the dead town - Page 9


Mr. Lyss was silent. Watching Mr. Lyss be silent was almost as hypnotizing as the hands floating on the music. He was silent for a long time, too, longer than seemed possible in a situation like this.

Finally the old man said, “Your kind. What kind are you? Not a Martian, I know.”

“A Communitarian.”

“And what might that be?”

“Not born of man and woman,” said the piano player, and now the soft notes came as sad as drizzling rain in a graveside-funeral scene in a movie where good people die in spite of being good.

“If not from man and woman,” the old man said, “then from what?”

“From laboratory and computer, from genetically engineered flesh combined with silicon nerve paths, from inert materials programmed with something that pretends to be life, and then programmed further with something that resembles consciousness, something that imitates free will but is in fact obedient slavery. From nothing into the pretense of something and from there … eventually to nothing again.”

Those words were to Nummy what his conversation sometimes was to Mr. Lyss: gibberish. Yet his heart must have understood part of what was said even if his brain couldn’t make sense of it, because a big feeling came into him, a feeling so enormous that he seemed to swell with it. Nummy couldn’t give a name to the feeling, but it was like sometimes when he was walking through a meadow with trees along one side, and suddenly there was a break in the trees so he could see the mountains in the distance, mountains so big and yet he had forgotten they were there, mountains so big that the tops of them poked through a layer of clouds and reappeared above, mountains so high and beautiful and strange that for a moment he couldn’t get his breath. This feeling was like that but many times more powerful.

Mr. Lyss was silent again, as if he was remembering mountains of his own.

The sad music played into the silence, and after a while, the Xerox Boze said, “Kill me.”

Mr. Lyss said nothing.

“Be merciful and kill me.”

Mr. Lyss said, “I’ve never been a man known for his mercy. If you want to be dead, be merciful to yourself.”

“I’m what I am, and have no mercy in me. But you’re human, so you possess the capacity.”

After another silence, Mr. Lyss said, “Whose laboratory?”

“Victor’s.”

“Victor who?”

“He calls himself Victor Leben. And Victor Immaculate. But his real name, of which he’s proud, is Frankenstein.”

Nummy knew that name. He shivered. Those were the kind of movies he never watched. He’d seen part of one some years earlier, turned it on not knowing what trouble he was getting into, and it so upset him that Grandmama came in the room to see what was wrong, and she turned it off. She hugged him, kissed him, made him his favorite dinner, and told him over and over that none of that stuff was real, it was just a story, the same way that a nice and happy story like Charlotte’s Web was just a story, what Grandmama called fiction, and no fiction story could ever be real.

If the Xerox Boze wasn’t lying, Grandmama was wrong. She had never been wrong about anything before. Not any blessed thing. The possibility that Grandmama could have been wrong about even one thing was so disturbing that Nummy decided never to think about it again.

“Frankenstein? You think I’m a fool?” Mr. Lyss asked, but he didn’t sound angry, just curious.

“No. You asked. I told you. It’s the truth.”

“You said you’re an obedient slave. You were made that way. Why would you betray him?”

“I’m broken now,” said the Xerox Boze. “When I saw what Bozeman saw in the moment between, something broke in me. I’m like a car and the engine runs all right but the gears won’t shift anymore. Please kill me. Please do it.”

The piano player still didn’t lift his gaze from the keys, and Mr. Lyss watched those floating hands as if they fascinated him as much as they hypnotized Nummy.

The tune sort of slipped into a new tune, which was even sadder than the first. Grandmama said great composers could build mansions with music, mansions so real that you could see the rooms in your mind. Nummy could see the room that was this one song. It was a big empty space without furniture, and the walls were dull gray, and the windows were gray because they looked out on nothing.

“Frankenstein,” Mr. Lyss said. “If men from outer space, then why not this. But I won’t kill you. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Surprisingly, the old man lowered the long gun.

Nummy worriedly reminded him, “Sir, he killed the Boze. He’ll kill us. He’s a monster.”

“He was,” Mr. Lyss said. “Now he’s just what he is. He saw too much through Bozeman’s eyes, too much … beyond. It finished him. I’m just damn glad I didn’t see it. At least he’s got the piano. If I’d have seen it, whatever it was, I’d probably be lying on the floor, just talking baby talk and sucking on my toes. Come on, Peaches, let’s find that snowmobile.”

The old man turned away from the piano and crossed the room toward the hallway.

Nummy backed out of the room, keeping his eyes on the Xerox.

Chapter 16

Mason Morrell’s evening talk show centered around advice about relationships between husbands and wives, between parents and their children, between spouses and their in-laws, between siblings, between young romantics seeking their ideal mates.… He was not married, had no children, had no brothers or sisters, and had burned through six women in the past eighteen months. But he was a successful talk-show host because he had extraordinary confidence in his opinions, could subtly browbeat his callers while seeming to be their best friend, was able to fake compassion exceptionally well, was a fearless host who would not shy from any topic no matter how outrageous, and had a baritone voice that was both masculine and silky.

Mason was a fraud, but a likable and amusing fraud now carried on five other stations in Montana and Wyoming, and he might prove to be one of those talents whom Sammy Chakrabarty could build into a nationally syndicated money machine. Therefore, the talk-show host’s reaction to the gutted replicant on the floor and to Deucalion’s disappearance was deeply dismaying to Sammy not only because their survival might depend on a united front against an imminent assault on the building but also because losing Mason might have a negative impact on his plan to own KBOW by the age of twenty-nine.

The moment the tattooed giant vanished to deal with whatever contingent of lab-born monsters was pressing the door buzzer, Mason lost all of his trademark confidence and fearlessness. In a voice that soared two octaves, he said, “I’m not dying like a cornered rat in a crappy, tank-town, AM noise shop.”

The first step he took put his foot in some of the pale spilled guts of the thing that had looked like Warren Snyder, which inspired an almost girlish shriek of horror. Scrubbing his shoe on the carpet in disgust, Mason shuffled across the room, went through the open door to the hallway, and turned left, away from the broadcast booth.

Ralph Nettles said, “He’s going to unlock the front door. He could get us all killed,” and Burt Cogborn, whose usual ad-salesman glibness had deserted him, said, “Uh.”

Sammy Chakrabarty began to move on the word front. He entered the hall in time to see Mason pull open the door to the reception lounge. He cried out, “Mason, don’t!” but the talk-show host kept going.

At the front door, Sammy caught up with his quarry as Mason twisted the thumbturn on the deadbolt. Sammy grabbed him by the belt and tried to pull him backward, off his feet. But Sammy stood five ten and weighed 130, Mason stood six two and weighed 200, and even the most desperate effort of a determined radio entrepreneur could not compensate for the talk-show host’s advantage of size. With Sammy trying to climb his back, Mason flung open the door and plunged into the snowy night.

Sammy had dreamed of becoming a radio-made multimillionaire for as long as he could remember. He never wanted to be a rodeo cowboy, but a little experience in that field might have helped as now he clung to his star talker’s broad back like a buckaroo riding a bull. Mason snorted in rage and panic, shrugged his big shoulders, heaved hard and twisted.

In the light of the parking-lot lamps, from his continuously pitching and spinning perspective, Sammy glimpsed a large white panel truck with a dark blue cab. He saw an apparently dead man sprawled on the snow-covered pavement, which was probably not really a man but instead a replicant like the Warren Snyder duplicate with the abdomen full of something like fish parts in alfredo sauce. He saw Deucalion lifting another man off the ground, above his head, which seemed an impossible feat, something that even the great Buster Steelhammer, superstar wrestler, wouldn’t dare pretend to be able to do even in an extravagantly choreographed performance. But then Sammy briefly lost sight of the giant, and when next he could see him, the tattooed wonder slammed the second replicant down on the radiator cap of the truck, surely shattering the creature’s spine.

Mason’s shirt tore. Sammy flew off his mount, landed facedown, slid through the snow, came to a halt against a lumpy something, and found himself face-to-face with one of the dead replicants. From the nostrils of the thing streamed a noxious blue gas that plumed into Sammy’s mouth.

Spitting in revulsion, rolling away from the fiendish creature and onto his knees, Sammy wondered for the first time in his life if his mom and dad had been wise to emigrate from New Delhi. Maybe contemporary America was too wild for anyone to ride, not just an angry bull of a country but a crazy bull of a country, all hooves and horns and bucking muscle.

Sammy’s doubt lasted only as long as he took to get to his feet. Mason was climbing behind the wheel of his Toyota Sequoia, which was the last in the line of parked vehicles, and Sammy was the only alternative for the on-air voice that would warn Rainbow Falls and the county at large about the invasion (or whatever it was) of the Stepford people (or whatever they were). An hour from now poor Burt Cogborn would probably still be able to say nothing but “Uh, uh, uh,” and though Ralph Nettles was a good man, a solid man, he was far from a silver-tongued orator. Sammy didn’t sound like a geek or a snark or a weasel, but he didn’t have a trained voice. He wasn’t radio talent, he was radio executive. He wouldn’t be half as convincing as Mason. Suddenly Sammy was energized once more by his particular American dream.

Not only for the people of Rainbow Falls (who were evidently being slaughtered), and not only for the future of humanity (which might hang in the balance), but also for Chakrabarty Syndication (which had not yet been incorporated but which would one day dominate the AM landscape), Sammy staggered toward the Sequoia. He intended to drag Mason Morrell out of the SUV or be clubbed senseless in the attempt.

Fortunately, Deucalion got to the Sequoia not only first but in time. The doors of the SUV were locked, but before Mason could start the engine, the giant thrust both big hands under the flank of the vehicle, gripped the frame, and with an effort that made him roar in agony or rage, or both, he lifted the passenger side off the ground. Deucalion heaved, heaved again, and he rolled the Sequoia onto its roof.

Chapter 17

In the foyer of Chief Rafael Jarmillo’s house, the portion of the hand on the floor consisted of the thumb, the forefinger, the connecting span that was called the anatomical snuffbox, and a piece of the fleshy thenar eminence. The tips of the thumb and finger were pressed together as if in the OK sign.

Frost had no way of knowing if someone had arranged the digits in that fashion or if instead the macabre gesture occurred by chance. In either case, he was not amused.

Most cops lacked a sharp sense of black humor when they entered law enforcement, but they quickly developed one as a psychological-defense mechanism. Nevertheless, Frost suspected that nothing he encountered in this house would tickle the dark side of his funnybone.

The eaten edges of the flesh had the same appearance as the stump of the foot in the living room. Bloodless. Glazed but pitted. And the flesh was unnaturally pale.

Dagget flicked a switch, and the open staircase brightened. In a hunt, stairs were always bad, either going up or coming down. You were vulnerable from above and below, with nothing to duck behind, with nowhere to go other than straight into the line of fire, because turning your back and running was even more surely a ticket to the morgue.

Cautiously but quickly, they ascended. Dagget took the lead, back to the curved wall, attention on the head of the stairs. Frost followed six steps behind, focused on the foyer below; although they had cleared the ground floor, there might be a way someone could get behind them.

They didn’t even whisper to each other anymore. They had nothing to say. From here on, what needed to be done would be clear as events unfolded.

They didn’t find any additional scraps until they reached the upper hall, where a bloodless ear, as white as a seashell, lay on the carpet. Judging by the size and the delicacy, it must have been the ear of a young child.

Chief Jarmillo had two children.

Of all crimes, those involving violence against children most infuriated Frost. He didn’t believe in life sentences for child murderers. He believed in any kind of slow execution.

Jarmillo’s behavior on duty the previous twelve hours argued strongly for his corruption. If the chief was part of some bizarre conspiracy, then it seemed to follow that he, rather than a serial killer chancing upon them, must have murdered his wife, mother-in-law, and kids. Murdered and dismembered.

But Frost couldn’t make sense of what they had found thus far. The huge sums funneled into this town through Progress for Perfect Peace suggested a criminal enterprise vast in scale. In fact the laundered funds were so enormous that the possibility of a terrorist plot of historic dimensions could not be dismissed. A cop on the take, getting immensely rich for helping the bad guys conceal their activities, wasn’t likely to derail the money train by chopping up his family over a disagreement with the wife.

Four bedrooms, a master-suite sitting room, various closets, and two of three bathrooms offered them only two more grisly pieces of evidence. Both were in the master bedroom.

On the floor near the dresser lay a fragment of a jawbone from which protruded two molars, two bicuspids, and a single canine tooth. Something green trailed from between the molars, perhaps a sliver of skin from a bell pepper or a jalapeño. The facets of the bone that should have been shattered, where they had broken away from the rest of the jaw, instead looked … melted.

Because it was not just another bit of biological debris but an impossible construct out of a surrealist’s fantasy, the second find in the master bedroom proved more unsettling than anything they had discovered thus far. It lay at one corner of the neatly made bed, near the footboard, not as if carefully presented but as if tossed aside—or as if spat out. The thick tongue, curved and with the tip raised as though licking something, would have been repulsive and alarming if it had been nothing more than that, but instead it was like an image by Salvador Dalí inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. In the center of the fat tongue, not balanced upon it but snugly embedded in its tissue, actually growing from it, was a brown and lidless human eye.