courteous question, and a thick, silvery jet of … something like molten metal shot out of the flaxen-haired beauty, into the older woman’s face, and the face seemed to dissolve as she toppled over in her seat. The blonde and the silvery something were one and the same, and as the jet continued spewing into the SUV, she evaporated up from the street, leaving footprints in the snow, transforming entirely into that corrosive stream and fully invading the Trailblazer.
People were screaming inside the SUV, maybe four people very loud, but then three not so loud, and the vehicle rocked from the power of what was happening in there, creaked and twanged, bounced on its tires, springs singing a tortured song. Only one person screaming now. A couple windows cracked but didn’t break, something splashed against the glass, not blood but maybe some blood in it. The driver wasn’t in control anymore, most likely wasn’t even alive, but the Trailblazer rolled across the intersection, jumped a curb, plowed into a hedge, came to a stop, canting to port. The last scream faded in a thin falsetto, but something continued to churn inside the vehicle, as if it were frenziedly feeding on remains. All was chaos in there, and Rusty could make no sense of the seething shapes he glimpsed.
He took several halting steps toward the Trailblazer as it coasted across the intersection. But by the time it shuddered to a stop in the hedge, he knew there was nothing he could do to help those people. There might be nothing he could do to save himself, either, but he broke into a run.
Deucalion conveyed a third group of children to Erika’s place, bringing the number of refugees sheltering there to forty-two, which seemed beyond the maximum the house could handle. She insisted she could accept even more, and Addison Hawk agreed that together they could manage half again as many if they set down dormitory rules. They had enough food for the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours, and in the meantime, Deucalion could bring supplies.
When the fourth group proved to number thirty-four, however, the decision had to be made to take the kids elsewhere. With Carson’s and Michael’s help, Deucalion got them lined up on the benches along the walls of the cargo box and in two facing rows on the floor, crowding them together to a degree that would have been intolerable if the trip hadn’t been just two minutes long. They were trying to be brave, a few crying but quietly, others actually excited by the adventurous nature of this sudden nighttime excursion.
Because every point in the world lay as close to the Samples house as Erika’s place, Deucalion drove out of the driveway, turned left, and pulled into the parking lot at St. Bartholomew’s Abbey, high in the great mountains of northern California. In addition to the abbey with its guest wing and church, the seven-acre property included St. Bartholomew’s School, which was an educational facility and orphanage for children with physical and developmental disabilities. The monks oversaw the abbey and church, and Benedictine nuns, under the guidance of their mother superior, Sister Angela, operated the school.
Deucalion had lived here, in the guest wing, for over two years, while considering whether to become a postulant. Over the centuries, he dwelt for extended periods in the monasteries of different faiths, where he was never considered a freak, always a brother, and to his surprise sometimes served as a mentor to those he thought were wiser than he was.
He had left St. Bart’s less than twenty-four hours earlier, drawn first to New Orleans, then to the sprawling landfill in which the original Victor perished, and then to Carson and Michael in San Francisco, compelled by the sudden certainty that Victor was alive again and engaged in the pursuit of his utopia, which like all utopias was a kind of hell.
As he got out of the truck, he blew the horn twice, hoping to summon help. He went to the back of the truck, opened the door, and said, “We’re here. You’re going to like this place. You’ll be here only a little while, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The children clambered out of the truck, amazed to discover they were somewhere they had never seen before, not more than two minutes after they set out on this trip. In early October in these mountains, no snow had yet fallen and stuck. The night was cold but clear, a sea of stars overhead, the blizzard magically undone.
As the last of the kids disembarked and as Deucalion closed and bolted the cargo-box door, a monk arrived. The giant was not surprised that of all the confreres, the first to respond to the horn happened to be Brother Salvatore, also known as Brother Knuckles. He was Deucalion’s best friend at St. Bart’s, the only one who knew exactly who he was and would, therefore, be quickest to understand where these children came from and why they were in flight.
This was a day of omens, of which Brother Knuckles was one of the smallest, a day of events suggesting hour by hour that those who would stand against Victor were not standing alone, that regardless of how many died in Rainbow Falls, the world would not be allowed to become a graveyard from pole to pole. Deucalion believed that as the night progressed, events would turn ever more rapidly against Victor—as long as those who resisted him remained willing to join the fight, refused to flee, and were prepared to die for what they knew was right. Miracles were not given, they were earned.
Father Abbot came soon after Knuckles, and without question led the children toward the guesthouse, where the bedrooms and public chambers would accommodate them. They were too young to remain in the grip of fear when the threat was no longer imminent. Resilient in their innocence, they gave themselves to wonder, and their excited voices, clear and sweet, brought a kind of music to the High Sierra night.
Alone with Brother Knuckles, Deucalion said, “There’s a terrible situation in Montana, a town called Rainbow Falls. It probably hasn’t reached the national news yet, but the story’s getting out. It’ll seem too bizarre for most in the media to believe at first, but proof will overwhelm their disbelief. I haven’t time to tell you, so turn on your recreation-room TV and steel yourself for the coming horror of it.”
Brother Knuckles considered the truck and said, “How long it take you gettin’ here from there?”
“No time at all.”
“I’d love to take a ride like that.”
“Maybe we’ll do it someday.”
Brother Knuckles studied him for a moment. “If I was still the man I used to be, bustin’ heads and bettin’ ponies, I think maybe I wouldn’t put a bunch of money on the chance any such ride will ever come to pass. Are we gonna see you here one day again? Ever?”