Book One: INFERNO
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
Someone was in the house.
Eric Ravensmith opened his eyes and sat up, wide awake. He glanced at the Sony digital on the bedside table, the glowing blue numbers the only thing visible in the dark room. 3:18 A.M.
Annie stirred next to him, scooting her naked backside under the covers until she touched his hip. Then she settled with a comforted sigh, still asleep. She often claimed that unless some part of her was touching him, she couldn't sleep. That's why she insisted they always sleep naked, no matter how cold it got. Skin touching skin, she said, that's what's important. But sometimes Eric suspected her real reason for wanting such close contact was so she could monitor his nightmares which, for some unexplainable reason, were lately coming with greater frequency. Yet, whenever he bolted awake from one, his skin cold and clammy, his mouth panting wildly, she'd be next to him, making soothing noises and wiping the sweat from his forehead with the corner of the sheet.
For a moment, Eric wondered if this was just another of his nightmares.
He remained motionless, his eyes adjusting to the dark, his ears straining for another sound. Anything that would determine whether someone was really in the house, or if he'd just slipped out of a groggy dream.
There it was again!
A faint creak on the stairs. A heavy shoe brushing plush carpet.
Eric's heart banged against hard ribs. An icy gush of adrenalin spurted through his stomach like a burst waterline. The sudden rush of energy made him nauseous. It had been too many years since he'd slept with one eye open, his ear suctioned to the ground, his hand clutching a.45 automatic with the safety latch permanently filed off. Those were the things he'd been trying to forget.
He lifted the electric blanket, the first item they'd charged at Sears immediately after they were married. Annie had insisted a joint credit card was more binding than any wedding vows. A gust of cool night air swept against his legs, rustling the dark hair on his body. Annie murmured a sleepy protest, wiggled her backside, but didn't wake. Eric slid his legs over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. Carefully he eased himself to his feet, not wanting to awaken Annie. Or alert the intruder.
Maybe it's just one of the kids, he reasoned. Timmy stealing some Sara Lee cheesecake and Hawaiian Punch, which Eric bought for the kids over Annie's nutritional protests. Or maybe it was Jennifer, hunting quietly through the cupboards and closets, anxiously searching for the birthday present Eric had hidden for her party next week. He always bought two: one she could eventually find, and a second with which to surprise her. A father-daughter game that he looked forward to each year, almost more than she did.
But no. It wasn't the kids. He recognized the type of movement, the sinister intent. He should. He'd used it often enough himself, taught how many others to do the same thing. The way Hopi chief Big Bill Tenderwolf had taught him. Cat dancing, Big Bill had called it with his great booming laugh. That's what Eric remembered most about his years with the Hopis, how much they laughed, how little they had to laugh about.
Somebody was coming closer and closer, trying hard not to be heard. Ordinarily he wouldn't have been. The distant creak wouldn't have been noticed, or would have been shrugged off as the house settling. A soft brush of shoe against carpet? Only the wind sifting through eucalyptus trees. All quite innocent.
Except Eric was expecting them. He hadn't realized that until just this moment. But, yes, he'd been expecting them for quite some time now. For twelve years, since the court-martial. It was inevitable. Like nightmares.
Eric slipped over to the window, looked down to see if there was a backup squad outside. The full moon glinted off his long thin scar, made it look like a lightning bolt flashing down his cheek and neck. He ducked back into the shadows, studied his unkempt yard for movement. It was the only lawn in the neighborhood that always needed cutting, because Eric was the only one in the neighborhood who refused to either hire a gardener or buy a mower. Gary Thompson, the dentist next door, had pleaded to send his own gardener over at no cost, but Eric had refused, claiming that long grass kept the dogs from shitting in his yard. "Long grass tickles their ass," he'd recite deadpan. Whenever Eric thought the lawn was out of hand, he packed up Annie and the kids and took them away for the weekend. When they came back, their lawn was always clipped, the bushes trimmed, the weeds pulled.
He couldn't see anyone down there, but that didn't mean anything. Dirk Fallows could have hidden a dozen fully equipped men in a single tree for a week and no one would have seen them.
Another creak on the stairs. Barely audible. Like a grasshopper being snapped in half. The intruder was halfway up now, taking it slowly, carefully. A few more moments and he'd be on the second floor. But would he go for the children's room first, or would Fallows be satisfied just killing Eric?
A weapon. Eric glanced furiously around the room, evaluating and dismissing various objects, studying each for its potential to cripple or kill. The old instincts rushing back. Certainly whoever was creeping up the stairs this moment had a weapon, something sophisticated. That was Fallows' style. Only the best would do. And he could get it too, from any where in the world. The newest, the deadliest.
But Eric had long ago made a house rule, a command really, that no weapons would be brought into his home. He didn't mind the kids playing cowboys or cops or Robin Hood with their toy guns and bows, but no real weapons. He didn't like the tension they caused, the constant feeling of being under siege their mere presence evoked. He'd lived with that feeling long enough. He wanted to trust for a change. Trust his neighborhood, his town, his community. He'd destroyed his own guns, the relics of his past life. The knives, daggers, bayonets, throwing stars, garrotes, razor-edged belt buckles-all melted down. The holsters and military webbing he'd given to his brother-in-law, who handled costumes for the local community playhouse. The last time he'd seen his precious.45 holster, it was inappropriately strapped to a sailor in their production of Mister Roberts.
Only his longbow survived, a sentimental gift from Big Bill Tenderwolf. He'd had it for almost twenty years now, though it had been at least two since he'd actually shot it. He didn't even think of it as a weapon anymore. It was more. Much more. But it was hanging in the garage, right next to the fishing rods and tennis racquets and ping-pong paddles.
Now he had nothing. Not even a pocket knife.
He glanced at the doorknob. Watched it slowly turning. Turning.
Ten seconds from death.
That's how long Eric figured it would take the intruder to finish quietly turning the knob. Once open he would lift gently on the knob, tilting the door upwards to avoid any squeaks from the hinges, then ease himself into the bedroom. The gun, probably a small automatic fitted with a sound suppressor, would suddenly swing around and start spraying the bed with a hailstorm of silenced bullets. They'd make light popping sounds, like a dropped soap bar echoing in a shower stall. Annie's body would jerk and flop as the bullets punched out hunks of soft flesh, still smelling of Oil of Olay, her nightly ritual to ward off this year's big crisis: her thirty-fifth birthday. The mattress, which they'd been talking about replacing for months, would be shredded, and the sheets, factory seconds bought at the local swap meet, would be splattered with warm blood, bits of sticky organs still twitching. Afterwards, the gunman would probably pay a similar visit to the children's room before slipping out again to report everything to Dirk Fallows. Subjects neutralized. Mission completed. And Fallows would slap the man on the back, run a hand through his prematurely white hair, and grin like a new buzz saw hungry for more wood.
Eric stood in the middle of the room, his naked body frozen in place. He stared vacantly at the turning doorknob as if in a trance. For once he understood what paralyzed the field mouse as it watched the cobra hunching over it. Not fear really, but fascination. Curiosity. The temptation to be a willing participant in your own death. To observe it even as you experienced it. No more nightmares. No more waiting for Fallows.
But that wasn't Eric's way. He loved life too much, and not just his own, but Annie's and the kids'. Everything was finally coming together for them. The job as assistant professor of history at the university, something far removed from the savage life he used to lead. Annie's classes at law school, just two months short of graduation. And they'd made lots of friends since moving to southern California. Sailing with the Carmichaels. Their monthly poker game, in which Annie usually won more than he did. Good schools. Some indication that twelve-year-old Timmy may be a chess prodigy. Fourteen-year-old Jennifer's braces almost ready to come off, boys' names etched carefully on her notebook.
They deserved better than having their lives stolen by Dirk Fallows.
Eric felt his lean muscles tighten, almost ripple with concentration as he quickly found what he'd been looking for. Back against the wall was his set of barbells, a Father's Day gift from the kids bought with money they'd actually saved, the first time they hadn't asked for a six-month advance on their allowance. If for no other reason than that, the gift was special. When he'd unwrapped it, he'd looked at Annie first, who'd laughed her whooping crane laugh and shrugged elaborately.
"Just what are you trying to tell me, guys?"
"Well, Daddy," Jennifer had said, "you have been getting a little pot belly lately."
"Yeah, Dad," Timmy had nodded. "You're starting to pork out. What happened to all your muscles?"
In fact, Eric Ravensmith was practically solid muscle. His arms were long and sinewy, his legs bronzed bulges, his chest lanky but hard. True, his stomach, once flat and rippled, like the top of a six-pack, had begun to puff a little lately, the ridges slightly less defined. But Eric was pleased about that. He was purposely cultivating a little pouch, which he hoped would someday bloom into fleshy love handles around his waist. Not real fat, just a hint of the easy middle-class life of his neighbors. No more need to stay hard and alert.
Quietly, but with sharp easy movements, Eric bent over, twirled loose the setscrews on each end of the bar, and slid off the weights he'd used only twice, both times under the stern supervision of his children. He hefted the black bar to waist level, balancing its fifteen pounds of solid metal. It would do.
The doorknob had stopped turning. The door was opening.
Eric moved lightly across the floor, dodging around the corner of the small entranceway that boxed the door. If the intruder was properly trained, and there was every indication he was, he was pressed against the wall outside the door, his right hand holding the gun next to his face, his left hand turning the knob. That way if the intended victim saw the door opening and started blasting away, the intruder was still protected. There'd only be a second or two when the intruder would be exposed on the other side of the door. Eric waited, sniffed the faint sour smell of fresh gun oil.
The door opened further, slowly creeping wider. Six inches. Eight. A foot.
Then it stopped.
Eric jumped out from behind the corner, swung the six-foot-long bar straight back as far as he could, then thrust it forward like a battering ram with all his 175 pounds behind it. It exploded through the cheap plywood door, through one side and out the other, spraying splinters and chips of white paint. Then it hit something solid.
And the sickening sound of bones cracking. Ribs, from the sound of them, Eric thought, shoving the metal bar even harder. Twisting it roughly.
Annie leaped out of bed, staggered a moment as the blood rushed dizzily to her head. "Christ, Eric! What are you doing?" She snapped on the bedside lamp, knuckling her eyes. "This is a hell of a time to lift weights."
Eric yanked the bar back through the shattered door and flung it to the carpet where it landed with a heavy thud before clanging up against the dresser. Reaching around the door, he grabbed a handful of curly, greasy hair and jerked the injured man into the bedroom.
Surprised, in pain, and off-balance, the man tumbled into the room, his gun still out in the hall where he'd dropped it. He was dressed in jeans, black high-top sneakers, plaid flannel shirt, and black windbreaker. Twenty-three at most.
The windbreaker and shirt were torn where the bar had crushed the ribs, and some blood was oozing out. The kid was breathing heavily, but with a raspy echo, as if the air was leaking out somewhere. He was on one knee now, easing the long hunting knife from under his pant leg,
"Mom?" Jennifer's sleepy voice drifted down the hall.
"Eric?" Annie said, standing naked and unembarrassed next to the bed.
"Go see to the kids," Eric said. "I'll handle this."
"Don't move, lady," the kid said, shuffling forward in a crouch. The knife waved back and forth in front of him.
Eric crouched too, his hands open, constantly moving.
The kid jabbed tentatively and Eric danced out of the way. "Pretty good," the kid grinned, a film of sweat glistening on his upper lip. "But they said you would be." The kid chuckled, started coughing a racking cough, doubled over. Eric, hoping to take advantage, rushed closer.
Suddenly the kid straightened up and lunged at Eric, the heavy knife slicing air with a menacing whistle. Eric pulled back too quickly, almost falling. His arms windmilled a couple times before he regained enough balance to sidestep another thrust. The kid had suckered him with a fake coughing spell, and he'd bought it. Almost permanently.
The kid looked annoyed with himself for having expended so much precious energy and missing. He winced at the pain in his chest, pressed a bloody hand against the wound. More blood seeped between his fingers. He sighed, which sounded as if something loose was rattling inside of him.
"Mom," Timmy called from somewhere in the hall. "What's all the noise?"
"Timmy," Annie shouted, "you stay right there! Don't come any closer!"
"Get out of here," Eric snapped at her. "Take the kids and run."
"Like hell," she said and, grabbing two fistfuls of blanket, jerked it off the bed and tried to fling it over the kid with the knife.
However, the electric cord attached to the blanket kept it from going very far, and it collapsed in a deflated heap over the edge of the bed.
But the distraction was enough. When the kid turned at Annie's movements, Eric managed to snap his heel into the kid's knee, felt the kneecap buckle, the fragile bone crunching as it disintegrated. As the kid sagged, Eric drove his elbow into the kid's temple, at the same time grabbing his wrist and twisting until the knife plopped to the carpet. Afterwards he gave an extra twist until the wrist snapped too.
Annie ran forward and snatched the knife from the floor, ready to plunge it into the kid's heart should Eric need any help. "You okay?"
Eric looked at her standing next to him, naked, mussed long hair hanging to her hips, a hunting knife clutched in her hand. She looked… formidable. He smiled. "I'm fine. Better see to the kids."
"Right," she nodded, heading for the door. As an afterthought she snagged her robe from the clothes tree and slipped it on.
"That was some little trick there," Eric said.
"Throwing the blanket that way. Like a bullfighter or something."
She shrugged. "I forgot about the cord. It missed him by three feet."
"That was close enough."
"You weren't so bad yourself, tough guy," she grinned, her hand pressed against her chest. "My heart feels like it's going to jump out of my mouth. I'd better call the police."
"Just get the kids tucked in first. Wait twenty minutes, then call them."
"Eric?" She sounded frightened.
"I want to ask him some questions first."
"What kind of questions, Eric? He's just a lousy burglar, for Christ's sake."
She looked at him. "You're starting to scare me."
Eric stared at the kid writhing on the floor. "Get some of that Woolite rug cleaner. He's bleeding on the carpet."
She stepped into the hall, came back a few seconds later carrying a gun. She handed it to Eric. "Will you need this?"
He recognized it as a Ruger RST-4.22 with an AWC sound suppressor attached. "I might." He looked down at the kid. "It depends on him."
The kid stared back, the pain forgotten for a moment. Replaced by fear.
The first thing Fisher noticed about Eric was the scar.
The way it snaked up out of the collar of his shirt like a thin, white vine, clung along the edge of his jaw a few inches, then bloomed into a sunburst pattern just below the right cheek. Like a dandelion ironed to the skin. It was almost pretty, Fisher thought. Almost.
Fisher forced his eyes up from the scar into Eric's eyes. That was worse. The eyes were a flat reddish-brown, like his girlfriend's hair after she put that henna shit on it. Fisher's hand automatically grazed the butt of his S amp;W.38 bolstered to his hip.
"Name?" he asked, his voice louder than he'd wanted.
Eric glanced at Fisher's plastic name tag, then into his eyes. Since the night that punk had invaded his home eight weeks ago, Eric scrutinized everything. Everyone. "Haven't seen you before."
Fisher studied Eric's clothes. Expensive, but not flashy. He rated a sir. "No, sir. First day."
"Gus picked up some kind of bug. Flu, I think. Hong Kong or Singapore or one of those kind that sound more like a vacation than a disease."
Fisher frowned. He'd thought that last little comment deserved at least a smile. He prided himself on his sense of humor. After all, he wasn't like most of the other dumb guards in the company. He had a college education, a degree in anthro-fucking-pology. He'd always wanted to discover some primitive tribe hidden from civilization for centuries. Wouldn't that be something? First white man among all the bare-fitted women he could handle. But when he'd graduated, it was hard to find someone who'd pay him to look for lost tribes and bare tits. Still, he was doing all right for now. Getting by.
When they'd called him this morning to take over for Gus, he'd been thrilled. Working the D.A.'s office was a plum. Used to be only cops did that duty, but what with budget cuts and all, they figured it'd be cheaper to hire private guards. Fisher could understand that. The pay sucked. And you had to buy your own uniforms and those ugly black patent leather shoes. But the work wasn't too hard and he made enough to make payments on his Camaro and still keep Debbie supplied with that henna crap and an occasional lid of domestic grass. Besides, he grinned, she got horny as hell when he practiced his fast-draw at home.
"Anyway, Gus'll probably be back by the end of the week."
Eric nodded again and started through the door.
"Wait a second, man," Fisher said, blocking the way with his clipboard. "You forgot to tell me your name."
"Ravensmith. Eric Ravensmith."
"Oh, right," Fisher sighed. "The Fallows trial. Go right in."
The handsome, middle-aged woman stabbing her pencil into the electric sharpener looked up and smiled. "Good morning, Mr. Ravensmith."
"Hi, Lynn." Eric tried to make his voice pleasant, but it just came out flat and dry. "F. Lee Bailey in?"
"Yes, but don't let him hear you call him that. He and Mr. Bailey were adversaries once in court, not friendly ones either. Calls him Beetle Bailey."
Eric pushed open the inner office door and walked in. Luther Nichols sat behind his desk and fired a rubber band at Eric. It bounced off his chest.
"What's that for?" Eric asked.
"I heard that F. Lee Bailey remark, buster."
"Do you prefer Melvin Belli?"
"The one they call King of Tarts?"
"I think that's torts."
"Ha! The only torte he knows is the kind you eat. That son of a bitch weighs more than you, me and Lynn. The Incredible Bulk."
Eric stooped over and picked up the rubber band. His face was grim as he flopped down into the chair next to the assistant district attorney's desk.
"You look like shit," Luther said.
"Thanks. I needed that."
"There's no point in getting morose. They won't announce the verdict for another hour."
"How do you think it'll go?"
Luther shrugged. "The operation was a success, let's just hope the patient doesn't die."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means we ran a smooth trial. We traced the Simpleton kid-"
"A rose by any other name. Anyway, we traced him back to Fallows. Proved the gun was supplied by Fallows. That ought to be worth something."
Eric shook his head, rubbed his chin. "I blew it, didn't I?"
"Well, it didn't help that you'd used a cheese grater on the kid's face to make him talk. Him sitting on the stand with the scabs still showing on his cheek didn't advance our case. Or that broken wrist. Something about a cast makes a jury nervous. Besides, most of what you found out was inadmissible."
"I had to, Luther," Eric nodded, his voice firm, unapologetic. "I had to know that Fallows was behind it. I couldn't take the chance."
'The cops couldn't have made him talk. He'd have just sat there until Fallows' lawyer came. At least my way I knew for sure."
Luther didn't say anything. This wasn't the time. He rearranged a wisp of thin, blond hair back on top of his balding head. "Give me your honest impression. Am I balder now than when this trial started?"
Eric looked up at him, smiled in spite of himself. "Yeah, that one strand that went from ear to ear is gone. I think I saw it fall during summation."
"Damn, I knew I shouldn't have hit the table for emphasis. The shock waves probably loosened it at the root."
Eric stared into Luther's face, studying each crease and wrinkle. He was an assistant D.A. in a year when the D.A. was running for mayor of Los Angeles. This case had been too hot for a politician to handle personally, so it had been passed along the ranks to Luther Nichols, destined to be an assistant D.A. for the rest of his life. No political instincts, at least none he cared to do anything about. A tall, stooped man whose suits were always wrinkled, too loose, and ten years out of style. Still, he was a good man, respected by other lawyers, adored by his employees. But Eric could see he was lying.
"Come on, Luther. What aren't you telling me?"
Luther hunched over the pile of briefs on his desk, pretended to look for something. "What do you mean, Eric?"
"I mean, I didn't say anything when you first brought a security guard into this case to stand outside the office. But then I took a midnight drive past your house a couple nights ago and-"
"I drove by and saw the plainclothes guy in the Honda parked along the street. Now there's some dumb-ass kid out there who says Gus is supposed to have some kind of flu. What haven't you been telling me?"
Luther took a deep breath, let the air out slowly. Repeated it a couple times, pressing his long fingers against his stomach. "Biofeedback technique," he said. "Supposed to calm me."
"Don't I look calm?" He leaned back into his chair, swiveled around to look out the grime-streaked window behind him. The view of Parking Lot B wasn't worth the effort. "Gus is dead. Thrown through the window of his third floor apartment late last night. Neck was broken."
"Maybe, but there's no proof. Gus reported some threats last week. Someone wanted him to take a walk at a certain time, leave the office unguarded. He refused."
'That's Fallows all right. Probably intended to plant a bomb."
"That's what I figured. So I had a guard put on my home."
"Better get a different one. Yours stinks. Any of Fallows' men could spot him a block away. They'd slit his throat before he even knew he was dying."
"I can't send my family away like you did, Eric."
"Because this isn't the first time we've been threatened. Every so often I get a case in which somebody thinks they can scare me off. Believe me, I'm easily scared. Threats make me constipated. Worse than cheese." The grin fell from his face, replaced by a worried frown. "If anything happened to my family because of my stubbornness, I don't know what I'd do. But I can't pack them away every time some nut shouts boo at me."
"Fallows is no nut, Luther. He's crazy, but not a nut."
"Do you? Let me tell you something about him, Luther."
"I know all about him. I read the transcripts of the court-martial. At least, what was left after they cut out all the classified information. It was sickening."
"Yeah, well even unclassified that transcript didn't tell half the story. I haven't even told Annie everything. If I had, we'd both be waking up in a cold sweat every night."
Luther leaned back into his chair and clasped his bony fingers together. He'd gotten to know Eric pretty well during the two months of this trial. They'd lunched together almost every day. And Eric had come over for some of Trudi's home cooking at least twice a week. But there was some distant part of himself that Eric had always kept locked away. Oh, he was polite and friendly, charming as hell-there wasn't a woman in the place, including Trudi, who didn't let her eyes linger a little wistfully on Eric's hard physique and rough-hewn good looks. But he wasn't the kind of man to spill his guts at the drop of a hat as seemed to be fashionable these days. Luther looked into Eric's flat reddish-brown eyes that had grown flatter and colder during the course of the trial, and waited for him to speak. Though Luther had been in Nam for only six weeks before taking a Cong slug in the leg and being shipped back home, he knew that when a man like Eric was going to talk about the war, then that was something special.
"You already know some of this," Eric said, staring out the dirty window as if he were watching it all being replayed on videotape. "I mean about my parents and all."
Luther said nothing, listened intently.
"I grew up in Arizona, the part that looks like a Hollywood set for post-nuclear war America. The main agricultural product was sand. My dad was an ex-marine, complete with tattoos of snakes and dragons and naked women on each arm."
"Sounds tough," Luther said.
Eric laughed. "Yeah, he was tough, but not mean. He was short, barely qualified for the service, but strong as hell. Even his ear lobes had muscles. Tried a lot of different jobs. Car salesman. Beer-bottling factory. Even tried prospecting. Just wasn't cut out to make much money. Took him a lot of years to figure that out, though. Was almost forty before he found out what he really was."
"No. An artist. Yeah, shocked the hell out of him too. Soon as he realized that, he married, had me, and started in carving the mountains into giant sculptures of Indian chiefs. Mom taught archaeology at the university, then drove home after classes. Every night he'd take us hiking up to the mountain to check on his daily progress. Never looked much different to me, just a lot of jutting rock, but the two of them discussed it for hours until it got so I could see it too.
"We lived right near the Hopi reservation. Since Dad was carving a Hopi chief, they were pretty friendly with us. I grew up with their kids, learned a lot about their customs, rituals, beliefs. Their chief, Big Bill Tenderwolf, used to take me on long hikes and teach me about the desert. How to survive. Find food and water. Fight. I never thought too much about it until I got drafted into the army during the war."
"I thought you'd enlisted."
"No way. My father would have killed me. You know the story, 'Don't make the same mistake I did, son.' Anyway, his health wasn't very good anyway, so I took a year off after high school to help him carve his damn mountain. Twelve hours a day on the business end of a jackhammer and you start to wonder if you've done some permanent damage to your privates. That's when I got drafted. After an armload of tests, some hotshot loaded down with medals and ribbons came around and lectured me on the Green Berets. It sounded more interesting than what I was doing so I volunteered. Only I washed out after two months."
Luther looked surprised. "You washed out?"
Eric snapped the rubber band in his hand and smiled. "A discipline problem. Oh, it wasn't their fault. They bent over backwards to keep me in. Practically let me shove broomsticks up their noses. But it just didn't work out. Seems I didn't like people telling me what to do. Hell, I was only nineteen and I'd had my fill of the military just listening to Dad's stories. I got surly, 'rebellious' is the word they used, whenever some fat-assed sergeant would tell me to give him fifty pushups because I didn't drink my coffee fast enough. So they transferred me to another outfit." He paused, his face darkening. "Something called the Night Shift."
Luther's throat went dry. After only a couple days in Nam he'd heard some men whispering about a special squad of men even more highly trained than the Green Berets. They were especially ruthless, given jobs that no one else could do. Hell, no one else would do. When orders came through that were especially suicidal, the standard line among the men was, "Save it for the Night Shift." Or when they marched through some enemy camp and found a hundred dead Cong scattered around the ground in puddles of blood, then someone would say, "Looks like the Night Shift cleaning up again." No one was ever pointed out as being one, no one ever asked. They were around somewhere, and you felt better knowing they were on your side.
"We were a strange group," Eric nodded, his lips drawn thinly into something like a smile. "The best of the worst. Hardcases. Guys who didn't like to follow orders, like me. Guys who could kill you with the flick of one finger and then build a portable radio from parts of your body. We were trained in every possible skill there was, from flying to diving to mountain climbing. And they were pretty lax about giving orders. For awhile. Until they plucked us out of our training camp in Florida one Saturday during the World Series and dropped us in the middle of some Vietnamese jungle. Then our new C.O. told us his policy: either follow his orders or he'd leave us to die. One of the new men, a joker named Kelley, thought he was kidding and snickered. The C.O. spun around and clubbed him with his rifle butt until he was unconscious. Then he moved the rest of us out and left Kelley lying there to die."
"I read Kelley's testimony," Luther said. "You carried him all day until camp was made."
Eric shrugged. "If it had happened a month later, I might not have been so eager. Still, the C.O. had me stand watch all night for a week because of it. That was my first run-in with Col. Dirk Fallows. The rest of the war was more of the same. Hit and git, Fallows called it. We'd swoop into a camp and kill everything that moved, then mutilate the corpses to scare the rest of the Cong. That was Fallows' brainchild," He took a deep breath, fired the rubber band against the window. "We were pretty successful, though we lost a lot of men. Still, we hurt them and hurt them bad. Fallows was the best jungle fighter I'd ever seen, and after awhile the men would do anything he said. The ultimate discipline is to turn your men into disciples. And we were."
"I never liked him, not like the others. But I knew my only chance for survival was to do what I was told."
"Until that Sunday morning. The day of the Easter Massacre."
"Yeah, until then. Hell, you read the report, you know what happened. The civilian village. Fallows crucifying dogs first then old men, finally women and children. Trying to get information from them that we already had. 'Just teaching them the meaning of Easter,' he'd laugh, 'like the Easter bunny.' I tried to stop him. Got this for my trouble." He touched the scar, traced it lightly with his fingertips along his neck, jaw, cheek. "A bayonet heated over a fire can do some serious damage. He crucified half the village before he got bored and moved on, leaving me behind, tied up in an enemy village whose people he'd just tortured and killed, I thought I was dead for sure. But they knew why I'd been left behind and they let me go. Without food or water or my gun. They figured under the circumstances they were being generous enough. I couldn't argue. It took me two weeks to make it back to one of our camps."
"And that's when you reported the crucifixions?"
"Yeah. But no one wanted to hear about them. None of the officers I talked to admitted to ever hearing of the Night Shift or Col. Dirk Fallows. It took awhile, but eventually I found a lieutenant general who wasn't afraid to press the matter. It went to a court-martial and it was my word against the rest of the entire squad. Except Kelley. I guess we looked sincere, because they sentenced that son of a bitch to twenty the hard way. Only they forgot to throw away the key and he got out in twelve. Five months ago."
"They should've told you. Warned you. "
"Yeah. Me and Kelley. I phoned him the same night the Sempleton kid broke into my house. No answer. He hasn't shown up for work or been seen by anyone since that night."
"Maybe he heard something, took off," Luther said weakly.
"Maybe. In the meantime, Annie and the kids are stashed someplace safe. My mom, however, wouldn't leave her students."
There was a morose pause, one Luther needed to fill. "How's she like teaching in the same university as her son?"
"A mother's dream, even if it meant leaving Arizona after Dad's death. She refers to her teaching here as 'enlightening the surfing masses.' "
"Isn't that supposed to be suffering masses?"
'This is California."
Luther laughed. "Right."
Eric looked at his watch. "About that time."
"Let me wash up and I'll be right with you." Luther stood up, brushed a few wrinkles from a hopelessly creased jacket, and strode off into his private bathroom.
Eric felt the film of sweat that had formed on his face as he'd recounted his past-Nam, the Easter Massacre, Dirk Fallows-and felt the sudden need to wash too, scrub himself clean. He went out the door, passed Lynn, who had the phone tucked between ear and shoulder. He started to mime a few words.
"It's okay," she said. "They've got me on hold."
"Tell Perry Mason I'll be back in a couple minutes."
He opened the door, saw the young guard, Fisher, snap to a kind of attention, then seeing it wasn't his boss, sort of sag against the door jamb again. "Kinda slow today," Fisher nodded with a lazy grin.
"The big rush doesn't start for another five minutes. That's when the mayor usually comes by."
"Really?" Fisher said, straightening up, tugging at his tie, tucking his shirt in.
Eric walked silently down the hall. Everyone else walking down the hall made little clicking noises or squeaking sounds depending on the kind of shoes they were wearing. Eric made no noise at all.
How's he do that? Fisher wondered as Eric ducked into the men's room.
"Weird," Fisher shrugged, slumping back against the wall as he decided the mayor bit was probably a gag. He went back to his usual activity, trying to figure how many more hours he had to work to earn enough to buy a new Sony Walkman. He could hardly wait. Then he could wire up when he went jogging, listen to Foreigner and Blondie. Or when he was hitting tennis balls against the wall, practicing his ground stroke. Jackson Browne would be good for ground strokes. That's what was so neat about those things. You could have the right kind of background music for whatever you did. Like in the movies. It made everything you did seem more dramatic. Like Travolta walking down the street to "Stayin' Alive" in Saturday Night Fever. Now it would be Daryl Fisher jogging along the beach to "Heart of Glass."
Fisher was so excited by the prospect that he didn't notice the two men in three-piece suits carrying briefcases as they walked by him. Didn't notice them nod to each other, then slip into the men's room behind Eric.
Eric splashed the cold water on his face. It sent a little jolt down his spine and he felt better. Refreshed. He reached up blindly, yanked a paper towel from the shiny holder and wiped his face, harder than necessary. The skin turned red from the rough treatment, except for the scar. When he rubbed over that he felt nothing, no sensation whatsoever. DMZ. That's what the army surgeon in Nam had called it. Dead Meat Zone.
He heard the door open behind him, the hydraulic rush and sigh as it started to close again. He caught a glimpse of the two husky men in the mirror as he balled up the soggy towel and tossed it into the trash can.
Then he heard the popping of briefcase snaps and he knew there was trouble. He spun to face the two men.
"You caused us some trouble on this one, Ravensmith," the tall blond man drawled. "Had to shave my beard and all. Even borrow me a three-piece suit so's I'd look like one of the monkeys what usually hangs around here."
While the blond talked, his partner pried open his briefcase and pulled out a pair of heavy wooden nunchakus. He grasped them in one hand and balanced the briefcase on the sink.
"Not only that," the blond continued, scratching the red bumps under his chin where he'd shaved, "but they got goddamned metal detectors in the fucking lobby. Can't hardly get a fingernail clipper past them, let alone a decent gun. Believe me, Ravensmith, we'd have rather used a gun than this slant gizmo, but we ain't got much choice."
"And neither do you," his partner grinned.
The blond was the bigger of the two by four inches and twenty pounds, so he went over to the door, grabbed the handle, and wedged the toe of his penny loafer under the door, leaning his weight forward to prevent anyone from coming in.
"Make it fast, Sam," he told the smaller man. "I still gotta pick up my old lady from the fucking dentist."
Sam crouched slightly, his legs apart for balance. One handle was draped over his shoulder, the other gripped firmly in his right hand. The short length of chain that connected the two hunks of wood lay on top of his shoulder. All he had to do now was snap his wrist and the rear handle would come flying at Eric with a lethal velocity.
Eric quickly whipped off his tie, grasping an end in each hand. He held it taut in front of him, ready to parry. At best it was a temporary defense, good enough to withstand a couple blows, but not nearly enough to save his life.
Sam did not grin or smile or look smug. His small dark eyes shone with concentration as he moved forward. His short, black hair bristled from the air-conditioned breeze blowing in through the overhead vent. When he finally moved, everything was a blur of whirling action.
First he spun the nunchaku from over his left shoulder, swinging it in a wide arc and catching the handle with his left hand. Eric surprised himself by remembering the name of the movement. Kata-Sukashi. Reverse shoulder swing. After that Sam went through a series of impressive movements. Cross swing and change (Suihei-Gaeshi). Figure eight swing (Hachiji-Gaeshi). Cross back swing (Fudo-Gaeshi), And a couple more that happened so quickly Eric couldn't identify them. But one thing was certain, Sam knew what he was doing.
"Stop fucking around, Sam," the big, blond man said with disgust, scratching his neck again. "This ain't no movie and you ain't no fucking Bruce Lee. Just kill the sonofabitch and let's get the fuck outta here."
"Right," Sam said, allowing himself a little smile now that he'd shown his stuff.
Then he started after Eric.
Fisher calculated that, considering withholding tax, Social Security, union dues, and stuff like that, he could probably buy the Sony Walkman by next week. It meant working a few more hours to get it, but he knew what he wanted. None of those pissant Sanyos or Panasonics. It had to be a Sony. The One and Only.
He wondered if there was a way to hook it up so he could listen to it while on duty. Not with the headphones or anything so conspicuous, but maybe run an earplug down his sleeve so he could just put his palm next to his ear, like he was thinking or something, and listen to the music.
" 'Wko-o-oa, listen to the music,' " he sang quietly. He liked it when real thoughts were the same as lyrics. It was neat to sing your thoughts instead of just think them.
He hummed a few more lines from the song while he watched another guy in a three-piece suit try to go into the men's room, but unable to budge the door, give up and head for the elevator.
"Wimp," Fisher said, tried to think of a song with wimp in it, couldn't, went back to humming "Listen to the Music."
A couple seconds later another man tried the door. This guy was pretty husky, wore a ratty sports jacket and white socks with black slacks and black scuffed shoes. Obviously a defendant, Fisher grinned. B amp;E, maybe, or Grand Theft Auto. Needed to take a leak before he spilled his guts to his PD, probably some young Jew who drove a Porsche, paying his dues before joining his Dad's big Beverly Hills law practice. Those people had it wired, man. Not that Fisher had anything against Jews, hell, he almost screwed one in college. But you had to wonder about them.
The husky guy shook the door, bumped it with his shoulder, kicked it with his foot. Still it wouldn't budge. Finally he kicked it again, swore, and stomped off to the stairs.
"Jerk," Fisher mumbled, then went back to humming. Yet it was odd. The door being stuck. Hadn't he seen that Ravensmith guy go in a minute ago. And he seemed to remember somebody else going in too. Maybe they were stuck inside. He could go over and check it out, but he really shouldn't leave his post. Besides, stuck doors was a janitor's job, not his.
Still, it was funny.
"Quick kill, damn it, Sam!"
"It will be."
"Then do it. I wanna get home for the second half of the Lakers-Celtics game." The blond shifted his bulk, exchanging feet under the door. "That's the second bastard who tried to get in here. I'm not gonna be able to keep the whole fucking floor outta here."
"Just a few seconds more," Sam assured him, sliding toward Eric, one handle of the nunchakus tucked under his right arm.
Eric backed up a few steps, the ends of his tie still wound around each hand and stretched out in front of him like a clothesline. That the man called Sam was obviously well trained in martial arts didn't disturb Eric too much. He too had been trained in various fighting disciplines, though he'd never enjoyed martial arts. All that bowing and waiting and kneeling seemed to Eric just another kind of army rules, only the uniforms were white and you got to wear a colored belt. Besides, those karate and kung fu masters lacked any sense of humor. They took themselves so damned seriously, not like the Hopis who'd taught him Indian fighting. He could see the attraction, though, for a lot of the guys. The rigid rituals, the feeling of belonging to an elite group. It's the same technique Fallows used with his men, turning them into a kind of religious cult.
In the Green Berets every martial arts teacher had hollered at Eric for sloppy form and technique. Though he defeated every opponent, they never let up on him, trying to force him to do it "the proper way." The hell with that, Eric had told them, they weren't there to perfect an art, but to learn how to protect themselves. It didn't matter how perfect your form was, just who was left alive at the end.
Toward that end he'd developed his own way of fighting. A potpourri of various combat skills that combined the oriental martial arts, western boxing, and Indian fighting methods. He borrowed a little from each, altering, combining, changing into a form that maximized his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. Big Bill Tenderwolf had seen it at work once in a Santa Fe barroom brawl and instantly dubbed it the Retreating Attack.
Eric hadn't thought of it in those terms before, but that was as close to describing it as two words could come. It required intense concentration to master, but the premise was simple. Eric merely imagined that he and his attacker were attached at the navel by a cord within arm's reach of each other. Therefore, when the opponent attacked, Eric could dodge the blow, but he had to maintain that arm's distance between them. No more than that. Which meant any move to avoid a blow had to end up in an attack position, culminating in a blow returned. "Don't give me none of that fancy talk," Big Bill Tenderwolf had shaken his huge, grinning head when Eric had tried to explain it. "It's a simple enough idea: No aggression goes unpunished. Tit for tat."
And once again, the Hopi chief with his M.B.A. from UCLA had understood even better than Eric. Make the attacker pay for every miss and he will become hesitant, tentative. Afraid.
But those moves required split-second timing, excellent conditioning, practice. Eric Ravensmith was still in good shape, but he hadn't hit another man in twelve years. All his speed was used to chase tennis balls that Annie blasted out of the court with her wild backhand.
"Don't make this harder on yourself than necessary," Sam told him, inching closer, "Just let it happen. One whack with these and, pow, it's all over."
The blond nodded sadly, as if they were discussing a great retiring athlete. "It's gotta be, man."
Suddenly the heavy wooden handle was flipping through the air, tumbling toward Eric's face. He slipped to the side, raising his hands, trying to snare the handle with his tie. But he was too slow. The handle glanced off his wrist, immediately numbing it. The pain rattled up his arm like an old locomotive, ending with a throbbing pain at the back of his neck.
His wrist went from numb to burning, until he hardly had the strength to hold the end of the tie with it. But somehow he did, gliding back against the tiled wall as the long wooden handle somersaulted toward him again.
Eric ducked, heard the loud crash as the heavy wood bounced off tile. Felt some of the plaster grouting sprinkle down on his head. Then he heard the whoosh of the handle again and felt the sudden pain on his back like a building collapsing on him. Eric dropped to the floor, butt first.
"I got him," Sam exclaimed. "I nailed the sonofabitch."
Eric looked up, saw everything as if through thin gauze. Recognized Sam hovering over him, about to snap those damn things into his head.
Somehow he found the strength, almost as if he wasn't even doing it himself. As if there was some part of Eric that was operating on its own, on automatic pilot. Like in Nam. Whatever part it was, Eric's legs suddenly swept in a wide arc and knocked Sam's feet out from under him. Sam's arms flew up, sent the nunchakus sailing into a mirror with a loud, shattering crash, and Sam finally slamming onto the tiled floor in front of Eric. Close enough for Eric to thrust his heel into Sam's chin and watch Sam's head crack against the floor.
The burly blond man at the door came running. He snatched up the nunchakus as Eric struggled to his feet, inching his back up along the wall.
"Fucking bastard," he growled, lifting them like a club over his head as he charged Eric.
The hydraulic rush sounded as the door opened and Daryl Fisher walked in. When he saw Sam sprawled out on the floor, the broken glass, the big blond man wielding nunchakus, and Eric Ravensmith holding a tie in front of him, he could only gape and mumble, "What the hell-?"
They were his last words.
The big blond whirled around, flinging one handle of the nunchakus out, still holding the other. The handle whipped around with a sizzling hiss, then thunked into the back of Fisher's skull. Fisher's eyes went wide as his body arched backwards, stayed suspended a moment, then fell face-first against the hard tile floor. A dull crack echoed through the room at the impact as Fisher's nose splattered and his broken teeth scattered across the tiles. Blood erupted like lava out of his collapsed skull, streaming down the back of his neck and onto the white floor, washing a chip of skull away like a tiny white raft.
The blond man spun back toward Eric. "Before it was for Fallows, Ravensmith. Now it's for me." His clenched teeth glistened with saliva, his eyes shone with hate. He charged forward, the nunchakus spinning over his head like a helicopter blade.
Eric felt the urge to panic. Could taste panic bubbling up in his throat, a bitter oily taste. It made him want to run, make a desperate dash for the door, or yell at the top of his lungs. But that would do no good now. He had to fight. And to do so he had to be in control of himself, remember how he used to do it.
He quickly reached down and snatched a jagged hunk of broken mirror from the floor. The blond man took a swipe at Eric as he stooped, but Eric easily dodged the blow. As he straightened up, he wrapped his tie around half the piece of mirror, forming a handle that he grasped firmly in his right hand. The piece that protruded was six inches long, hooked like an eagle's beak.
The door pushed open.
"…the same old shit, I told him. And he turns to me with that ass-kissing grin of his and-" The man doing the talking looked at the scene in front of him and swallowed something hard. "J-Jesus, Bill."
Bill winced, grabbed his friend's elbow and yanked him out of the room. The door sighed shut.
"They'll bring help," Eric said quietly. "In a couple minutes cops will be blocking every exit. You've had it, man."
The blond man nibbled nervously on his thick lower lip, the nunchakus losing some velocity as he considered his problem.
"Just leave now," Eric coaxed. "I won't try to stop you."
"Like hell you won't."
"I mean it. Why should I? It's Fallows I want. Besides, why should I risk it?" He shrugged contemptuously at the small piece of mirror in his hand.
The blond blinked rapidly.
"Come on, there's not much time."
"You give me your word?" the blond asked.
"You've got it."
"You won't try to stop me?"
"I gave you my word."
The husky blond dropped the nunchakus and burst out the door, hurrying down the corridor toward the stairs.
Eric scrambled across the unconscious body of Sam, tugged free the gun on the dead body of Fisher, and leaped out the door after the blond.
The blond man was nearing the stairs as Eric shouted his warning, "Stop, or I'll shoot." It was a shout intended less for the blond man than for the people walking along the corridor. They looked at Eric, saw him lowering the gun, and immediately dropped to the floor, some of them screaming for help.
The blond man glanced over his shoulder, saw Eric crouching, both hands gripping the handle of the.38 S amp;W, and tasted that same bitter flavor of panic Eric had. He paused a fraction of a second, considering his options. To surrender or bolt for the stairs?
It was during that pause that Eric shot him.
The screams increased at the sound of the explosion, then at the sight of the huge blond man stumbling forward. The bullet had only hit his hip, ripping flesh before glancing off the pelvic bone. He was hurt, but he was still moving toward the stairs.
Eric squeezed the trigger again. Click. Again. Click.
"Damn!" Click, click, click.
Fisher had only loaded the gun with one bullet, a sloppiness Eric should have suspected from the kid. He dropped the.38 and took off down the hall at full speed, his shoes whacking linoleum with a fierce rhythm.
The blond was at the edge of the stairs now, limping, dragging his left leg as blood soaked his gray pants with black stripes. He steadied himself on the brass railing as he maneuvered the first step.
But Eric was already there, leaping through the air with a flying kick that caught the blond on the shoulder and sent him toppling roughly down the marble stairs. Eric chased after the bouncing body, jumping three, four stairs at a time. Finally the blond man's arm hooked through the railing. The momentum snapped the forearm, but the broken limb remained wedged in the railing.
Eric yanked the arm free and dragged the groaning blond against the wall. The man's pudgy face was crumpled in pain as he panted, desperately sucking air. His face was torn and lumpy from the fall, his broken arm twisted at an impossible angle.
One eye was swollen shut. He squinted at Eric through the other. "You promised," he gasped. "You gave your word."
Eric's face remained expressionless, remote. "I lied."
"Case dismissed!" The judge whacked his gavel three times, a look of relief spreading across his heavy face as he sprang for the door to his chambers.
Several reporters bolted for the exit door, elbowing their colleagues to the side. The sketch artist from Channel 7 Eyewitness News dropped her Staedtler Mars-Lumograph 3H pencil and watched it disappear under two rows of trampling feet before someone stepped on it. Just as well, she thought. That was the one she'd used to sketch Dirk Fallows, and she had a strict rule, a superstition really, about such things. Once she sketched a man like him with a pencil, she never used it again. Actually threw it away as soon as possible. Silly, maybe. But she looked at brushes, pens and pencils as some kind of spiritual antennas, receivers of the spirit. And she didn't want Fallows' spirit any where near her. She gave a brief shiver and marched briskly toward the doors.
A thick shoulder from Steve Jennings at Channel 9 nudged her in the back and sent her tripping forward. Her hands groped ahead as she started to fall, her briefcase flying from her shoulder, the contents spilling beneath urgent feet.
Then a hand was holding her firmly by the shoulder and she was falling no more. The hand came from behind and at first she thought it was Jennings. But no, there he went out the door, bullying past the Times Metro reporter with as much grace as a waltzing lumberjack. She turned to thank the man, gasped slightly when she recognized him.
"Uh… I mean, thanks… uh, thanks, Mr. Ravensmith."
Eric didn't answer. He stooped down and somehow created a circle around her spilled briefcase. He didn't say anything to anyone, didn't touch anyone. His face wasn't threatening. Gentle, really, though after sketching him for two months, she knew that he was feeling anything but gentle right now.
He straightened up, carefully slipping her sketch pad back into her briefcase. "I'm afraid there are some footprints on the one of the coroner," he said.
"How'd you do that?" she said.
She made a stirring motion with her finger. "You know, get these animals to walk around you."
"Maybe it's my cologne," he said, but there was no smile on his face, in his reddish-brown eyes. In fact, he wasn't even looking at her, he was looking past her, over her shoulder. She knew at what, but turned to look anyway.
Col. Dirk Fallows.
He was standing, his lawyer smiling and chattering happily at him. But Fallows wasn't listening. He was staring past the crowd, burning a path through them with his pale blue eyes. So pale they almost seemed colorless. Yet, set in that long V-shaped face, framed by the premature white hair, they were strangely compelling.
How many times had she traced the rocky slopes of his face with her Staedtler 3H, shaded the hollows under his cheeks, struggled to get the cruelty in those thick, full lips? How could she convey the arrogant tilt of his head, the sneer that flashed across his face like the shadow of a passing bird? And hadn't she once or twice even thought it was a handsome face, in a fascist sort of way? She winced at such thoughts. Why does the moth fly so close to the flame, until singed and exhausted it lies, beating useless wings against a table top? Oh, Christ, here I go again, she sighed. Save it for your diary, babe, it's safer.
Not that Eric Ravensmith was much better. He was a good family man, at least according to a character witness, the Chairman of the History Department where he taught. "Well thought of was the phrase Dr. Leopold had used. But what about the black scabs on Joshua Sempleton's face. The cast on his wrist. The kid's testimony of how he was dragged across the kitchen floor, how coolly Ravensmith had popped open the dishwasher looking for something to torture the boy with. Finding a damn cheese grater, for Christ's sake. And the whole court was buzzing with something that had happened only minutes before today's session. A shooting of some sort. Ravensmith blasting away in a crowded corridor, killing a man, wounding a dozen bystanders. She noticed for the first time a smudge of dried blood on his pants leg.
Still, the two men stared at each other. Silent, yet intense. Like two sophisticated computers exchanging information. Both their faces remained rigid, expression less, except for the corner of Fallows' mouth. It twitched slightly, finally stretching into a tight, grim smile. The triumphant grin of a jackal about to bury its face into the innards of a slaughtered deer. She shuddered, pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders.
"I'm Tracy," she said finally, offering her hand. "Tracy Ammes."
Eric hesitated, his eyes still fixed. Then he shifted his head slightly, almost a nod. A nod of resolution, Tracy thought. Resolving what?
"Nice to meet you." He turned to face her, shook her hand.
"I appreciate the help. I'm a little clumsy sometimes."
"Perhaps, but not this time. I saw that guy blindside you."
"Well, Steve's motto is Do Unto Others Until Thou Art Rewarded With a Network Anchor Job." She'd never been this close to him before, never really seen how wicked that scar was, the way it sprouted up out of his collar, wound around his jaw like a jungle river, then pooled against his cheek in that strange pattern. It must hurt, she thought.
"It doesn't," Eric said.
"It doesn't hurt. The scar."
She felt her face flush. "I didn't mean to, uh-"
She nodded. "I'm so embarrassed."
"Don't be," he laughed, the sound coming out oddly out of tone, as if he hadn't done it for a while.
"How did you know what I was thinking?"
"It's what everybody wonders when they see it. They think it must hurt. It doesn't though, no feeling at all. Kind of nice in a way."
Tracy could see he was just killing time with her until Luther Nichols finished arguing with Flip Bendix, the D.A.'s special assistant. Ravensmith's eyes kept drifting toward the closed door through which the cops had just hustled Dirk Fallows. He looked almost as if he could see through the door and was following Fallows down the hall.
"Heard you had some excitement earlier," Tracy said.
She nodded again, not anxious to pursue it. After all, she wasn't a reporter. She was an artist. Let the glory boys do their own damn job.
"Let's go, Eric," Luther Nichols said, bustling by them. "We have to talk."
"I don't think so," Eric replied calmly, but with an unmistakable edge. "Everything's been said. The case is dismissed. Fallows will be out on the street. On my street."
"We're looking into possibly pressing charges against the Sempleton kid for-"
"Sempleton? Forget him. He'll be dead by the end of the day. Don't bother looking for the body."
"What do you mean?" Luther said.
"I mean he talked. He broke under torture. Brought Fallows' name into it. Dirk won't let that go. Bad discipline."
"Maybe we can put some men on them. Try to catch him in the act."
"Forget it. They can shake anybody you put on. Let it go."
"Well, there're still the two who attacked you. Sam DeSoto and Gordon Maag. Maybe we can tie Fallows in there."
Luther looked at Tracy as if noticing her for the first time, "Hi, Tracy."
"Hi, Luther. Sorry about the loss."
Luther shrugged. "We'll get him. Eventually."
Eric snorted, started walking away.
"Hold up, Eric. We still have to talk."
Luther looked around the room. Most of the people had left, except the bailiff, Eric and Luther. And Tracy. "Let's talk in my office."
"Don't clam up on my account," Tracy said. "I was just leaving. Nice meeting you, Mr. Ravensmith. See you, Luther." She hurried past them and out the doors, glancing over her shoulder at Eric before disappearing down the hall.
"What did you tell her?" Luther asked,
"What's to tell?"
Luther sighed. "Yeah, you're right. Let's get out of here. I've got a bottle in my office."
"Why do I have a bottle in my office?"
"Why do we have to talk?"
"We have to discuss the charges."
"What's the big deal? They killed your guard and they tried to kill me. Murder and attempted murder."
"I don't mean the charges against them. I mean the ones against you."
Luther twisted off the cap of the Diet 7-Up. The resulting hiss sounded like escaping steam. He poured a glass for Eric.
"When you said you had a bottle in your office, I expected something a little more dynamic."
"Can't drink alcohol. Bad stomach. Besides, you don't drink anyway. I haven't seen you touch a single drop of booze since I've known you."
Eric sipped the soft drink without answering.
Luther continued. "And I noticed a couple other things. Like you've been spending more and more time working out at Goodman's gym. Sparring with some of his fighters."
"I'm just keeping in shape."
"More like getting back into shape. Not that you weren't already the envy of every man in that courtroom. Except maybe Dirk Fallows." Luther perched on the edge of his desk and sipped his drink, his eyes studying Eric's impassive face. "That guy must do push-ups in his sleep. There isn't a square inch on him that doesn't look hard and mean."
"What's your point, Luther?"
"I want you to stay clean, that's my goddamn point. You've gone back into basic training again, as if you were still with the Night Shift in Nam. I have a feeling that you think you're going to take up where the law left off. Search and destroy. Target: Dirk Fallows. Am I right?"
"Bullshit, Eric. I've seen that look before. Everytime some slime gets off, the victim or the victim's survivors get that I'm-going-to-teach-him-justice look. With you it's buried deeper, camouflaged better. But it's still there. Well, I'm warning you right now, if it hadn't been for your methods in the first place, we might have nailed that bastard to the wall. He'd be doing hard time-"
It was an eerie smile that cut Luther short. He swallowed, shrugged. "Okay, we probably wouldn't have even been able to make the connection. And the only reason we're handling it in Los Angeles is because Orange County kicked it free and we established the conspiracy took place here. But that didn't make Greg McMurtry happy. You know how Greg wound up the District Attorney? You know how he started in politics?"
"I don't really care."
"Well, you'd better care, pal. Because he is not thrilled about us losing this case in an election year. He'd like to get some convictions. And since he couldn't get Fallows, he's starting to think about you and your damned shoot-out today." He swigged his soda and plopped back into his desk chair. "Greg McMurtry was twenty-one and just out of UCLA when he decided he wanted to run for office. He went down to the Democratic headquarters and told them he wanted to run for office. 'Which office?' they asked. 'Whatta ya got?' he answered. They laughed at him and told him to get lost. So he went over to the Republican headquarters and asked them the same thing. They talked to him a little, helped him get into law school, and he hasn't lost an election since. That gives you an idea of what his priorities are. If he thought dragging you down Rodeo Drive behind his Mercedes would get him votes, he'd be tying you to the rear bumper right now."
"So he wants to charge me with what?"
"Discharging a firearm within city limits. Creating public disturbance. Loitering in the men's room. Whatever he can make stick. So don't go mistaking California for Asia. I think I can handle things on this end, just don't make it rougher on yourself and me. Okay?"
Eric slowly stood up, stretched out his hand. "Thanks for everything, Luther."
Luther grasped Eric's hand with both of his and shook warmly. "I didn't think you'd listen to me, but I had to try."
"You're wrong, Luther. I'm not out to prove anything or get anyone. I'm just out to protect what I have. Whatever it takes."
"Just remember I haven't given up on this end yet. I know we'll get Fallows for something. Maybe even on this shoot-out today."
Eric nodded, started for the door. No point in arguing. Luther didn't know Fallows the way he did, didn't know what he was capable of.
"Give my love to Annie and the kids," Luther called after Eric.
Eric turned back to wave. Saw Luther opening his top desk drawer.
Heard an odd metallic click.
Like a cricket.
Luther was peering into his desk, a puzzled look on his face. "Jesus Christ, what-?"
Then it all came back to Eric in a dizzying rush of data. Weight: 0.69 Ibs. Length: 4.5 inches. Diameter: 2.25 inches. Color: apple green with RGD-5 written on body. Explosive: 110 grams of TNT. Fuse: percussion with delay of 3.2 to 4.2 seconds. Type: RGD-5 anti-personnel hand grenade.
"Get out! Get out!" Eric screamed at Luther.
But Luther returned only a look of confusion, then a flash of understanding, and a sad look of acceptance.
The explosion tore the desk in half, spitting shards of wood like sharpened arrows through Luther's chest. The impact of the explosion twisted his head sideways, half ripping it off his shoulders. His body was lifted and tossed against the wall hard enough to imbed him momentarily in the plaster before his body plopped lifelessly to the floor. Thick, dark blood splotched the white plaster wall in a crazy buckshot pattern.
Eric was thrown against the opposite wall, his head cracking against a metal filing cabinet. He flopped to the floor, feeling his body being tugged this way and that, as if caught in a violent ocean tide. He remembered the last time he'd taken the kids body surfing. Thought he heard Annie calling his name, warning him not to swim out too far.
Then a dark, heavy wave washed over him and he went under.
"It's good practice," Annie said from the motel bathtub, "but it'll never replace sex."
Eric said nothing. He was stretched out next to the tub doing push-ups.
"How many's that?" she asked. "I've made a resolution not to count anything higher than my age."
"Eighty-two… eighty-three… eighty-four…"
"Hurry up, Eric," she said, trying to keep the concern out of her voice. Trying to keep it light, not let the fear in. "The water's getting cold."
"Run some hot," he grunted without stopping.
"I can't. I've got the temperature scientifically balanced for both our tastes. Hot enough so I can relax, yet cool enough so you don't burn your cute little buns. Besides, there're already more bubbles in here than there is water." She scooped up a palmful of fluffy white bubbles and blew them at him. They fluttered about him like thick snowflakes, but he didn't slow his pace.
"Almost done," he said, rhythmically snapping his body up and down.
Annie frowned, watched the thick, blue vein pulse across his temple before disappearing under the Band-Aid over the deep gash he'd received in the explosion. His face was red from the exertion, except for the scar. It remained white, oddly calm and untouched by the rest of his body, a line of icy water finally gathering into the strange frost pattern on his cheek. Like a frozen lake. Even after ten years she sometimes found the scar a little unnerving. As if it were a stranger, a distant relative uninvited into their home who wouldn't leave.
Lately she'd been feeling the same about Eric. Since the trial, and especially since the death of Luther Nichols, Eric had changed. Not drastically, not horribly. He was still a loving husband and a caring father. But he was also endlessly exercising, training, running. Every time he had a few extra minutes he'd drop to the floor and do a hundred push-ups. He was spending most afternoons lifting weights or sparring in a downtown gym. It was getting harder and harder to tease him out of his black moods.
"Fine. Here we are, a man and woman, alone in a motel, and not even any heavy breathing. Well, if you're not going to climb in here and molest me, I'll just eat until I get fat and there's no room in here for you." She reached over to the open box balanced on the toilet seat and grabbed another slice of Fast Eddie's deluxe pizza. It was already cold, the cheese having taken on a shiny, plastic look. But Annie took a big bite anyway. A slice of pepperoni dropped into the tub. She groped around under the bubbles for it, finally fishing it out between thumb and forefinger and tossing it over the side with a loud "Yeechh!" It flipped through the air and landed with a wet splat on Eric's back.
"Ooops," she giggled, then started laughing her loud whooping crane laugh, rocking so much that she dropped the rest of her slice of pizza into the tub.
Eric shook his head. "I see you've found a new way to reheat pizza."
"S-s-sorry," she laughed, her head thrown back in spasms of laughter.
Eric stood up, let the wet pepperoni roll off his back. Seconds before he'd been lost in a grim, violent vision of Dirk Fallows. Now he was smiling, chuckling. Annie had a way of doing that to him, reaching down to the bottom of some dark, cold ocean floor and yanking him to the surface where he could breathe fresh air. And laugh.
Quickly he stepped out of his underpants and into the tub, easing himself slowly into what felt to him like boiling water. To Annie it was probably lukewarm.
"Don't worry about finding that slice of pizza," he said. "I'm sitting on it." He reached into the water and pulled the soggy pizza out, tossing it across the bathroom into the sink.
"Good. That's your piece then. I get the last one."
They both lunged for the last piece of pizza, splashing water and suds over the side of the tub. Annie reached it first, but Eric wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed until it oozed between her fingers.
"Owww," she whined, but she was laughing too hard to be taken seriously.
They quickly washed each other off, scrubbing the pizza scraps from their bodies, lingering gently here and there.
"Und now for za last part of your training," she said, kicking a blob of bubbles into his face, then hopping out of the tub. She ran into the bedroom, trailing puddles of water and suds behind her.
"You've had it now, lady. It's all over but the begging."
"Begging?" she laughed from the other room. "For what?"
"For my essence. My manhood. My throbbing member."
Her laughs came in loud whoops. "Oh, you mean your love rod."
"My passion pole."
"Your sex pistol."
Eric rinsed the last of the pizza off his hand and sprang out of the tub and into the bedroom. Annie was lying naked on top of the bed, her wet skin glistening sensuously in the room's dim light. As always, Eric hesitated, let his eyes linger on her body, surprised and delighted to find her still so sexy after all these years. The breasts round and firm, yet yielding to the touch. The nipples, easily excited, were already hard and pointing. The slim waist sloping down from narrow ribs and sweeping up over sharp protruding hip bones. The stomach flat and smooth as an ocean beach, dark skinned from some tropical ancestor no one in the family remembered. The legs were long and shapely, hard with muscles and determination. Nothing on her body jiggled, it had all been trained into compact submission from years of ballet as a child, years of jazzercise and weight training as an adult. She'd followed Jane Fonda's Workout Book until she looked better than Jane Fonda.
She pulled the pencil out of the bun of her hair and let the long black tresses cascade over her shoulders. Her hair was thick and luxurious, hanging past her waist, shimmering as she tucked it behind one ear. He loved her hair, its richness and length somehow so primeval, prehistoric. And she was proud of it too, knew its effect on men. She held a lock in one hand, teasingly brushed her nipples with the ends. Then she glanced over at Eric's crotch and smiled wickedly. "Hey, I know I'm cute, but no need to salute."
He looked down at himself, grinned, and walked slowly toward her. "You'd better behave or I'll withhold my services."
"Ha. You couldn't if you wanted. Once it's awakened, it can't rest until it's been satisfied. Like some kind of science fiction monster. The Beast With No Conscience."
He slid into the bed next to her, wrapped his arm around her waist, his hand clasping her smooth round buttocks. She snuggled closer, clamping her legs around his thigh. He felt her thick pubic hairs scuffing his skin. They kissed, long and deeply, tongues playing tag. He pictured them on a beach somewhere, a Caribbean island. A warm breeze skipping off the ocean and covering them, a dying sun glowing red as it's pulled into the ocean. A safe place.
Annie eased him onto his back, straddled his waist with her back to him, and hunched over his thick penis. She took it into her mouth slowly, letting the edges of her teeth gently scrape the sensitive skin. She felt him shiver with pleasure. Her movements were slow and easy, lazy really. For awhile. Then she was moving faster, sucking harder, one hand holding his penis, the other gently squeezing his balls.
Eric sighed with pleasure as he felt her warm mouth sliding up and down. But he wanted more. "Come here." he whispered.
She rolled off him and he laid her onto her back, his hand sledding over her hip, down her thigh, between her legs. He raked his fingers through her soft pubic hairs, dipping one finger into the sticky warmth of her vagina. The tender folds of skin gave way to the insistence of his finger as he stroked and probed, slowly rubbing and encouraging. Annie's hips began to rotate, her legs opening and closing with a desperate rhythm. Her pink tongue poked out between her clenched teeth and her head arched backwards.
"Eric," she sobbed. "Please, more."
Eric felt the hard, rubbery clitoris straining against his finger as he stroked it gently at first, then a little rougher. Annie gasped, pressed herself harder against his hand. He could see the drops of moisture in her pubic hairs sparkling, the thin film of sweat shimmering along her stomach and thighs. He smelled the deep, rich scent that was hers alone, like a rose garden after a heavy rain.
"I want you, sweetheart," she said. "Now. Inside me."
Eric withdrew his hand and climbed between her legs. She brought her knees up so she could spread them farther apart. Then she reached down under her leg and wrapped her hand around his penis, guiding it quickly into her body. There was no need or desire for gentleness now. They both moved with quick powerful motions, their hips slapping together, bouncing on the bed.
"Jesus," she panted. "Come, baby, come inside me."
Eric felt Annie beginning to shiver. She was moaning loudly in short gasping breaths, her fingernails biting into Eric's back. She was slamming her hips against him with a fierce rhythm.
"Now!" she pleaded. "Jesus, now."
And Eric matched her rhythm until they were locked into a thrashing frenzy. Her arms and legs were wrapped so tightly around him he couldn't tell their movements apart. He could feel himself rushing toward the cliff, peeking over the edge, then falling.
"Yes! Please, God, yes," Annie cried and her body trembled in uncontrollable spasms of pleasure as they both climaxed together.
Afterwards, both remained entwined with the other, softly nibbling on each other's sweaty neck and ears.
Suddenly Eric bolted up. "Did you hear that?"
And a faint rumbling sound echoed like a distant thunder. The bed began to vibrate slightly, a framed dance poster on the wall tilted to the left. Then it was over.
"Earthquake," Eric said.
Annie giggled. "I knew we could make the earth move if we tried."
He smiled, leaned back to kiss her, brushing her hair away from her face. When they finished she gave him a playful shove. "Better not start something again. I don't think the San Andreas Fault can bear the strain of our lovemaking."
"It'll have to," he said, reaching an arm around her.
"Okay, but first I want to talk. Seriously."
He sighed. "Yes, I'll respect you in the morning. Sure, I'll do the right thing if you get pregnant. No, I won't tell the guys in the locker room what an easy lay you were."
He sat up. "Okay, serious."
She took a deep breath. "I know you don't want to hear this, but I think it's time we moved back home."
"Let me finish, then you can talk."
Eric fell silent.
"During the trial, I thought it was a good idea for the kids and me to be out of the way, if for no other reason than to put your mind at rest. So I didn't complain when you sent us to stay with Big Bill Tenderwolf. Hell, I love Big Bill and so do the kids. Besides, Timmy found one of the Hopi kids who can give him a real run at chess." She saw the look in his eyes and laid her hand on his thigh to keep him from withdrawing. "Even after the trial, when Luther was killed and the Sempleton kid turned up missing, I agreed to stay on there a few more weeks. But it's been a month now, Eric, and I'm ready to come home. I don't want us to only meet on weekends in motels like this, eating out of cardboard boxes and humping on strange beds. It's got to end sometime, and now is as good a time as any."
"I don't know. I reserve the right to cross-examine."
Eric shook his head. "I don't like it any better than you do. I've missed you and the kids more than I've ever missed anything in my life. But I know Fallows is out there. I know he's going to make his move eventually. And I know that this time he'll come in person."
"I know that too, sweetheart. I don't want to take any unnecessary chances, especially where the kids are concerned. But what are our choices? We either decide to live like a family or we don't. That means we either change our names and move away, or we go back to our old lives. I'll do either, but I won't keep up this separation. I know what you're trying to do. Use yourself as a target, hoping to draw him out in the open. Well, he hasn't done anything in a month, and he can afford to wait another month, a year if he has to. He's the kind of man who'd drag it out just to watch you suffer. You know that better than anyone."
Eric nodded. "I know."
"But we can't let him tear us apart first. We're either a family or we're not. I have my law studies to continue, the kids have school, and you have a teaching job. We'll take precautions. Install alarms. Buy a gun. A dozen guns. I'll take the kids to school every day and you pick them up. But we'll work it out."
Eric stared at her for a long time. He thought back to that night when the Sempleton kid had broken in. What if he hadn't awakened, hadn't heard him? What if he had failed to stop him? He saw Annie lying on their bed, twisted and bleeding, her body a chewed and bleeding rag. And the children.
But he knew she was right, too. That Fallows could wait, would wait. He'd always been a patient man. Eric had already considered changing identities, moving them to a forgotten rural place. But he knew it wouldn't work. Fallows would find them. He had the brains, the resources.
"Okay," Eric said. "We'll move back into the house, but there will be some changes."
She threw her arms around him and hugged tight. "I don't care about changes. As long as we're all together again. Hell, there ought to be something fashionable in bulletproof vests I can wear. Something in a shortie nightgown perhaps."
He smiled weakly as he hugged her, sensing that it was a mistake. But realizing there was no other choice if he wanted to keep Annie and the kids. Perhaps he should move away by himself. Leave Annie and the kids. Go into hiding. He'd considered this alternative for weeks, exploring the possibilities like one probes an open wound. But he couldn't do it. He knew Fallows would go after them anyway just to punish Eric. At least if he stayed he could try to protect them.
"Don't worry, sweetheart," Annie said, burying her face in his chest. "We'll make it work. We can-"
The rumbling was louder this time, like a tractor driving through the door. The whole room shook, the bed shuddering at first, then inching across the floor, finally sliding toward the middle of the room. The dusty paintings on the wall clattered a moment before falling to the floor. The telephone pitched off the bedside table and clanged onto the floor. The lamp tumbled off next, but didn't break. Instead the lightbulb flickered then went black.
Outside, loud crashing could be heard. And screaming.
"Pick a year, any year."
They stared back, silent and confused.
"Come on," Eric smiled. "This isn't a trick. Just pick a year at random."
"1547," Philip Marcus shouted.
"A.D. or B.C.?"
"Good choice," Eric nodded, writing the number on the blackboard. "Any particular reason you picked it, Philip?"
Philip shrugged, embarrassed by the praise. "It's the combination to my bicycle lock."
Everyone laughed, including Eric. "Well, then you'll all be glad to know that Philip's combination is your next assignment." This time everyone groaned. "I want you to write a paper exploring the events of 1547, explaining their causes and ramifications. Any questions?"
Hands shot up.
"How extensive is this paper supposed to be?"
She looked annoyed. "How extensive exactly? What kinds of stuff?"
"All right, for example. Let's see, 1547." Eric scratched his scar. "What happened that year? Ah, yes. Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, aged 10. Francois I of France also died and was succeeded by his son, Henri II. England invaded Scotland. Ivan IV, known among partygoers as Ivan the Terrible, assumed full power in Russia, including the title of Tsar."
Philip Marcus interrupted. "So you're mainly interested in the politics of that year."
"Nope. I'm feeling greedy. I want it all. Philosophy, religion, art, science. Everything. Tintoretto painted his version of the Last Supper that year. The first Protestant doctrines were introduced into the English church. Calvinist reformer John Knox was exiled to France. I want to hear about all the important events and how they relate to each other."
Dayna Stewart shifted her broken leg, knocking over the crutches she'd stacked next to her desk. They clattered against each other and everyone in the room looked uncomfortable as they thought about how she was injured. And why there were so many empty seats in the classroom. "Sorry," she said sheepishly to Eric.
"That's okay, Dayna." Then to the rest of the class, "And before you ask, the paper's a minimum of twenty pages, including footnotes and a selected bibliography."
Lisa waved her hand. "Typed?"
"Well, I just thought, considering what's happened…" Her voice trailed away.
"Anything else, scholars?"
"Footnotes," David Weathers asked. "At the bottom of each page or at the end of the paper?"
"The end is fine. No need struggling with that mess."
There was some muttering of approval over that.
"All right," Eric said, nodding at the clock on the wall. "I think that should give you something to do between now and the two weeks you have to write it. Now get out of here."
"Two weeks!" several protested aloud. Everyone else merely grumbled as they shuffled out the door.
Eric stuffed his roll sheet back into his battered briefcase and watched his students funnel out. European History Until 1700. Two weeks ago there had been thirty-one students. Now there were twelve. Two were dead. Ten were injured, a couple seriously. He'd visited them in the hospital, their limbs in thick white casts balanced at odd angles by weights and pulleys. Four people to a room, no more semi-privates or privates. Those days were gone. Even the corridors were lined with occupied gurneys, their groans drowned by fretting relatives pacing the floors. Makeshift hospitals had been set up by Red Cross at several public schools, but according to radio reports, those too were overcrowded.
The other seven missing students Eric wasn't sure about. A few, he suspected, had moved out of state, back to their parents, or just to safety. A couple were probably just not in the mood to go to school anymore. Something about disasters like this make people question the worth of what they do. Eric could understand that. Vietnam had been a two-year disaster, and he'd done a lot of questioning.
The earthquake had been devastating. Over three hundred people killed, mostly elderly patients at the Garden Grove Hospital where one of the older wings collapsed; most of the balance of victims were shoppers at the Fountain Valley Shopping Mall hurrying to buy one more item before the stores closed. Rescuers were still digging bodies out, one limb at a time. Eric had seen news photos of workers trying to reassemble the bodies, matching bloody parts in an effort to identify the dead. One Times photo showed a gloved workman gripping a severed leg by the ankle like a baseball bat as he wandered up and down aisles of partially assembled bodies.
Even the university had contributed its share of corpses. A ten-foot square plate glass window in the Student Union building had rattled violently, then exploded, showering the half a dozen students below who were watching a basketball game on the lounge TV with dagger-sized shards of glass. Two of the dead were Eric's students, Angela Hopkins and Jerry Martin. Both nineteen. They'd met the first day of Eric's class and had been inseparable ever since. A week before the quake they'd made love together for the first time.
Injuries were running in the thousands. Over two thousand so far. Most of the utilities and phone services had been restored, and businesses were all getting back to a kind of normalcy now despite the boarded windows and limping salespeople.
For once there'd been no hesitation from the president in declaring a federal disaster area. He'd even flown over the area in a helicopter for fifteen minutes, though he'd landed and immediately jetted home to Washington. But what he'd seen shook him, gripped a fear inside with a stranglehold that forced him to pop a glycerine pill he didn't want the public to know he took. Fortunately, the single news camera he'd allowed aboard the chopper ride had been too busy recording the gnarled remains below to notice. That night, the rest of the world witnessed the dusty remains of California on TV, shaking their heads in awe.
From the air it looked as if some careless giant had stomped angrily across the state. In some areas, houses had crumbled while only one street away there'd been no damage at all. A gas line had broken in Covina causing an explosion and fire that burned four homes to the ground. In Santa Ana a transfer pipe between vats at a chemical company ruptured spilling noxious chemicals and forcing the evacuation of three nearby residential neighborhoods. The land itself looked suddenly aged and battle-torn. Huge fissures wriggled through several areas along the various fault lines. Deep gashes in the ground webbed across parking lots and farm lands like bloodless wounds from a hacking sword. Eric particularly remembered the film of that Fallbrook farmhouse ripped in half when the ground under it split and began moving in opposite directions.
Eric snatched up his briefcase, slapped the light switch as he passed by, and locked the classroom door behind him. His was the last class that day. All evening classes had been canceled since the quake. Maneuvering at night through the debris was too dangerous.
He hurried down the hall and out the front door of the building. A burst of hot California sun washed over him and suddenly it was hard to believe anything bad could happen here, under such a benevolent sun. But he had only to look around to know differently. Large machines were grinding away everywhere, reinforcing some buildings, blocking off others. Hauling away the wreckage. Students wandered about like convalescing patients, books clutched protectively to their chests, walking gingerly, yet in a hurry. Nervous. Jittery. Expectant.
There'd been a faculty meeting to discuss the situation with the administration. The question had been simple, whether to close down the school for the few remaining weeks of the spring semester, or continue on with classes. There'd been the usual amount of shouting and name-calling that accompanied any faculty issue, but the final decision, spearheaded by Eric's mother, had been to stay. "We've got to keep going," she'd said, adjusting those skinny bifocals that always slid down her nose.
The opposition had been forceful. "Keep going? Like imbeciles, as if nothing had happened?" Dr. Everett had blustered.
"No, Bill," she'd replied. "Not as if nothing had happened, but despite what has happened."
Eric smiled. The old lady sure could handle a crowd. And if he didn't hurry home she and Annie would be handling him.
Eric knew the voice without looking. "Hi, Philip."
"Hi." Philip Marcus hurried to catch up. He was a thin, bookish student, who seemed most comfortable in a classroom. Outside a school building he somehow hunched his shoulders more, looked smaller. Once Eric had seen him off campus at a movie theater and he'd seemed almost shrivelled. But in the classroom he sat tall and confident. At twenty, he was in his Last year of undergraduate work as a history major. He'd already been accepted into UC Berkeley's graduate program in history. As Philip's academic advisor, Eric had spent a lot of time with him, more than with most students. He knew that Philip had developed some kind of hero worship for him; he had tried to discourage it, but still it was there, And so was Philip, almost every time he turned a corner on campus.
"What's up, Phil?"
"Nothing. Heading for the library to bone up on 1547. I could kick myself for picking it. If I'd known what you were going to do, I'd have picked something in the seventeenth century. More romantic."
"Not to the people who lived it."
"Yeah, that's true."
Eric waited. He knew something was on the boy's mind.
"Uh, Professor Ravensmith?"
"What are you going to do about this earthquake business?"
Eric laughed. "I appreciate the confidence, Phil, but there's not much a history teacher can do about an earthquake/'
"That's not what I mean. I mean, are you going to pack your family up and move back east like a lot of others are doing?"
"I doubt it. My wife and I talked it over, decided we'd see it through. And hope the worst of it is over."
Philip smiled. "Good. I mean, my folks are talking about moving back to Pittsburgh. They want me to go with them, go to school at Penn State or someplace. I told them I was staying."
"Well, don't make that decision too hastily, Phil. There's something to be said for playing it safe. And Penn State is a fine school."
"Yeah, but Pennsylvania? I'd rather be buried in an earthquake."
Eric smiled, patted him on the back, "See you next week."
"Right." Philip jogged off, somehow happier than before.
Eric walked around the building to the bicycle racks, trying to locate his old three-speed among the dozens of sleek new ten-speeds. Since the quake, many of the roads had been closed for sewer repair or repaving. Damage to several refineries threatened the gasoline supply, so many people had gone back to riding bicycles or mopeds. Bike accidents were becoming a major source of conversation.
Eric's bike was a rusty old hunk with chipped blue paint, a torn leather seat, and no kickstand. He spotted it leaning against the wall. When he walked closer, he stopped, his mouth tightened, his stomach clenched.
A note was pinned to the seat.
He approached the bike slowly, glancing around quickly for a suspect. He dropped his briefcase, circled the bike, studying it everywhere for a boobytrap. Nothing was out of place, no hidden grenades. Of course, there were other possibilities. Certain fatal poisons smeared on the handles to be absorbed through the skin. But that wasn't Dirk Fallows' style. At least not in this case. For Eric he'd want something more dramatic. More painful.
Eric flicked away the straight pin and grabbed the note, unfolding it roughly as if it were Fallows himself. His eyes lingered on each word. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," Henry VI, Part II, IV, u, 86. Yours for justice, Luther Nichols.
One of them had a 12-gauge shotgun. Remington 870.
The other an M3A1.45 submachine gun.
They were standing at Eric's front door talking to Annie and his mother when he rounded Blue Lake Drive. Immediately Eric jerked the handlebars, hopping the curb with a jolt. He pedaled furiously down the sidewalk, his legs pumping like steam pistons as he cut across his neighbor's immaculately manicured lawn, slicing a thin brown rut through the grass.
"Hey, buddy!" a harsh voice barked. "Hold up there."
Eric glanced over his shoulder, saw the two cars parked at the curb. A police patrol car and an army jeep. Three young soldiers were climbing out of the jeep, swinging their M-l6s in his direction. A uniformed cop leaning against the patrol car spit out his gum and unsnapped his holster.
The two armed men at his front door turned but made no move with their weapons. Eric could see Annie explaining to them who he was, her hands waving urgently. The man with the shotgun, also in police uniform, waved an okay to his partner by the patrol car. The man with the submachine gun, dressed in army khaki with a sergeant's stripes on his arm, nodded at his men by the jeep and they relaxed their weapons.
Eric squeezed the hand brakes, forgetting that the front ones were frozen with rust. The back brakes gripped the tire firmly, sending it skidding sideways in the grass. Eric climbed off the bike and let it drop onto the lawn. He left his briefcase stuffed in the bike's rear basket, leaving his hands free.
"What's going on?" he said pleasantly, but his eyes were dark, studying the men, the situation.
"Nothing," Annie jumped in quickly. She recognized Eric's calculating look, his measured walk. "This is Officer Perkins of the Irvine police and Sergeant Sutton of the army."
The uniformed men nodded politely. No one offered to shake hands.
"Are you Eric Ravensmith?" Officer Perkins asked.
Officer Perkins read from a wrinkled card in his hand. "We are authorized to search your house for any firearms," he recited with a bored monotone, "This is not to be construed as an accusation of any crime. Duly appointed officers are presently conducting house-to-house searches throughout the state in an effort to protect the health and welfare of all its citizens in this time of crisis. We appreciate your cooperation in this emergency." He tucked the card into his shirt pocket. "Questions?"
"You have a warrant? Something giving you the authority?"
"Yes, sir, we do." He nodded at Eric's mother who was peering through her bifocals at a piece of paper.
"Looks pretty goddamn official, Eric," she sighed, handing the paper to Eric.
He glanced at it quickly, turned to Annie. "Where are the kids?"
"Better check on them," he said slowly, his eyes fixed on hers. "Both of them."
"Okay," she said and disappeared into the house.
Eric handed the paper back to the policeman. "Statewide house-to-house, huh? Must take a lot of manpower."
Sergeant Sutton nodded, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at the parked jeep. "Yes, sir. That's why we've been using reserves to help out."
"They're a little trigger happy, aren't they?"
"Yes, sir," Sergeant Sutton shrugged disgustedly. "But that's what they gave me."
"I haven't read anything in the papers about this?"
"No, sir," the sergeant said. "They didn't want to give everybody a chance to go bury their guns someplace. It's gonna be hard enough as it is, what with people warning each other by phone. There was even some talk of cutting the phone service for a couple days. Nothing came of it though. Red tape, I guess. Or politics."
"What's the point of all this?"
"Well, seems like we've had more than a little looting since the quake. Folks are damn near scared of anything that moves. People been shooting each other all up and down the state. Anything that goes bump in the night, including relatives, neighbors and pets. Grocery stores have been robbed a lot lately, with bands of people stealing all the canned foods they could carry. It's a mess in some places. I guess they don't want it to get no worse."
Eric nodded. "Okay, gentlemen. How do we do this?"
"Well, Mr. Ravensmith," Officer Perkins said, "we'd appreciate it if you'd just give us all your guns. You'll get a receipt for each, redeemable at a later date."
"What date, officer?"
Officer Perkins shook his head. "Undetermined, sir."
"So, if I tell you we don't have any guns, you're going to take my word for it?"
"Not exactly, sir." Officer Perkins nudged Sergeant Sutton, who gestured over his shoulder at the three soldiers. Each slung his rifle over his shoulder and reached into the jeep, pulling out portable metal detectors. Officer Perkins looked into Eric's eyes. "Just in case you overlook a gun someplace."
Annie reappeared at the door. "The kids are fine," she told Eric. "I checked."
Eric smiled. "Then let's not delay these gentlemen any longer."
"I hadn't counted on this," Eric said, leaning against the kitchen wall. Overhead they could hear the soldiers clumsily searching every room. Occasionally one of their metal detectors would bang into the wall or bump a piece of furniture.
"They're paying for every chip and scratch," Annie warned.
"It's the goddamnedest thing I've ever seen," Maggie Ravensmith said. "And in sixty-two years I've seen a hell of a lot."
Annie poured Maggie and herself a cup of coffee. "The sergeant told me that they've even cleaned out the gun shops and sporting goods stores. They figure that even if they miss a few guns at least there won't be any ammunition around."
"Makes sense," Eric said. "Most people don't know enough about guns to handle one properly, especially in a situation like this. They're more likely to shoot their friends than anyone trying to harm them. I just wish I'd predicted this last month. I'd have hidden those guns I bought instead of stashing them in the bedroom."
Maggie sipped her coffee, the steam fogging her bifocals. "Well, at least you were smart enough to have Annie check those two bozos out before you let them into the house. So I guess your brain hasn't quite turned to mush yet."
Eric looked surprised. "You knew?"
"Ha, are you kidding? 'Check the kids, Annie. Both of them.' Meaningful looks." She knitted her eyebrows in an imitation of her son. "You might fool those guys, but not your mother. Who'd you call, Annie?"
"Local police station. Gave them Officer Perkins name and description. They verified him and Sergeant Sutton."
"That's my little superspy," Eric smiled, opening the refrigerator and plucking out a can of Pepsi.
Maggie Ravensmith looked at her son, then at her daughter-in-law. She removed her bifocals and began polishing them with the corner of her blouse.
"Uh oh," Eric said. "What's wrong, Mom?"
"What makes you say that?"
"The glasses-cleaning routine. You always do that when something's bugging you."
She frowned. "Now that they've taken your guns, where does that put you with Fallows?"
"Jesus, Mom, you get right to it, don't you?" Annie said.
"Have to, Annie. Not just for your sakes, but for the kids', too."
"We're covered," Eric said. "We've got alarms attached to every door and window. Nobody can get in without setting off the loudest damn siren you've ever heard."
"Yeah, but then what? How will you protect yourselves once they're in?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Ravensmith," Officer Perkins interrupted, stepping into the kitchen. "My men and I are done now."
"Find anything useful?"
"Nope. We checked the house and garage. The shotgun and the automatic you gave us were all you had. Except this." He opened his hand to reveal a gold earring in the shape of a palm tree.
"My God, I've been looking for that for six months," Annie said, taking the earring. "Where did you find it?"
"Back of the closet in the master bedroom," he smiled. "You'd be surprised what we find sometimes. Fillings. Bear traps."
"Bear traps?" Maggie asked.
"Yup. Seems some old geezer over on Alton thought he might catch his wife's lover if he ever tried to hide in their closet." He looked at Eric. "In your case we also came across these." He waved at someone behind him. One of the young soldiers came in carrying Eric's longbow and crossbow. "You a hunter, Mr. Ravensmith?"
"I have hunted."
"The reason I ask, this crossbow looks pretty new."
Eric drank from his Pepsi and shrugged. "So?"
"Nothing. It's just that I want to caution you about these things. They're as dangerous as rifles, but since we've been told to collect only firearms, I'm not taking it." He looked at it with appreciation. "It's a beaut, though. What kind?"
"Barnett Commando. Hundred-and-fifty-pound draw. The frame is aluminum, the barrel and cocking mechanism is brass."
"Yeah, instead of pulling the string back by hand, it has a break-action like a shotgun."
"Jesus," he whistled. "Looks like something outta Star Wars." He hesitated, as if hoping they could go on talking about bows and earrings and bear traps rather than searching another hostile house where somebody would scream in his ear about the Constitution and their rights, calling him Gestapo and worse. But when no one spoke, he shrugged, handed Eric a receipt. "You'll need this to redeem your guns. You'll get a notice in the mail. Thanks for cooperating."
"Sure thing," Eric said, ushering him toward the front door. As he closed the door behind Officer Perkins, Eric could see the crowd of neighborhood residents arguing with the soldiers. Before the earthquake, most of them wouldn't have even considered raising their voices at a policeman. But things had changed, more than just property damage and injuries. Attitudes.
Eric returned to the kitchen, opened another Pepsi. He'd decided not to tell Annie about the note he'd found pinned to his bike. She was already pretty jittery, and now that their guns were gone, the situation was worse. He would just have to lake more precautions now. Be extra careful.
He shoved his hand into his pocket, felt the crumpled note nestled among loose change and keys. Just touching it made his skin burn. A quote from Shakespeare. That was Fallows all right. He'd confided in Eric once that he'd been thrown out of three colleges before his wealthy father made a sizeable donation for a new library wing at a prestigious university. Young Dirk Fallows was immediately admitted and finally graduated from there two years later. He never mentioned what his major was, but even in Nam he was always quoting from Shakespeare. Not to show off, but almost as if in his violent rages he was unable to find his own words. That made it all the more frightening, because everything he quoted sounded sinister, evil. It was quite a sight to see this grizzled face leading an attack on Charlie, spewing obscenities and Shakespeare with equal skill.
Eric touched his scar, felt its shiny unnatural smoothness. What were the last words he'd heard Fallows say that day of the Easter Massacre, the hot, bloody bayonet still clutched in the bastard's hand? He was laughing. "Come not between the dragon and his wrath, Eric ole buddy. King Lear, Act I, Scene i, line 124." Then he'd stopped laughing, grabbed Eric's hair and jerked his sagging head upright. Even bound as he was to a hitching post, his face seared and bleeding, Eric had tried to lunge at Fallows. Fallows' face had darkened, his voice sharp and hard, but so quiet only Eric could hear it. "You were different than the rest, Eric. I was patient with you, tried to teach you, confided in you. I tried harder with you than with anyone else. Ever." He'd tightened his grip on Eric's hair, forcing his head back against the post. He spoke rapidly now through clenched teeth, but there was a hint of sadness in his voice. "I've never looked for a friend, never needed one. But you might have been. We could've owned this pissant country. What would it have cost you? Some respect, that's all. Was that too much to ask?"
Eric's throat was leathery, dry, his face aflame with pain. But he managed to choke out one word. "Yes."
Fallows' eyes widened with hate, his lips curled back into a death skull's smile. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Then he snapped his knee into Eric's crotch, lifting him off the ground, driving him into the post. Eric had mercifully slipped into semi-consciousness, though he could hear some of the other Night Shift soldiers gasp. "Remember," Fallows had said, though at the time Eric wasn't sure whether he'd been speaking to the men or to Eric. It didn't matter. Neither forgot.
The worst part of the note had been signing it with Luther's name. More of Fallows' black humor, Eric had felt personally responsible for Luther's death, and no amount of rationalization had been able to lighten that burden. Fallows would know that. He was not a stupid hick ex-soldier. He was the cleverest, most resourceful man Eric had ever met. Also the crudest, most ruthless. As a young kid in Nam, Eric had been tempted to accept Fallows' friendship. The patronage of an older, more experienced fighter, regardless of his methods, could mean the difference in how you got home: alive and with all your parts working, or an ugly, rotting lump in a body bag. For Fallows protected his followers with the same enthusiasm with which he destroyed his enemies. But somehow Eric had sensed it was not the way to go. That it would be the first step down a dark, winding road from which there was no return. That had only made Fallows more insistent. It became an obsession, a crusade. Until that last day.
Eric let his fingers skate across the icy surface of the scar again. He had to forget the past, ignore the future. Just concentrate on the present. Protecting his family. Staying alive. Don't let the rest of them know how he felt. He pulled on a casual smile, turned to his mother. "What time's your boyfriend coming over, Mom?"
"For God's sake, he's not my boyfriend," she scowled, but her eyes crinkled with delight. "Trevor and I have known each other since graduate school, before I even met your dad. Hell, the old fart helped me get my job. And yours too, I might add, young man."
Eric held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay."
"Besides, Trevor's brilliant in the one thing everybody wants to know about these days."
"What's that?" Annie asked.
Maggie smiled. "Earthquakes."
Eric stood silently outside the door and listened.
"Cmon, one game. Please?"
"Get lost, creepface."
"Be a sport. Jenny. One lousy game, then I'll leave you alone. Promise."
"Grow up or get out. Can't you see I'm trying to make a phone call?"
"Big deal. Big deal phone call."
"I don't see anybody calling you up."
"Nobody's calling you either. You're the one making the call."
"At least I have friends to call."
"I have friends," Timmy protested.
"I mean normal friends, not those jerks you hang around with. Talking chess all the time. The Sausilito Defense and stuff."
"Sicilian Defense. And it's better than talking about who's wearing whose letter sweater at school. Or who kissed who."
Jenny giggled. "You won't think so in a couple years, gargoyle breath."
"How about a game after you're done with your call? I'll spot you a rook and a bishop."
"Unh uh, no deal. You'd win anyway. Why don't you play with that chess computer Dad got you? I thought you liked it."
"Yeah, I do. Only I like playing real people better." There was something sad in his voice that vibrated through Eric's stomach, caught in his throat.
Jenny must have heard it too. "Okay, as soon as I'm done talking to Lisa. But only if you're quiet while I'm on the phone. And one game, Timmy, I mean it. No begging afterwards."
"But I want a rook, a bishop, and a knight."
"Okay, but I get white. And no more-"
Eric moved away from the door and continued on down the dark hallway, smiling. This was one of his favorite pastimes, watching the kids from a distance, overhearing them playing or arguing. He wasn't spying, just delighting in their presence, an invisible observer to a world that made all others seem silly and useless by comparison. It wasn't innocence exactly; in Nam he'd seen enough of what horrors children could do under the right conditions. It was something else. Vulnerability? Trust? Yeah, maybe that was it, trust. Their innate trust that parents always knew what they were doing. It made you want to be more than you were, somehow better. To live up to their image.
It didn't matter that the kids weren't his biologically, he loved them as much as was possible, had even gotten used to thinking of them as if they really were his. They were young when he'd married Annie. Jenny was four and Timmy was two. Timmy had accepted him right away, curling up in Eric's lap every night and drooling on his pants. Jenny had been more reserved, even hostile, certain that her real father was coming home from Vietnam no matter what anyone said. Unfortunately, Eric knew differently because he had seen Lt. Stephen Finnegan's charred corpse still smouldering among the scattered pieces of twisted metal that once had been a helicopter. It was Lieutenant Finnegan's third mission as a chopper pilot. A barefoot woman not even five feet tall, with an AK-47 strapped to one shoulder and a three-month old daughter strapped to the other, had brought it down with three shots.
The Night Shift had come upon the scene just as the woman was poking through the wreck, stripping weapons and boots from the smoking bodies. Dirk Fallows had given her a burst from his M3A1 that disintegrated her left hand and arm up to the elbow in a pink explosion of blood and bone. Neither she nor her baby made a sound as she spun and dashed into the jungle, her left arm looking like a bloody shredded sleeve. They searched, but never found her.
Among the items that the woman had discarded as useless was a set of four drugstore photos of a young woman about twenty-one. In the first photo she was sucking in her cheeks and crossing her eyes imitating a goldfish. In the second she was nibbling a baby's ear; the baby was laughing. The third was of the woman's obviously pregnant belly, slightly out of focus from being so close to the camera. The fourth was the woman and baby smiling, holding a piece of notebook paper with "I LOVE YOU!!!" printed on it in lipstick.
From the dogtags on Lieutenant Finnegan's body, Eric managed to trace the woman in the picture, Annie, and wrote her his condolences. She wrote back, a chatty, friendly letter all about being pregnant, about her philosophy classes at San Francisco State, about the funeral. She seemed so healthy, adjusted. So damn normal.
He never wrote her again.
But he did keep the tiny, cheap photographs folded safely in his pocket for the rest of his tour. Every once in a while he'd huddle in the dark, damp jungle and take them out, a glimpse of normal, happy people, a family. Somehow it made the going easier, somehow saner.
It was a year after the court-martial when he finally met her. He was twenty-four now, back in college among a lot of eighteen-year-old kids who marched for open sex with the same ferocity that they marched against the war. He was sympathetic to their demands, their needs, but somehow he felt too remote from them to join, too burned-out to belong.
He was running across the quad trying to make his 2:00 Renaissance Europe class, when he got tangled up in a Vets Against the War rally. A bearded guy in an army fatigue jacket and a red bandanna tied around his forehead was shouting into the microphone, describing the atrocities he'd seen. There were a couple hundred students gathered around and more drifting in all the time. Eric didn't pause to listen, he'd seen much worse than what was being described.
As he shoved brusquely through the horrified crowd, something-a flash of light maybe?-stabbed in his eye. He stopped, looked around. Over next to the makeshift stage and leaning on a battered, psychedelic VW van, was a shaggy rock 'n' roll band tuning up their guitars. And a woman with thick, long hair past her waist and a clipboard was gesturing at them as if giving them last-minute instructions. The sun kept reflecting off the metal clip as she waved her hands. She had a sleeping baby strapped to her back and a tiny girl tugging on her patched jeans.
It was Annie.
Eric shifted directions, winding through the crowd until he was standing directly behind her. He didn't know why he was doing this, what he would say.
"I want you guys to lay off smoking this shit until you're done here. You're supposed to be volunteering your services for the cause, and we're paying you plenty of money, so look sincere about ending the war. Got me?"
"Hey, lady, we're against the fucking war," one of them said, his long, black hair tied in a pony tail with a tiny American flag.
"Yeah, right," she nodded with disgust, "that's why you made us pay you up front."
"Expenses. That's all. Travelin' bread."
"Just put on a good show, okay?"
"Shit, no sweat, lady."
Annie shook her head, "Right. No sweat." She sighed, turned around and half-sprinted into Eric, "Oh, sorry. I didn't see you there."
"My fault," Eric said. "Didn't mean to sneak up on you."
"Is the kid still asleep?" she said, hooking her thumb over her shoulder. The little boy's face was pressed against her back, his eyes closed, a large wet spot on her cotton blouse where he'd drooled in his sleep.
"Yeah, but your blouse will need washing."
She laughed in loud spasms, like a frightened whooping crane. A couple of people in the crowd turned to look at her. "Tell me about laundry, man. When they film my life story, it'll be shot in a Laundromat. Faye Dunaway will never look so good as when she's pouring Tide."
"Mommy," the little girl said, pressing her knees together. "I gotta go."
"Okay, Jenny." Annie nodded at Eric and took off in sudden clipped walk, holding Jenny's hand. As an afterthought, she called over her shoulder, "Nice meeting you."
Eric tagged along. "That group. They didn't look like they even knew there was a war, let alone protest against it."
She shrugged. "Doesn't matter. They're pretty well known locally, so they'll help draw a crowd. We've got a couple reporters and camera crews coming by in an hour, so we'll want to have as large a crowd as possible for the early news show." She stopped, looked up into his eyes, her jaw firmly set. "And don't give me any crap about how that's deceiving the public or any bullshit. We're not here to win Eagle Scout medals, just end the damn n war.
He stared back at her, a smile playing on his lips. "I'm Eric."
"So what?" she said, her eyes locked with his. Then her harsh expression began to change, melt slowly into something like recognition. A tear rolled out of one eye. "My God," she said.
They were married within the year.
Eric flipped the light switch in the bedroom, checked the fuses in the box he'd installed recently, the one that controlled the security system he'd built into the house. The fuses were fine. He dropped to his knees and checked the crossbow under his bed, the quiver with hunting bolts next to it. Light glinted off the brass plating, making it look ominous, hungry. He'd been practicing with it and his long bow for several weeks now until he was almost back to his old marksman self. Still, tomorrow he would take a little trip to downtown Los Angeles and shop around for a gun where, as long as you have the cash, no questions are asked.
The doorbell chimed.
He heard happy chattering drifting up from down-stairs.
"Eric," Annie shouted. "Drag your keester down here. Trevor's brought another cheap wine he insists I ruin my magnificent dinner by serving."
Eric scanned the room one final time. Everything was in place and working. The alarms, the weapons. He wouldn't be caught off-guard again. He glanced out the window, down into the dark yard below. The street lights hadn't worked since the quake. Every shadow looked dangerous, threatening. Lurking.
"Eric! Your mother's faint from hunger. Let's go."
Eric studied the shadows a little longer, then pulled the curtain shut. "Coming," he said.
"I've never been so popular in my whole life!" Trevor Graumann laughed, waving his unlit pipe in the air. "Not since dear old Atlas hit-"
"Atlas?" Annie asked.
"That's what he calls the damned quake," Maggie explained. "Quaint, huh?"
"Yes, Atlas," Trevor said defensively. "It's the perfect name. He carried the world on his shoulders. One shrug from him could bring everything down. He was-"
"Yes, yes, yes. We all know about Atlas, Trevor."
Trevor Graumann frowned at Maggie, shifted his slightly rotund body, and sucked on his unlit pipe. He ran a pudgy hand over the top of his bald and freckled head as if checking for any new growths. It was habit more than hope. He'd been bald since he'd first met Maggie forty years ago in graduate school. She was one of the few women there who actually took her education seriously. She was going to be an archaeologist and a teacher, by God, and that was that. Her intensity had intimidated him a bit back then-hell, quite a bit-and he'd ended up marrying the secretary to the Dean of Admissions. A pleasant young girl who miscarried twice in their first year of marriage before deciding she'd rather be a movie star. Not an actress, mind you, a movie star. So one day she cleaned out the joint account and took off in his Buick, never to be seen or heard from again. For forty years Trevor had avoided going to the movies for fear he might see her in one, perhaps under a flamboyant stage name, even if only in a bit part. He knew it would hurt him unbearably, make him feel as if she'd been telling everyone in Hollywood how she'd had to dump her bland and boring husband before she could have any fun or success. Well, now things were different. He and Maggie were together, older but not worn out. They enjoyed each other's company both intellectually and occasionally sexually, though, he had to admit, she still intimidated him. Just a bit.
"Anyway," he continued, "since Atlas did his little cha-cha, I've been interviewed by TV stations, radio, newspapers. I've had my picture in the L.A. Times. People magazine called yesterday as part of a profile of major geologists in the country. I've been invited to speak here, there, and the other place." He grinned at Maggie. "I've even gotten a few marriage proposals from ladies who caught me on the six o'clock news."
"Probably watched while they were peeling onions," Maggie said. "They were overcome by the fumes. Only rational explanation."
Trevor winked at Eric. "Professional jealousy is so ugly."
"Professional jealousy, my ass!" Maggie howled. "We're just trying to get you back to the point you were making before you started giving us the grand tour of your ego. And undeserved fame."
"Undeserved? Why I know more about California geophysics and plate tectonics than anyone else, including that big mouth Tripette up at Berkeley. Go ahead, ask me any question. Any question at all."
"I've got one," Annie said.
"Fine. Go ahead, Annie. We'll show your smug mother-in-law a thing or two. What's your question?"
"How come you always have a pipe, but you never light it?"
There was a slight pause, a look of confusion on Trevor's face, then everyone burst out laughing. Including Trevor.
He turned to Maggie. "Are you sure she's not really your daughter and Eric's the in-law?"
"Family secrets," she said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Annie turned to Eric. "What have you got to say to that?"
"I wanted a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad."
She gave him a playful shove and he rolled back into the sofa.
"But I'll answer that question," Trevor said, holding his pipe out in front of him. "It's basically an affectation, one I picked up in graduate school when I thought the only way I'd ever get a job as a professor was if I looked the part. Baggy clothes, mussed hair, a slight British accent, which was not easy for a boy from Missouri. And of course a pipe. Trouble was, I hated the smoke. So I gave up smoking a pipe after one try, but kept it for a prop. After a while, just holding it became as addictive as smoking it for others. Simple, huh?"
"Simple-minded," Maggie said.
He clamped the pipe between his teeth and sucked. The wind whistled through the tiny stem. "Seriously, though, the most remarkable by-product of all this publicity-"
"Here we go again," Maggie groaned.
"-is that my students, what's left of them anyway, are suddenly enthralled with the heretofore dry and dusty subject of geology. They can't ask enough questions. For the first time in my life, I'm a popular professor." He pointed his pipe stem at Eric. "Eat your heart out, you young scamps in the English Department."
"I'm in History," Eric said.
"Oh, right. Sorry." He waved a dismissing hand. "English, History, Theater. Everybody's young in those departments. That's how I categorize our departments now, the young ones and the old ones, according the average age of the teachers. Not very academic, I suppose."
Maggie nodded. "I've been doing the same thing for the past five years. Philosophy and Religion are old. Art and Biology are young."
"Physics is young."
"Sociology is old."
Maggie and Trevor laughed; patted each other's hands.
Annie smiled, reached over and slipped her hand into Eric's.
"Well," Maggie said, "I didn't sacrifice my body to this old coot just to hear about his pipe. He's been telling us how much he knows, how he's the Answer Man. Let's make him prove it."
"When did you sacrifice your body?" Trevor asked.
"You've forgotten already. My, my, at your age I guess your memory is the second thing to go."
She grinned wickedly. "Don't ask."
"I've got a question," Eric said.
"Is the worst over?"
Trevor sucked his unlit pipe again. "Boy, you don't ask the easy ones, do you? After all this buildup I hate to give you such an inadequate answer, but I don't know. No one does."
Annie sat up. "I don't understand. That was a major quake, right? I mean, 7.4 on the Richter Scale. All those people killed, the damage in the millions. We couldn't possibly have another one like that very soon, could we?"
"But not likely?"
Trevor shrugged. "Impossible to say. There are over one million earthquakes a year in the world. One million. In California alone, we often have several a day, every day. Most don't measure more than 4.4 or reach a magnitude on the Mercalli Intensity Scale beyond V."
"Whoa, Trigger," Annie said. "What's this Machiavelli Scale?"
"Mercalli. In 1902 he created a scale which modified De Rossi and Forel's scale of 1880, measuring-"
"Save it for your classroom, Trevor," Maggie interrupted. "Just give us chickens the plain feed. Enough so we know which way to run."
Eric smiled. He knew his mother was almost as knowledgeable about geology as Trevor. If not from her studies as an archaeologist, whose awareness of earth movements is crucial to new discoveries, then from her years of close contact with Trevor. But playing ignorant was her way of not making Annie and Eric feel too dumb.
Trevor continued undaunted. "Simply put, the Mercalli Scale measures the shock intensities of a quake. It ranges from roman numeral I, which is the mildest form, often not even felt by people, to roman numeral XII, in which damage is total, lines of sight are distorted, rivers are deflected. It all depends how close you are to the center of the quake."
"But the Richter Scale-"
"The Richter Scale can be misleading unless you understand the mathematical formula in relationship to the logarithmic scale. Which means that every whole point you go up on the Richter Scale results in a tenfold increase in size of the quake over the preceding number. So if you compare a 4.3 quake with the San Francisco quake of 1906, which measures 8.3, you're talking about a quake that's ten thousand times as great. And the energy released would be ten million times as great."
Annie blew out a long sigh. "Scary."
"Don't worry, honey," Maggie said. "The worst is probably over."
"Perhaps," Trevor said. "But according to a couple scientists named Gribbin and Plagemann, the worst is just beginning."
"The Jupiter Effect?" Eric said.
"Ah, then you're familiar with their work?"
"Vaguely. I read their book when it first came out back in '75. Then a few years later their The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered. Interesting."
"Oh, yeah," Annie said. "Is that the book about sun spots and stuff you were telling me about? The one that predicted Mount St. Helens' eruption?"
"Not that event specifically, but occurrences like that." Eric turned to Trevor. "What do others in your field think about their predictions?"
Trevor laughed. "Well, before Atlas, there was skepticism. But now, well, the proof is in the pudding, I suppose. They were right. The only question left is whether this is the big one they were talking about or just foreshock."
"Foreshock?" Annie asked. "What's that?"
"Usually it's a minor movement that precedes the main shock, may even trigger it. Problem is, they're impossible to determine as a foreshock until much later. Bloody mess, actually."
"Uh oh,'' Maggie laughed. "Here comes the British accent again. Just ignore the Missouri twang, Sir Trevor."
"Sorry. Sometimes I slip into it unconsciously."
Annie stood up with her coffee cup. "More coffee anyone?"
"I'll get it," Eric said, taking her cup. "You're looking a little shaky."
"Good, because I feel a little shaky. He's almost got me believing California's about to slide into the ocean."
Trevor handed his cup to Eric. "It's quite possible."
"Perfect," Annie said, collapsing onto the sofa.
"For God's sake, Trevor," Maggie said, "don't you know when you've said enough?"
"I'm sorry, but it is quite possible. Naturally it depends upon the size of the quake, but one big one could set off a chain reaction, resulting in part of California separating from the coast. After all, it's a fairly common belief among scientists that all the continents of the Earth were once one giant land mass. What with sea floor spreading and giant earthquakes and such, the continent broke apart to form what we have today. And it's more than likely that they'll keep changing. If we could come back to the Earth fifty million years from today, we probably wouldn't recognize the continents."
"But California as an island?" Annie shook her head. "Disneyland wouldn't stand for it."
Eric returned with steaming coffee, handed a cup to Trevor and one to Annie, and sat down. "What do you think, Trevor? Do you personally, in your expert opinion, think we're in for another major quake?"
Trevor blew a wisp of steam from his coffee, sipped, set the cup down. "Well, if we consider what we know about moonquakes, volcanic seismicity in the Galapagos Islands, solar flares-"
"This isn't Channel 7, Trevor," Maggie sighed. "Just answer the damn question."
"I can't. Not the way Eric wants me to. Probability dictates that we won't have another major quake for a while, perhaps years."
"But?" Eric prompted.
"But, personally, I suspect we will. If Gribbin and Plagemann are right, solar activity and the alignment of the planets suggest we're in for more activity. Much more."
Annie pushed her coffee away. "Then how come you're still here? Why haven't you moved back east like a lot of others?"
"Where to? Another university? I've taught here for more than thirty years. I have no family and all my friends are here, so why should I fight the floods, tornadoes, blizzards and hurricanes that the rest of the country faces. Besides, even if a really major quake hit, one bigger than the San Francisco disaster, chances are I'd still live. I've done everything to my house that can be done within my modest means, and I've stored food and water to last for several months. I hope you've done the same."
"Food, water, clothing. The works."
"And a weapon, my boy," Trevor warned with his pipe stem. "People can get very ugly under pressure. Very ugly indeed."
"Yes," Eric nodded. "So I've heard."
"Professor Ravensmith's office?" she asked.
The History Department Secretary looked up, smiled with her recently capped teeth, then studied the woman's reaction for any sign of recognition that the teeth were capped. When there wasn't any, she lifted the brush from the Liquid Paper she'd been applying to the typos on Dr. Dees' application for sabbatical leave, and pointed it down the corridor. "Make a left at the end of the hall. He's three doors down, right next to the drinking fountain."
"Thanks," Tracy Ammes said, chewing nervously on the unsharpened end of a Staedtler Mars-Lumograph 3H pencil as she searched. When she spotted the drinking fountain with several wads of variously colored gum huddled around the drain, she took a deep breath and tugged on her jacket. "What the hell are you doing here, Tracy?" she asked herself for the fifth time since parking her car.
The door to his office was closed, but there was a narrow strip of glass along one side of the doorway, so she strolled casually by and glanced in. He was sitting behind his desk, talking to a young girl. Tracy ducked past the glass before he saw her. Okay, Trace, get a grip now. You're not some pimply teenager. You're a goddamn grown-up, making a living, voting the straight Democratic ticket, with your own Visa card and gynecologist and everything. Now act like it.
She hurried past the glass strip, stopping in front of his door. A lanky boy ambled by with a briefcase in one hand and a Frisbee in the other, gave her an appreciative look, took a drink out of the fountain. Then, still staring at Tracy, he picked up one of the wads of gum near the drain and popped it into his mouth. "My girlfriend's," he explained. "She leaves it here every day for me. Like a token, you know."
Tracy smiled weakly and nodded. He bounced off down the hall chewing vigorously.
She tapped the pencil against her teeth, glanced at her watch. How much longer? She leaned her head over and peeked through the glass quickly before pulling back. They were laughing. The young girl had red-and-white-striped athletic shorts on that were slit on the side so the frilly edge of her pink panties was visible. She also had a tight T-shirt on, though Tracy didn't know what she was advertising since only the back was visible from here. But her goddamn blond hair was permed, that was certain. Big billowy Farrah-Fawcett curls. Didn't the little twerp know they were out of style? Tracy bit down hard on her pencil and felt her teeth sink into the soft German wood. She plucked the pencil from her mouth, but tasted the flecks of blue paint on her tongue. "Shit!" she said, just as the office door was jerked open and Eric was standing six inches from her. She froze, her tongue still hanging out as she tried to scrape the paint chips off.
"Hello," he said.
"Ahlo," she replied, her tongue still out. Then she recovered, pulled it back in, tugged her suit jacket and skirt, and offered her hand. "Hello, Mr. Ravensmith," she said in as formal a tone as she could muster. "You probably don't remember me-"
"Of course I do, Ms. Ammes," he smiled. "Are you here to see me?"
Careful, Trace. "Well, I was in the area anyway, but I did have some business to discuss."
"Business? That's mysterious." He opened the door further and waved her in as he spoke to the young student. "See you Thursday, Serena. And I want that paper rewritten by then. No excuses."
Serena smiled, revealing a blue wad of gum clamped between her perfect teeth. "Okay, Mr. R."
Tracy watched her walk out, her long trim legs unconsciously gorgeous. Not a ripple or dent or stretch mark in sight. Tracy hated her.
He offered her the seat next to his desk as he sank into his own desk chair and swiveled toward her. He checked the big clock on the wall behind her.
"Am I keeping you from something?" she asked. "I should've phoned for an appointment, I know, but this was just a spur of the moment thing-"
"No, no. No rush. I have to drive into L.A. today to, uh, purchase some equipment. But there's still plenty of time."
''Good. I mean, as long as I'm not keeping you."
He smiled. "So what brings you down to the hinterlands of Orange County? Another trial?"
"No. They just announced this morning that it'll be another two weeks before they repair the courthouse enough to start trials again. But that's not all I do."
She looked at him, those reddish-brown eyes kind of coppery this morning, like the bottoms of her Revere-ware pans. He had a little smile on his lips that made her even more nervous. Was he laughing at her? Did he know that she'd been thinking about him since their last meeting? That she'd been searching for an excuse to see him again for almost a month? Maybe he was smiling because he didn't find her attractive. She wasn't his type. Didn't like red hair, green eyes. Maybe her tweed suit was too severe, too dykish. He probably liked them soft and pliable. No, she'd done her research on him at the news station, and on his wife, Annie. She was beautiful and tough, smart as they come, but with a no-bull approach. Hell, the two of them would probably be great pals. Under different circumstances.
But why even think such thoughts? She hadn't come down here to steal a husband away, or even start an affair. She had her own boyfriend-there's that awkward high school word again-lover back in Santa Monica. And they were pretty damn happy together. All things considered. She'd just wanted to, well, see Eric Ravensmith again, if for no other reason but to get him out of her mind.
He was leaning forward now, his hand reaching out for her face. My God, Trace, my God. What to do? She hadn't expected anything to happen. Her heart swelled in her chest like an inflatable raft trapped in a cupboard.
"Hold still," he said, his fingertips touching her lips. "Got it!" He pulled his fingers back and showed her a fleck of blue paint from her gnarled pencil. "Bad habit, chewing pencils," he laughed. "I used to suck on pens in high school until I got a mouth full of ink one day." He flicked the paint chip from his finger.
Just great! Now he was comparing her to a high school kid. Terrific. Change the subject, quickly. "That's quite a nice stereo system you've got here. Aren't you afraid someone will steal it? I hear thefts on college campuses are way up. I think we did a special report on that last month at the station."
Eric shrugged. "I keep the office locked when I'm not here. But I'm not worried. Besides, I do a lot of my grading here and I need some music to help get me through their turgid prose."
She nodded at the cassettes scattered on the desk. "Mozart, I bet. Vivaldi, Beethoven, and the rest."
"I didn't know I was so transparent."
"You college professors are all alike," she said, getting her confidence back. "Classics or nothing."
"Well, you're partially right." He swiveled around and popped the top cassette into the player. The small speakers on the bookshelves came alive with music.
"Please remember how I feel about you," the Beatles sang, "I could never really live without you/So come on back to me…"
"The classics," Eric said.
Tracy reddened. "What about the other tapes?"
"More Beatles. That's all I ever play, except occasionally the Supremes. And don't ask me why. I'm purposely avoiding analyzing it in case I don't like the answer."
She laughed, her nervousness forgotten. "I don't blame you. Sounds serious."
"Latent rock 'n' roller probably." He turned the volume down a little, stealing a glance at his watch. He still had to get to L.A. and back before the rush hour traffic. And buy those guns. "So, what's this mysterious business you mentioned, Ms. Ammes?"
"Tracy. Well, I only work part time at Channel 7, but in the past six years I've covered quite a few sensational trials for them, sketching everyone from the Hillside Strangler to the Magic Mountain Maniac. Anyway, some New York publisher was in town during the Dirk Fallows trial, saw my stuff on TV, and contacted me about publishing a book of my trial sketches."
"Ah, fame and fortune."
"I wish. The money's so-so and as for fame, I don't think Andrew Wyeth need worry just yet. But it's a start."
"What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to use some drawings of you in the book so I came down to get your permission." She started rooting through her purse. "I've got a release slip here somewhere if you don't mind signing."
"Sure, no problem. But I thought that since it was a public trial you didn't need our permission."
She reddened again. Shot down your big excuse, Trace. "Yes, that's true. But the publisher just wanted to cover all the bases. You know how nervous they get about lawsuits and such." She plucked the folded paper from her purse, smoothed it on the top of his desk and slid it across to him.
She watched him read it, his finger, the one that touched her lips, sliding absently along his scar. When his head was tilted just so, it caught the fluorescent light and seemed to almost flash. He grabbed a pen from his drawer and, with a sudden flourish, signed the form. He was smiling as he handed it back to her. "Good luck."
"Thanks," she said. Then added, just so he wouldn't mistake the innocence of her motives, "My boyfriend thinks he can get me a job doing storyboards on this movie he's working on."
"Yes, he builds special effects models." And smells like glue a lot. "He's worked on most of the major sci-fi films of the past three years."
"Great. Is that what you want to do?"
"When I grow up, you mean?" she said sharply. "I'm twenty-eight."
"No, I just meant is that the direction you want your career to move in? Movies?"
Tracy shrugged. 'The money's good." She saw him glance at the clock again and stood up. "Well, I guess I'd better get back on the freeway. Thanks for your time and for your permission. I didn't mean to snap at you before. It's just that I get a little sensitive about why I'm twenty-eight and still hustling for a career."
"Twenty-eight is still young. You've got plenty of time."
She laughed. "Somehow I knew you'd say that."
"I'm still so transparent, huh?"
"Oh no, I'm not falling into that trap again. Forget I said anything." She held out her hand. He took it in his and shook. It was a friendly shake, nothing more. No extra squeeze or lingering touch. But somehow she wasn't disappointed anymore. She liked him, and under the right circumstances might even fall out-of-her-mind in love with him. But for now, she was pleased with herself for having the guts to come down and see him just because she'd felt the urge. Now she could go back to Barry and his glue and settle in for another few months. Maybe she'd even make Barry his favorite dinner tonight. Stir-fried eggplant.
"I'll look for your book," Eric said as he held the door open for her.
"I'll send you a copy."
He watched her walk down the hall, her athletic body twitching under the tight skirt. What his dad would have called a looker. Almost as beautiful as Annie. But not quite. No one ever was. He thought of Annie now, her long, thick hair always in their way when they kissed, getting in their mouths. He smiled, felt a longing ignite in his thighs, spread up along his groin. Shook it off.
First things first.
He snatched up his briefcase, turned off the cassette player, flicked the light switch, and locked his office door. If he hurried, he'd still make his meeting in L.A. on time. It had taken a few calls to set up, but finally an old army buddy he'd known before his Night Shift duty came through with a dealer. A couple cops who were responsible for transporting guns were pilfering a few and selling them on the side. The price was outrageous, the morality dubious, but none of that mattered to Eric. All he cared about now was protecting his family.
He half-jogged down the hall, nodding to familiar students that drifted through. Three graduate students were grouped around the bulletin board looking at the meager teaching job announcements. None of them were smiling.
He passed the open office door of George Donato, one of the best teachers Eric had ever seen. George always left his door open so he could flag down the pretty girls. His reputation as a scholar was almost equal to his reputation as a womanizer. He was a good friend to both Eric and Annie, despite Annie's attempts to fix him up with her friends.
"Hey, Eric," George called as Eric zipped by.
"Gotta run, George. Talk to you later."
"What about poker next week? You and Annie available? I need the money."
"Sure, where's the game?"
"Of course. See you later." Eric stopped at Betty's desk in time to get flashed a mouthful of capped teeth. "Betty, I'll be out for the rest of the day. If any of my young scholars come looking for me, set them up with an appointment for tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure thing, Dr. Ravensmith."
He'd given up trying to get her to call him Eric. She seemed to like the titles, as if she were the head nurse in a hospital full of doctors.
"Thanks. See you tomorrow."
"Fine. See you to-"
And it began.
The building trembled slightly, as if shivering against a great wind. Betty hunched over the papers on her desk, trying to keep them from being shaken to the floor. A stapler tipped over the edge, bounced onto the carpet. "My, my," she said. "Oh, my."
The students who'd been walking the halls or reading the bulletin boards looked around at each other, up at the ceiling, then down at the floor. One young girl flung her books down in panic and screamed.
"Under a table!" Eric shouted at them. "In a doorway! Move!"
"Oh, my," Betty repeated as the tape dispenser scooted across the desk and plunged to the floor.
The trembling became shaking now, as if the building were a salt shaker clutched in the first of an angry giant. Eric was tossed off his feet, his briefcase flying across the room as he fell. There was a loud rumbling sound, a groaning really, and suddenly the building began to lean.
George Donate came charging out of his office shouting, "What the hell is happening?" But before anyone could answer, the ceiling above him collapsed, dropping Dr. Luskin's antique rolltop desk and oak filing cabinet onto George's head. There was an agonizing scream of pain, then silence.
Eric looked over at Betty, who was huddled under her desk. Back down the hall, two boys and a girl were hugging the wall, their faces contorted with terror.
"Get in the doorway!" Eric yelled at them, motioning with his hand. But they were paralyzed with fear and horror as they stared at George Donato's mashed body, the lifeless arms sticking out from under the desk. Eric scrambled to his feet and bolted down the hall, scooping them all by their waists and shoving them in to the nearby supply room. Against the wall was a long wooden table that held the ditto machine. He drove them under the table, throwing himself after them. There was another loud crash out in the hall as more of the ceiling caved in. The building leaned even more as the ground vibrated under it.
"We're going to die," the girl cried, tears splashing out of her eyes, mucus dripping from her nose. "Please, God, not now. Please God."
Eric spoke slowly and calmly. "What's your name?"
"My name?" she said, confused.
"Her name's Melinda," the skinny boy said. "Melinda Oulette."
"What about you guys?"
"Jim Tolan," the skinny kid said.
The other boy, short but brawny, a thick weightlifter's neck, mumbled, "Robin Thomas."
"Fine. I'm Eric Ravensmith. And I'm going to get us all out of here alive. But you're going to do everything I tell you to do as soon as I tell you, or I'm going to leave you here to die. Understand?" He waited. "Answer me!"
"Yes," they chorused.
Eric looked around the room. There were cracks up the side of the concrete wall, some of them from the last quake, but several new ones. Big deep ones. The building was listing to the left, not enough to tip over, but enough to cause structural damage that would probably result in a collapse. Besides, they had to worry about fire. More people were killed by fire in earthquakes than for any other reason.
Yeah, they'd have to get out of this building. And to do that they'd have to be calm enough to think straight. Under the circumstances, the only way to calm them down was to make them more afraid of him than they were of the quake.
"Okay. We're going to dash down the hallway and out the south fire exit. Then we run down the stairs-and you'd better hold onto the handrails considering the building's shaking-and out the side door." He pointed at her high-heel pumps. "Take those off. You'll have to run barefoot. Let's go."
"Shouldn't we just wait here?" the girl sniffed. "I mean, I read where you're supposed to stay put."
Eric nodded. "So stay." He climbed out from under the table, stood up, and started for the door. The three of them immediately followed.
The hallway was a mess. Debris cluttered every step. Papers, supplies, books, shattered furniture. Several sections of the ceiling had collapsed, so most of the debris came from the Sociology Department upstairs. Eric noticed George's body and the puddle of blood seeping around the shattered legs where sharp splinters of bone poked through torn pants. He turned away, waved the kids to follow him. Running down the hall was like running on the back of a rickety old flatcar as it rattles down the railroad tracks at a hundred miles an hour. They bounced off walls as they ran, trying to keep their balance. The weightlifter tripped, diving face first into the mushy corpse of Tina Porte, the Sociology secretary, who'd apparently dropped through the floor with her desk.
"Help. God help!" he cried, the blood from Tina's crushed chest smeared all over his face and hands.
Eric ran back, tugged him to his feet and shoved him after the others. "Move it, damn you, or it'll be your blood next."
The kid stumbled ahead leaping smashed furniture as he followed the others out the fire exit. The dust had become thick in the room, and Eric could smell faint traces of smoke.
"Betty?" he shouted. "Betty?"
"Professor Ravensmith?" a faint voice whispered.
"Yeah. Let's get out of here. It must be time for your break."
She coughed out a laugh as she crawled out from under her desk, the fallen stapler in one hand and the tape dispenser in the other. She looked around at the mess on her desk, tears slicing through the dust on her face. "What will we do? What will we do?"
"Survive," Eric said, grabbing her hand and pulling her after him.
Outside was even worse.
People were screaming and running and trampling each other in their rush to get anywhere but here. Cars. were overturned on the lawn, the heavy equipment used to shore up the buildings had toppled, and severed electrical lines sparked and hissed along the ground near the parking lot. One dead co-ed still clung to her car door, which she'd been trying to open when the snaking wire had whipped around and touched her Pinto's roof, sending twenty thousand volts burning through her body. The air was thick with black, sour smoke puffing out of the shattered windows of the Biochemistry Building. Fires were licking the ivy-covered walls of half a dozen buildings.
The ground itself seemed to sway and buckle, like an elaborate Disneyland ride. People had trouble keeping their balance as they stumbled, clawed back to their feet, and kept running. Some had exhausted themselves already, and lay in panting heaps here and there.
The rumbling sound continued like a stampede of horses, and for a moment Eric had an image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping across the earth on wild, snorting steeds.
And then it was gone.
The rumbling faded like a disappearing train. People stopped for a moment, looked around, shook their heads as if suddenly waking from a terrible nightmare.
But the nightmare continued.
Fires raged. The wounded lay moaning and bleeding amid the rubble of the ancient Administration Building. Sirens whined everywhere as fire trucks, ambulances and police cars rushed in all directions. From where he stood, Eric could see at least three car wrecks from the quake. Two were minor, but in the third the driver, an elderly woman who served food in the school cafeteria, had rammed her old Fury into a telephone pole. The impact had hurled her half through the windshield, where she now lay, her eyes wide and confused in death.
Eric looked around, saw the three students he'd led out of the building as they ran across the quad. Betty wandered off toward the parking lot mumbling, the tape dispenser and stapler still clutched stubbornly in each hand.
He turned around. Tracy Ammes was running toward him, her shoes gone, her stockings shredded. A couple buttons were missing from her dirty blouse, and her sheer pink bra peeked through the opening. There was blood on her knees. "Jesus. Jesus." She bent over and gasped for air next to him. She started to say something else, shrugged, and just said, "Horrible."
She raised her voice to be heard over the constant din of sirens and alarms. "I'd decided to get an iced tea over at your snack stand for the long drive home. Then everything went crazy. Like The Poseidon Adventure or something." She took a deep breath. "What now?"
"Now I look for my mother. Then I get home and take care of my family."
Tracy's voice was quiet. "Of course."
Eric looked down at her. "If you're free this evening, perhaps you'd care to join my family for dinner?"
She nodded, too relieved to speak.
Although it was early afternoon, the sky was almost black; the smoke from fires all over the city and the nearby hills.
Eric checked his watch but the crystal was shattered. "What time do you have?"
"Okay. Mom has Archaeology 101 from noon to one over in Sprockett Hall. Let's swing by there first."
He took off at a quick jog, always half a dozen steps ahead of her. They passed various hysterical or wounded people, but Eric didn't stop, so neither did she. As she struggled not to drop any further behind him, Tracy was astounded at how quickly she was able to adapt to an emergency situation. There would be no getting back to Santa Monica today, maybe even for a couple days while highways were cleared for traffic. Surely by then the authorities would have restored order.
"Over there," Eric shouted over his shoulder and dashed off toward an old brick building. It was four stories high, with clouds of smoke haloing the building like the rings of Saturn. The air was much more acrid here and Tracy tried to take shallow breaths to avoid the stinging in her throat.
Eric saw her immediately. The short, compact woman with steel-gray hair. She was dragging an unconscious boy out the smoky doorway and across the sidewalk to safety. The boy must have weighed close to two hundred pounds, but Maggie Ravensmith handled him as easily as she had the wheelbarrow loads of rock she had helped her husband haul away every night.
Eric's feet slapped concrete as he sprinted down the walkway toward Sprockett Hall.
Maggie glanced up, saw her son approaching, and pointed him toward the unconscious boy at her feet. She was panting for air. "Smoke inhalation. Not breathing."
Eric dropped to his knees, tilted the boy's head back slightly, and put his ear near his mouth, listening for the sound of breathing. At the same time he watched the chest for any movement. There was neither. Quickly he reached over and ripped open the top of the boy's black polo shirt. Then, hunching over the boy's face, he placed his hand on the forehead, holding it back while he used his fingers to pinch the nose shut. He slid his other hand under the kid's neck, lifting slightly to create an open airway.
"How is he?" Tracy asked as she came running up.
"Don't know yet," Maggie answered.
"Will he make it?"
Eric sucked in a deep breath, ignoring the burning smoke-tinged air. Bending further over, he placed his mouth over the boy's and exhaled until he saw the chest swell. He pulled back a moment, watched the chest for falling movement, listening for escaping air. He heard it.
"One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five." He bent over and repeated the process, breathing air into the boy, counting, breathing, counting. Finally he sat back. The boy's breathing resumed. "Okay, Mom, looks like you saved another student to bore with your lectures. Mom?" He turned around and looked for her.
"She went back in," Tracy said, pointing at the smoking building, the flames flickering in windows like Halloween jack-o'-lanterns.
"Jesus." He sprang to his feet, grabbed Tracy by the shoulders. "Keep an eye on this kid. Try to flag one of the ambulances down when they get here. If his breathing stops or lessens significantly, just do what I did. Can you do it?"
"I think so."
He didn't say anything else, just took off for the doorway of Sprockett Hall. He felt the great waves of heat wash over him at least ten feet before he reached the door, but he just squinted his eyes and plunged through.
He walked around the wide-eyed body of one co-ed, stepped over the mangled body of Dr. Bernie Concord from the Comparative Literature department. The smoke was so thick it was impossible to see more than five feet in front of you.
"Mom?" he shouted. "Where the hell are you?"
His mother's voice shot back, slicing through the dense air. "In my classroom. Where else?"
"Come on. The sprinklers aren't working, the water lines must be ruptured. This place is going down without a fight." He picked his way past the rubble, thankful that it was a Friday, when most of the students and faculty weren't around campus anyway. "Let's go, Mom!"
He saw her emerging from her classroom at the end of the hall. The white haze outlined her small body as she dragged one semi-conscious girl under one arm and her stack of lecture notes under the other.
"Forget the fucking notes, Mom," Eric yelled as he charged toward her, hopping piles of furniture and collapsed walls. "Nobody can understand them anyway."
"Like hell," Maggie snapped, struggling with her double load for a moment, then sighing. "You're probably right." She let the stack of notes fall to the floor, wrapped both arms around the staggering girl, and hauled her down the hall toward Eric. "I'm putting this one on a diet tomorrow."
Eric was less than eight feet away when the ceiling over his mother collapsed, dropping pink insulation and a couple of metal bookcases filled with Spanish textbooks and back issues of the Publication of the Modern Language Association. Eric even saw Tony Garrison's coffee mug with the kissing hippos sitting on one of the shelves as they plowed into his mother and her helpless student. There was a sudden cry of surprise, then a sharp cracking sound as all the bones in her chest were crushed under the weight. The student never made a sound; her head was split open from the forehead to the chin.
"Mom!" Eric hollered, pulling the heavy bookcases off, tossing them aside like foam toys. When he finally uncovered her, he stooped down, grabbed her shattered wrist for a pulse, already knowing what he'd find. He put his head near her mouth, but all he could hear was the gurgling of blood bubbling out of her cracked chest.
Farther down the hall, another section of ceiling collapsed, dropping flaming pieces of furniture onto the floor. The ratty old couch from Bob Lender's office, on which Bob had first seduced teaching assistant Linda Dekke, who was now Mrs. Lender. An old Royal typewriter missing the letter H. Bob Lender, neck broken, tweed jacket flaming like a cape as he thudded onto the floor, bouncing once. The fire continued down his jacket onto his pants, casually burning like a campfire.
Eric stood up, tried to swallow, couldn't, turned and retraced his steps out of the building.
Tracy was kneeling by the husky boy, whose eyes were now half open, grateful. "Look, Eric," she said excitedly, "I did it. Just as you showed me. And he's awake, conscious!"
He nodded at her. "Good job."
She saw the look on his face, felt a cold stab in her stomach. "Where's your mother?"
He didn't answer her, just started walking away. "Let's go."
"What about him?" Tracy asked.
Eric didn't look back. "He'll be okay."
Tracy was confused. She didn't think it was right to just leave the kid lying there, even if he was conscious. On the other hand, she didn't want to be separated from the only person she knew. She trotted angrily after Eric.
"I'm sorry about your mother. I truly am. But we can't just leave people lying helpless."
He didn't answer, just picked up his pace.
"I mean, don't we have a certain responsibility to others in a time like this?" She was half-running now.
Eric didn't slow down, didn't look at her. His voice was eerily calm as he spoke. "We saved that kid's life. That's all we owe him. In the meantime, I have a wife and kids to take care of. I'm willing to take you with me as long as you don't get in the way of my helping them. Once you do, you're on your own."
Tracy started to say something, thought better of it. She needed him, he didn't need her. As she looked around at the extent of the damage, she had a sickening feeling that things might never again be the way they were. She thought of Los Angeles, imagined some sci-fi movie version of what it might look like destroyed. Even Barry, smelling of glue, helped build one once. What had destroyed L.A. in that film? A volcano? Tidal wave? Meteorite? She couldn't remember. And what about Barry? Was he okay? He'd be at the studio now. She tried to picture him. Two images crowded into her mind. In the first, he was standing outside the burning studio building, chatting with his co-workers about how to recreate these effects for a movie. In the second, he was pinned to the floor under a heavy model of a Rasdan space cruiser, coughing and struggling as the smoke and fire filled the room.
Suddenly she was totally exhausted, as if someone had punctured her energy bag and all her strength came whooshing out. She wanted to sit down, take a nap. But she knew if she complained to Eric he'd probably leave her there. She didn't blame him. In fact, what wouldn't she give for someone to love her as much as he loved his family.
They were back where they started now. Eric was handing her a toppled bicycle. "Can you ride?"
"Sure, but not in this skirt."
"Then take it off."
"I'd rather not."
He bent over in front of her, grabbed the bottom of her skirt where the fashionable eight-inch slit was, and yanked. The skirt ripped up to her crotch, revealing the sheer pantyhose underneath and the fact that she wore no panties with them. Eric didn't seem to notice. He grabbed another bike from the pile that had been tossed and shaken into a heap, and flipped it over. He looked around, found a large rock, and with two expertly placed blows, sprang the cheap bicycle lock.
"Just follow me," he said, climbing onto the bike and speeding away.
Tracy wobbled after him, at first conscious that each movement of her leg was exposing her. But when she saw Eric pulling way ahead, she forgot about her modesty and pumped as hard as she could
It was like a trip through hell, she thought. They passed a small shopping center in flames, bodies scattered about, people running, crying, screaming the names of loved ones as they ran from corpse to corpse. Even in the residential neighborhoods, many of the houses had collapsed, the sidewalks and streets had buckled as if some terrible underground monster had tried to break through. The streets were clogged with honking cars loaded with goods and people trying to escape, anxious to drive… anywhere. But there were too many cars, too many people, not enough travelable streets. In the distance, she could see the flashing lights of half a dozen ambulances on the San Diego Freeway. Then she noticed why. An overhead ramp choked with cars had collapsed. Huge chunks of concrete and twisted metal bars were being shoved to the side of the road by pickup trucks.
If Eric saw any of this, he gave no indication. His eyes remained fixed on the road ahead, and when the road was too torn up to travel, he cut across lawns and driveways. She followed, almost ramming a group of mailboxes once.
Finally they turned onto another cozy middle-class street filled with milling people staring at their sunken homes. She could tell by the way Eric suddenly lurched ahead with new strength that this was his street.
"It's no earthquake," she heard one man say to his wife as they pedaled by. "It's those fucking Russians. First Strike."
Eric was leaping off his bike before it had even stopped, running up to a beautiful woman with long, thick hair down past her waist. Next to her were two kids, a boy and a girl. Tracy braked her bike and watched Eric gather them all up in his arms and crush them together in an enormous hug of relief. She felt tears slipping down her cheeks as she stared.
After a minute, he turned and waved her toward them. She walked with the bike next to her, uncertain what else to do with it. "Hi," she said.
"This is Tracy Ammes," Eric said. "And this is Annie, Jennifer and Timmy."
"Don't worry about a thing," Annie said, shaking Tracy's hand. "You can stay with us until things settle down."
"Thanks," Tracy said, liking Annie immediately and feeling a little ashamed as she remembered why she came down here in the first place.
"You play chess?" Timmy asked.
"Never mind, Timmy," Eric said, looking at the remains of their home. Half of it had crumbled as if a giant fist had punched it in the side. "Gas off?"
"Right," Annie said, slipping her arm through his. "But it might not matter in a while. None of the houses on this block are burning, but I heard that all of the homes on Windsong are."
"What about the fire department?"
"We hear the sirens but haven't seen any engines."
"There just aren't enough to go around. We'll have to do what we can."
"Do what, Daddy?" Jennifer asked, choking back the tears.
He looked at her, hugged her next to him. "Whatever it takes, honey. Whatever it takes."
Then the ground moved again. Only worse this time. Much worse.
"Daddy!" Jennifer cried as she was flung face forward, her knees and elbows scraping against the rough sidewalk. Timmy tumbled backwards flat onto his back, the air knocked out of him, a sharp pain in his side. Tracy and Annie were thrown together into a heap of legs and arms. Eric managed to maintain balance for an extra few seconds before being tossed onto his knees like a reluctant worshipper.
The loud rumbling sounded unlike anything they'd ever heard before, half machinelike, half roar. It almost drowned out the screams of their terrified neighbors watching what was left of their homes crumble, their children catapulted through the air.
Eric tried to climb back to his feet, but the sidewalk suddenly split in half, slamming him back to his knees.
They all lay together and watched helplessly as the world changed forever.
Book Two: Purgatory
O human race, born to fly upward, Wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?
"Whoa," Leo Roth whispered, lightly tugging the reins. His horse ignored him, continuing to plod grudgingly along through the dense San Linder woods.
"Whoa already," Leo said again, but still not loud enough to offend the horse, an expensive appaloosa, which Leo knew could throw him any time it wanted and would probably take great delight in trampling the hell out of him. People from the Bronx were not meant to ride horses, especially Jews from the Bronx. It was against all natural laws. It defied physics. There should have been an Eleventh Commandment: Don't ride anything that can shit and walk at the same time.
Despite the fact that Leo had owned horses for several years, ever since the enormous success of his TV sitcom An Apple a Day, he'd never actually ridden any of them before. Once, a couple of years ago, at the insistence of his wife Cynthia, he'd struggled clumsily into the saddle atop one of these monsters. But that was just for the photograph for their personalized family Christmas/Hanukkah cards. They always had two batches printed up. One batch read "Merry Christmas from the Roths" above the photo of all of them astride bored horses at their Malibu home. Under the photo was an elaborate big Christmas tree. These were sent out to business associates, sponsors, employees, actors, writers, directors, agents. The other batch of cards read "Happy Hanukkah from the Rothsteins" above the photo, but under it was a big Menorah. Those were sent to his wife's family.
Not that he had anything to prove to anybody. Leo Roth had a reputation in Hollywood. You want funny, get Leo Roth. You want laughs, people clutching their sides, throwing up with laughter? Get Roth. At twenty, he'd dropped out of CCNY and sold his Datsun to raise plane fare, landed in L.A. fifteen hours after kissing his crying mother on the cheek and shaking his disappointed father's hand, and sold his first joke within the week. Phyllis Diller. Within the year he was adding jokes to troubled movie scripts, and within two years he was working on his own show. The rest, his mother liked to say, was show business history. At forty-one, still Mediterranean handsome and in good shape, a crown of black, curly hair clenched atop his tan face, only the slightest ring of flab hinting at his waist, he had been producer/writer of the highest rated show of the season.
Until the earthquakes cancelled the season.
Cancelled television. Cancelled Hollywood. Cancelled most of the audience. That was three months ago. Malibu was underwater, so was most of Los Angeles. So were most of their friends. Now all they had was the family: Leo, Cynthia, and their sixteen-year-old twin daughters, Cheryl and Sarah. And the damn horses.
He'd bought the horses for his daughters, dark-haired beauties already. Both were expert riders, prancing along with as much straight-backed grace as any tight-assed skikse. During the last actors' strike, he'd sat in in his office at Universal and figured out that their riding lessons cost him eighty-three jokes a year. Not just eighty-three standup Comedy Store jokes, but eighty-three Prime Time, 40-share jokes. After that he thought of everything in terms of how many jokes it cost. Dinner: two jokes. Trip to Hawaii: thirty-five jokes. Braces: forget it, a whole new TV series.
But that was before Richter became more important than Nielsen.
Now the four of them were working their way toward San Bernadino to his Aunt Paula's home. He had at least a dozen relatives there and in times like these it was best to be with someone you could trust, family. Little Israel, Cynthia called it.
"Whoa, you goddamn four-legged ape!" he hollered, yanking on the reins so sharply the horse reared to a halt too suddenly for Cynthia Roth to remember how to stop her horse. Instead of pulling the reins, she gigged her pinto's flank and he lunged forward knocking into the rump of Leo's appaloosa.
"What the hell, Leo?" Cynthia said, struggling with the reins. "What the hell?"
"Pull the reins, Mother," Cheryl suggested, an edge of contempt in her voice.
"You heard her," Leo said, "pull the goddamn reins."
"I am pulling the goddamn reins!" The pinto skittered to one side, then the other, his neck snapping to the left and right as Cynthia Roth jerked the reins back and forth, kicking, pulling, and trying to keep from sliding out of the saddle.
Finally Sarah trotted her horse over, leaned in front of her panicking mother, grabbed the reins, and tugged firmly. The horse settled down with a snort of relief.
"My God," Cynthia Roth said, pressing one hand against her temple. "I could have been killed."
"Oh brother," Cheryl snickered.
"You okay, Mom?" Sarah asked, handing the reins back.
"Fine, dear. Fine. Thanks." She swallowed the stubborn lump in her throat and smiled bravely.
"Where's Mr. Ed when you need him?" Leo joked, hoping to defuse his wife's fear… and anger.
Cynthia glared angrily at him. "It's not the horse, Leo. It's you. Why'd you stop like that?"
"I thought I saw something up ahead." He pointed through the woods.
"Saw what? I don't see anything. What'd you see?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Something moving. I don't know."
"Something moving?" She shook her head. "We're out in the middle of the woods, for Chrissake. Naturally something would be moving."
"Probably a deer or something," Cheryl offered.
"Maybe," Leo said, straining in his saddle as he studied the woods ahead. "But it didn't move like a deer. It moved kinda, you know, sneaky."
"Oh, excuse us, Mr. Daniel Leo Crockett."
"That's Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett."
"Right!" Cynthia proclaimed triumphantly. "That's the kind of stuff you know. Information. Books. But what's a Reformed-Jew-turned-atheist from the Bronx know about the woods and deer, sneaky or otherwise?"
"No need to take any chances,"' Sarah suggested. "If Dad thinks he saw something, we can double back and sweep around this place. Better safe than sorry."
"Better safe than sorry," Cheryl mocked.
"Knock it off," Sarah said to Cheryl.
"Knock this off," Cheryl snapped back, flipping her middle finger.
"Shut up, both of you!" Leo said, his eyes still intent on the woods ahead. It was his responsibility to provide for his family, his job to protect them. He'd done all right so far, saving the horses after the last quake, hiding them out in the Laurel Canyon home of his agent, who'd been killed in the first quake, the one they called Atlas. But this was different. This was trees and animals and fucking Nature. Cement he understood; moss was a mystery.
"I don't like it, Leo," Cynthia said. "I don't like riding through the woods like this. Why couldn't we just take the freeway to San Bernadino? God knows there aren't any cars there."
"We've already discussed why. The highways are unsafe. How many stories have we heard in the past couple months about bandits killing and robbing travelers? We've got to stay off the beaten track. Avoid people."
"What do we do, Leo?" Her voice was contrite now, frightened. That other part of her, the whining, nagging part, only came out when she was scared. It was how her mother acted all the time, and she hated it as much as he did. Basically she was a good woman, a loving wife, a doting mother, and she was the best lay of any Jewish American Princess he'd ever gone out with. And he'd be lost without her.
"Okay," Leo said. "We go on. It's gonna be dark soon and I'd like to chew up a few more miles before we make camp. Let's go." He waved his hand the way Ward Bond used to in that old series, Wagon Train. "Wagons ho-oh!" Ward used to say, and for a moment Leo was back on University Avenue in the Bronx, his legs tucked under him, his algebra book open, the TV glaring like a window out into space. He felt a tear drip down his cheek and quickly brushed it away.
They rode single file, weaving around thick trees that Leo tried to name, but couldn't. He felt an anxious ticking in his stomach, tried to ignore it. Couldn't. He took a deep breath. The smell of charred wood was heavy in the air, not from any recent fire, but from the great fires that ravaged just about every town, city, and hillside after the last quake. The fires burned for weeks, day and night, the air constantly filled with smoke and a charcoal taste always on your tongue, at the back of your throat. With few fire engines available and many of the access roads unpassable, the fires burned until they ran out of fuel or just tired out. And whatever hadn't burned smelled as if it had. That tangy, bitter odor still clung to everything, stinging the nostrils with each breath.
And the sky. Since the quakes it was always a kind of hazy yellow-orange. Except at night, when it turned pinkish-gray. Pretty, but spooky.
Leo stared at every leaf, every twig as they rode by, searching the dense woods for any sign of what it had been that moved. A bear, maybe. Or a cougar. Did they have cougars in the woods?
He reached back into his saddlebags and removed the slingshot. It was a store-bought kind that fit over his wrist and fired metal ball bearings. He dropped a handful of the ball bearings into his shirt pocket.
"What's that for?" Cynthia asked.
"Nothing. In case I see a rabbit or something. I thought some fresh meat might be a nice change."
"Ha, David the Comedian versus Goliath the Bunny," she teased and they all laughed.
"Who's going to clean it?" Cheryl asked, appalled.
"We will," Cynthia said. "If your father can figure out how to actually hit something with that thing, the least we can do is figure out how to cook it."
"You can do it, Dad," Sarah said.
"You bet he can," Cynthia said.
Actually, Leo was a pretty fair shot, having practiced with the girls on tin cans in the backyard. Still, that was different than a moving target, and a living one to boot.
Cynthia was discussing ways to prepare rabbit when Leo thought he heard something rustle ahead.
"Hear that?" he asked.
"Hear what?" Cheryl said.
"Nope," Sarah said.
Cynthia was excited. "A rabbit?"
"I don't know." Leo frowned, bit his lower lip. "You guys wait here. I'm gonna check it out."
No one argued.
Leo squeezed the slingshot handle and rode forward. Alone.
Dirk Fallows snapped his fingers twice.
A young man in blood-splattered fatigues ran over, slapped a pair of binoculars in Fallows' open hand, and retreated back to the fire pit to finish skinning the damn dog. He was the only one besides Colonel Fallows who wasn't down the hill hidden in the woods, though he'd have given anything to be crouching behind a tree with the others where all the action was about to take place. Anything other than doing this crummy job which they gave him because he was the youngest one there. Personally, eating dog made him nauseous, and once or twice he'd even sneaked off to the woods after they'd feasted on one to throw up. But Colonel Fallows had gotten a taste for them while in Nam and would as soon eat a German Shepherd as a rabbit or deer. And it wouldn't do to argue with the colonel. Not unless you wanted to end up worse off than the dog.
"Very nice," Fallows grinned, as he peered through the binoculars at the scene below. The man was riding ahead, his head cautiously panning the woods. Searching. The three women sat on their horses and waited. Excellent. It had been close, they'd almost lost them. Someone had fucked up and made a noise that spooked them. They'd hesitated. If they'd turned back then, well, that would have been that. They'd have gotten away. But they didn't. And soon his men would do what they were trained to do. Simple as a stone sinks in water. And as inevitable.
Fallows swept the woods with his binoculars, but saw none of his men. No rustle of leaves, no twitching branches. His thick lips stretched into a huge grin and square white teeth bloomed into view. Well done, Cruz, he nodded. Cruz was turning out to be a better leader than Fallows had anticipated. The men were deathly afraid of Cruz, sometimes even more than they were of Fallows. Certainly he'd given them occasion to be once or twice. Even Fallows was respectful of Cruz to some extent, but then only he knew about Cruz's past.
They'd met in an Army stockade two months after Fallows was sentenced. Cruz worked in the library, filing books that he never read because he couldn't read. He got the job because he was the tallest man in prison, maybe the tallest man in the Army and could reach the high shelves without a ladder. He had to be almost seven feet, even in that hunched bearlike walk of his. Fallows had asked him once how he got past the Army's 6'8" height restriction and Cruz had answered coldly, "I lied about my size." Fallows had let it drop.
Because Fallows was using the library's law books to mount his own legal appeals, he had a lot of contact with Cruz, who never offered a single word unless he had to, as if every word he spoke cost him money. A grunt or a shrug was the most you could expect from the man. And nobody pushed it because Cruz was not only tall, he was the most powerful man in the stockade. He lifted weights with awesome regularity, his muscles swelling and bulging under his clothes like hidden animals. Once Fallows had seen him working out in the yard doing arm curls with a 250-pound barbell. Cruz had been naked to his waist, his dark skin slicked with sweat like rain-soaked macadam. His chest was gigantic, quilted with solid muscles like layers of rock on a mountainside, all funneling down to a trim waist of maybe twenty-nine inches of corrugated steel. With each curl of the arm, muscles popped or stretched, thick drops of sweat plopped into the dirt. But the face remained serene, distant, the eyes thin slits covering shiny black marbles. It was as if Cruz had slipped out of his body, was wandering about somewhere else while his muscles worked on themselves. It was unnerving to everyone else, especially the guards, who did their best not to offend or annoy Cruz. The rest of the inmates just avoided him as much as possible. Only Fallows found him intriguing.
It took some digging and paying some bribes, but finally Fallows managed to get a photocopy of Cruz's case history. It was worth every cent.
His full name was Indigo Cruz, though no one called him anything but Cruz. His mother was a Yucatan Indian come to the United States after a flood had destroyed her village and killed her parents. She had managed to bargain her way across the border by dropping to her knees among the Rio Grande brush and allowing two border guards to relieve themselves in her mouth. Her knees had scraped on rough pebbles and rocks as they'd taken turns pumping their hips against her face, jerking in spasms as each clutched her long, black hair in clenched fists, finally shooting their semen into her mouth, across her tongue, down her throat. Not allowing her to rise until she swallowed and licked each clean like a pet cat. Laughing, they left her kneeling there, good for their promise at least, her knees imbedded with sharp gravel, skin shredded and bleeding. She kept the scars on her knees for the rest of her life.
She was thirteen.
Within two weeks, she became a maid in a San Antonio motel that catered to afternoon traffic from nearby office buildings. Mostly husbands and wives, though not each other's. One Wednesday she was changing the soiled sheets in Room 216 when the man in 217 came over. His jacket was off and his tie loosened. He had a huge, jowly face with a splotchy red nose blistered with fiery capillaries. Even Maria Cruz recognized the signs of an alcoholic, having seen many such men in her own village. Her own father had begun to show similar signs.
"Yes, sir?" she'd asked, trying hard to pronounce each word properly. It was important to her to learn perfect English as soon as possible. Become a U.S. citizen. Its best citizen, she hoped.
"What time is it?" the man barked, his words slightly slurred. "The fucking clock in my room is broke."
Maria Cruz glanced over at the cheap radio/alarm built into the bedside stand. The laminated wood around the edges was chipped and scratched where someone had tried to pry it out of the table. "Eet sayas 1:20," she said, inwardly delighted at how much like an American she was already sounding.
The man laughed, a thick, cruel laugh. "It don't say shit, gal. Ya gotta read it." And he laughed again, holding himself up against her laundry cart.
Maria didn't understand the joke, but smiled anyway.
The man stopped laughing abruptly. "Fucking twenty goddamn minutes after fucking one." He looked out over the ledge of the balcony, peering left and right. The railing sagged under his weight. "My lunch hour's almost over and that cunt still ain't showed up yet. My boss'll chew my ass like a dog with a rag if I'm not back in the fucking office on time again. Fucking cunt and her fucking excuses."
Maria didn't understand everything the big man was saying so she just smiled and continued changing the bed. The couple who'd rented the room had only checked out fifteen minutes ago and the sheets were still wet. Maria stripped the bed with a couple of practiced motions, then checked the pillowcases. If they had lipstick or anything that could be seen on them, she changed them. But if not, her orders were to leave them. One pillowcase had a smudge of black eyeliner so she changed it. The other was clean.
"You women are all alike," he drawled, scowling at Maria. "Nothing but slimy holes on two legs. You know why women have cunts? Huh, do ya?"
Maria bustled the sheets into a ball in her arms. "Excuse, please," she smiled, heading toward the door and her laundry cart.
"I'll tell ya why. 'Cuz if they didn't, there'd be a bounty on 'em." He guffawed, slapped the laundry cart with a huge, meaty hand, jarring a couple rolls of toilet paper loose. One tumbled off the edge of the balcony.
"Ex-cuse, please," Marie said again, squeezing by him through the door. She flopped the dirty sheets into the bottom of the cart, then started off after the toilet paper. But a hand grabbed at her, snagged the back of her bra through her uniform, tugged her backwards.
She spun away from him, her face red with anger, but her voice quiet and measured. "Must work, sir. Many rooms to finish."
"Hell, girl, I'll pay ya for your trouble." He reached into his pants, fumbled drunkenly for his wallet. "Shit, I come here to fuck and I intend to do just that. Here's five bucks. Buys a shitload of refried beans." He held out a crumpled five dollar bill.
Maria's nostrils flared, but she said nothing. Instead she turned around and began marching for the stairs to retrieve the toilet paper. Again, the hand grabbed at her uniform, held her bra, and jerked her backwards off her feet. Her breasts, slightly large for her age, were flattened painfully, the rough material scratching her nipples.
"I ain't asking, honey," he growled, and wrapped his thick hand around her mouth. She tasted nicotine on his sweaty fingers. Panic sizzled along her skin and she felt vomit bubbling up in her throat as she struggled against his powerful grip.
Quickly he dragged her into the room she'd been cleaning, slammed the door shut, and slipped the chain into place, all the time holding the kicking girl under his left arm. When the door was secure, he tossed her easily across the room onto the bed. "Strip!" he said.
"Please, sir," she sobbed. "No, please."
"Strip or I'll do it for ya." He was already unbuttoning his shirt.
She looked at him, the giant American in the wrinkled business suit, half drunk and half crazy with lust, and shrugged resignedly. She stopped crying, stopped begging. She had seen men like this before, knew they would get what they wanted no matter what she said. Some would feel bad afterwards and beg for forgiveness, though she suspected this gringo was not such a man. With brisk efficiency she unfastened her uniform, slipped it over her head. Kicked her shoes off. Unhooked the tattered bra. Peeled off the worn panties. She sat naked in the middle of the bare mattress, the blanket lying on the'floor. She was skinny everywhere, bones protruding at angles in every direction. She was embarrassed more by her skinniness than her nakedness, and tried to hide herself with her arms.
"Don't do that!" he snapped, stepping out of his pants. "I wanna see them sweet little titties of yours."
She let her arms relax to her sides. She had only made love with one boy in her whole life, and with him only twice. Both times it had been over with so quickly she had wondered if she'd done something wrong. But Orlando had assured her she would get better with practice. Yet he too had been killed in the great flood.
The American was naked now, his body even bigger without clothes. His thick stomach hung down almost to his penis, which was pale and not very large at all, even though it was sticking straight out. It reminded her of the small bars of soap she had to place in the bathrooms. Ivory.
Then he was on her, his crushing weight driving her deep into the soft mattress. She could hardly breathe. He fumbled at her body roughly, squeezing her breasts, pinching the nipples until she cried out. His hand at her crotch felt like a burrowing pig, digging, thrusting, poking. Finally he lifted himself enough to stick his penis into her and began an awkward pumping rhythm. Once he burped in her face and she turned away from the bitter smell of cigarettes mixed with whiskey.
He began grunting, his weight pounding into her tiny frame like a jackhammer. She dug her nails into the mattress, closed her eyes, and imagined a large knife plunging into the back of his neck.
"Shitfuckshitfuck," he groaned, arched his back, and slammed into her as deep as he could, his penis squirting into her endlessly. He opened his eyes, glanced at the clock, and abruptly pulled out of her, dripping onto her stomach. "Gotta get to work. Fucking boss will shove a hot poker up my ass."
He dressed without looking at Maria. She lay there, waiting for him to leave, her eyes still closed.
"Christ, you're a skinny bitch," he said. He leaned over, stuck the five dollar bill between her wet legs and chuckled. "Don't spend it all in one place now." And he was gone.
Nine months later Indigo Cruz was born.
By the time he was eighteen, Maria Cruz was happy to see him join the Army. She didn't question how a boy who couldn't read and who was so grotesquely large could get in. She knew Indigo had his ways of getting what he wanted. She just said her prayers of thanks to the Virgin Mary and accepted the wonderful news. For she'd come to realize that he was just like his father in every way. Worse really. Where his father had merely been cruel, Indigo Cruz was cruel and cold. Arctic. He was not quick to violence, but when he did choose that direction, the outcome was inevitable.
On the day he'd signed his loyalty oath to the United States, the San Antonio police had discovered the body of an eighteen-year-old Chicano boy named Juan Cortez. All his fingers, his tongue, and his eyelids had been cut off with a pair of toenail clippers. The coroner found the clippers later during the autopsy. Juan had been forced to swallow them.
Maria read about it in the paper, recognized Juan as one of Indigo's friends. She never asked him about it, he never mentioned it. In fact, once he left for basic training, mother and son were never in touch again. The next day Maria moved to Los Angeles, left no forwarding address. Not that it mattered. Cruz couldn't write, and wouldn't have written her if he could have.
Cruz managed to keep a low profile in the Army for awhile, getting by as he always did, through intimidation. Eventually he found his niche as a hand-to-hand combat instructor training new troops in how to fight. Things were going pretty smoothly until PFC Eddie Hooks showed up.
PFC Eddie Hooks was a Golden Gloves heavyweight champion. Two hundred and twelve pounds of trim muscles packed tightly into a 6'2" frame. And he was fast. The hands snapped at any angle. He could bounce on his toes for fifteen rounds and still deliver a knockout punch on cue. His recruitment officer had promised him an easy gig on the Army boxing team. Free training for a couple years then he'd be ready to turn pro. He'd planned every little detail of his future. Except Indigo Cruz.
Cruz had Eddie out on the mat for a demonstration of a wing-roll throw. It was simple technique, but required sharp timing.
"All right, Hooks," Cruz had said. "I want you to throw a punch at me with your right hand."
"Yes, sir." Eddie tossed out a slow-motion right cross.
Cruz stepped back and stared at him contemptuously. "I said throw a punch. Hooks. Not slap me silly."
"Well, I thought…" Hooks trailed off.
"Just throw the damn punch."
Hooks stepped back into position, threw a punch. This one was a little faster, but still not a real punch.
Cruz caught Hooks' fist in his hand in midair. "I said a punch, cocksucker. Do you know what a punch is?" Cruz began squeezing Hooks' fist, grinding the fingers under his grip.
Hooks felt his own fingernails digging into his palms. "Jesus, you're breaking my hand."
"Good. When I tell you to do something, fucking do it. Understand?"
Hooks winced under the pain, nodded. Cruz released his grip. Hooks shook his fingers out, massaged them. Four half-moons of blood were etched in his palms where the nails had bitten through the flesh. Son of a bitch, Eddie thought. He wants a punch, I'll give the freak a punch to write home about.
"Okay, Hooks. Go ahead."
And Eddie did. He snapped a left into Cruz's chin, then double-pumped it into his nose. Cruz's head flew back. Blood trickled out of his nostril.
Cruz nodded apprecialely. "Nice, Hooks. That's more like it."
Hooks was still bouncing on his toes, huffing angrily through his nose, his face grimly set. He'd expected Cruz to yell at him, take a swing, have him arrested. Something. But the big guy was just smiling. Maybe he was okay after all.
Cruz turned to the rest of the recruits, all of whom had stopped breathing. "Now that's how to throw a punch. You watch Hooks here and you guys can learn something. Way to go, Hooks."
Hooks shrugged proudly. He was used to accepting praise. Besides, he'd be hearing a lot of it when he was heavyweight champion of the world.
"Okay," Cruz said. "Let's try it again, Hooks."
"Yeah. Just like last time."
Cruz grinned through thin bloodless lips. "As fast as you can."
Eddie began bouncing on his toes, his left hand hanging near his hip in a cocky posture, his right hovering near his chest. He danced to the left, then to the right, changing directions with impossible speed and agility.
Cruz stood still, his arms hanging at his sides.
Eddie snapped out a left jab, so quick and unexpected some of the recruits jumped a little. It was aimed directly at Cruz's face, but somehow-and this Eddie didn't understand-it missed! Cruz hadn't lifted his hands to protect himself, hadn't blocked the punch in any way. It looked to Eddie like the only thing he did was sort of shift his weight a little from one foot to the other. An accident really.
Eddie moved to the left again, bouncing on his toes, feigning to the left, then lashing out with a right cross at Cruz's jaw. Cruz spun his huge bulk to the side with incredible grace and ease. Again, Eddie missed.
"You see, men," Cruz explained to the recruits, "fighting isn't just doing damage to the other guy. It's also avoiding having damage done to you. In other words, don't get hit."
Eddie drew in a deep breath. The hippo sergeant was making a fool out of him. Dodging his punches so easily. Shit, they'll never take him seriously as a contender if every elephant that comes along can slip his punches like this. Eddie brought his left and right up to his face for the classic no-nonsense fighter's stance. He was bouncing less as he moved in toward Cruz, who took no step in any direction. Just waited.
The first punch was a left jab, grazing Cruz's ear. The second was an immediate left hook that mussed Cruz's hair, but otherwise missed. The third was a right uppercut that slashed through nothing but air.
Cruz had not moved his feet, yet every punch had missed. Eddie Hooks backed up and stared for a moment, frustration welling up inside of him like sour bile. He was afraid he would cry, and blinked back the tears.
"You see," Cruz continued talking, his voice taunting, contemptuous, "fighting is a hell of a lot more than just your throwing punches. It involves timing, for one. And brains, for another." His grin widened at Hooks. "Try it again. Hooks. And stop holding back on me."
Hooks felt his skin burning, with embarrassment, with hate. He had to teach this cracker asshole a lesson if it was the last thing he ever did.
He brought his hands up again, moved toward Cruz. No bouncing now. His hands flew in frenzied blurs. A double left jab, a right to the stomach, a wild left hook, All misses. When he straightened up, Cruz was standing behind him. Laughing.
"Shit, son, I thought you had something. Guess I was wrong. Just another dumb nigger."
Eddie spun with a growl, coiled his arms again. He was used to fighting from a distance, flicking out the jab and running. Wearing his opponent down before stepping in close to finish him off. But this fucking ape was using some kind of Kung Fu shit that Eddie couldn't figure out. He'd have to get in close with this guy to wipe that grin off his fat face.
Eddie tucked his chin down, moved cautiously closer to Cruz. Cruz stood still, let him come, his hands hanging lazily at his side. Eddie circled to the right, then suddenly shifted to the left, lunging forward with a looping left hook.
What happened next no one who was there ever forgot.
Cruz saw the punch coming and leaned backward out of its path. For a moment Eddie's arm seemed to be suspended in midair, with nowhere to go. That's when Cruz's powerful arms grabbed it out of the air like a swooping hawk and jerked it around, spinning Eddie off balance. With an easy movement, Cruz trapped Eddie's elbow between his own hands, yanked. Eddie screamed in pain as his arm popped out of his shoulder socket.
"My arm! You busted my fucking arm!"
Cruz glanced calmly at the recruits. "So you see, men, how important it is not to get too close to your opponent unless you are adequately prepared."
"You son of a bitch," Eddie hissed through clenched teeth, holding his limp and twisted arm. "It's busted."
Cruz ignored him, continuing his lecture. "It is also important to remember that hand-to-hand combat is not to be taken literally. That is, it don't mean just using hands. For example…" He pointed at Eddie who was hunched over, grasping his useless arm, thinking about his career. "The elbow is even harder than a fist." Cruz hovered over Eddie a moment, then brought his elbow crashing down in the middle of Eddie's back. Eddie's legs buckled and he sprawled forward, his injured arm slamming into the hard wooden floor.
"Jeeesus! Goddamn!" His face was contorted with pain.
"Then there's the foot," Cruz said, kicking Eddie's ribs with two quick blows. Bones cracked like dry twigs. Eddie lapsed into semi-consciousness.
Cruz kneeled next to him, flipping him onto his back. "Hey, Hooks, you okay?" He patted Hooks' cheeks.
Hooks' eyes rolled a moment, then slowly focused. "Son of a bitch," he gasped.
Cruz grinned. "I knew you was all right. Guy in your shape. So let's continue, okay?" A look of terror tore at Eddie's face as Cruz turned to the recruits again. "Now, when you actually, have to use your hands, remember that there are many parts of the hands available. The knuckles…" He made a fist and jabbed it into Eddie's nose. Thick, gooey blood squirted out both nostrils. The nose remained flattened against Eddie's face, broken.
"Owww! Oh God, help me!" Eddie cried out to the others. "Help me, you guys!"
The recruits looked at each other but no one made a move. They didn't know what to do. They'd all heard about tough sergeants before, especially Sergeant Cruz. But that was part of the game, wasn't it? Surely the sergeant would stop soon, having taught the black kid a lesson.
Cruz continued. "Then there's the palm of the hand…" He drove his palm into Eddie's mouth, just enough to loosen all the front teeth so they'd all have to come out within the week. "And fingers…" He V-ed his two fingers and jabbed them into Eddie's sinus cavities. Mucus mixed with blood streamed out of Eddie's nose. His eyes swam in lakes of tears.
"Please, Sarge," he begged, crying. "Please God, Sarge."
Cruz ignored him. "And, of course, the flat edge of your hand…" He raised his stiffened hand over Eddie's exposed throat, watched the boy's eyes widen with horror, his mouth too dry to choke out a plea, then brought it slicing through the air at a hundred miles an hour.
At the last instant, he stopped.
The edge of his hand rested on Eddie's protruding Adam's apple. But no damage was done. No physical damage.
Eddie's eyes fluttered open. When he realized he was still alive, he panted hysterically, blood bubbles foaming at his nostrils. He emptied his bowels in his pants. His body shook from his sobs.
Cruz stood up, his face expressionless, as if he were watching a bug writhing on a pin.
One of the recruits finally summoned enough courage to speak. "Shouldn't we get him over to the infirmary, Sergeant Cruz?"
Cruz grinned. "Nah. Let him get used to his own shit and piss for a while. We got work to do. Everybody out on the field."
And they left him there, pants soaked with waste, blood streaming out of his nose, ribs splintered, a ringing in his ears. Anyone looking at the shattered heap squirming on the gymnasium floor would know that he'd never again dream about becoming the champion of the world.
Actually, he'd never dream of anything again. When Cruz brought the recruits back into the gym half an hour later, Eddie Hooks was unconscious. Doctors operated for two hours, removed the blood clot in his brain that had formed when one of the blood vessels had burst. He stayed on life-support systems for nine days before finally dying.
Eddie Hooks had been a popular home-town boy in Philadelphia and the local newspapers knew they had a good story here. And they pursued it every day with lurid detail. The Army, in an effort to avoid yet another accusation of racism, fed them Cruz. Eighteen years for involuntary manslaughter.
By the time Dirk Fallows had arrived, Cruz had done six of those years. A couple inmates confided to Fallows that Cruz had killed at least two other prisoners in those six years. One had been overheard making fun of Cruz's size. He was found drowned in a toilet bowl he'd just finished using, his pants still wound about his ankles. The second had winked suggestively at Cruz. He'd been found with an eight-inch nail driven through his eye and into his brain. Cruz had been questioned, but never charged.
That was one of the odd things about Cruz, Fallows had realized. He seemed to have no interest in sex, with women or men. Not even with himself. In a prison, there is no privacy, and secrets are hard to keep. But no one had ever seen Cruz do anything. Even the soldiers who knew him before his imprisonment had never seen him with a woman. With anything.
Not that it mattered to Fallows. All he cared about was that Cruz had the ruthlessness to do what was necessary, and the skill to succeed. That's why Fallows had helped Cruz get out legally. The Army was happy to get rid of him, let the civilian world worry about him for a while. Then he'd made Cruz his second in command.
The men were afraid of both of them. Of Fallows because they couldn't understand him. He was brilliant, mysterious. Of Cruz because they understood him too well. He was brutal, indifferent. Fallows planned, Cruz executed the plan. Sometimes with more enthusiasm than necessary.
Dirk Fallows focused the binoculars on the man riding ahead. Thin, late thirties. Uncomfortable riding a horse. Nervously glancing around. A cheap slingshot in his hand.
He swung the binoculars back to the waiting women, studying each from head to toe. Only one was old enough to be called a woman. She was a few pounds overweight, but not bad. Marketable. When he looked at the two girls he was momentarily confused, thinking he'd made a mistake, then realizing they were twins. Young, maybe seventeen or eighteen. Pretty. The men would be pleased tonight. After him.
He shifted the binoculars back to the man as he rode deeper into the woods, scouting ahead. A few more yards and he'd be there. Fallows could almost imagine Cruz hulking in some tree, crouching patiently, his giant hands open and waiting. Fallows grinned. It was an image to frighten any man, even himself.
The man on horseback stopped. Leaned forward in the saddle, peered into the woods. Waited.
"Shit!" he spat. "The son of a bitch is turning around."
The kid at the firepit stopped peeling the flesh of the German Shepherd and looked up. He started to speak, felt the tickle of black shepherd hair on his lips, spit it out. "Christ."
Fallows studied the scene with intensity. The man had turned around and ridden back to his family. They were talking. He refocused the binoculars, trying to read the man's lips, but the man's horse turned slightly and all Fallows could see now was the back of his head.
Fallows sighed. Well, if they were deciding to ride the other way, that would be that. They'd be gone, free and clear. But if they were deciding to push ahead, they'd be in Cruz's hands soon. There was nothing to do but wait and see.
Fallows smiled. Wait and see.
"Goddamn it, horse, stay still." Leo Roth sat helplessly gripping the saddle horn with both hands as his horse moved to the right to nibble some grass. Leo tried to tug the horse back around, felt bad about taking it away from food, threw up his hands. "You just relax," he told the horse. "Bon appetit. I'll just twist around here in the saddle until my spine cracks. Don't bother yourself."
"Leo, stop fooling with the damn horse," Cynthia Roth complained.
Leo looked off into the woods at an imaginary audience. "She thinks I'm fooling with the horse. As if I have any choice here."
"What'd you see, Dad?" Sarah asked.
"Nothing really," he shrugged. "Just a feeling"/'
Cynthia frowned. "Feeling? What kind of feeling? Like a sick feeling, or what?"
"A feeling, that's all. Nothing specific."
Suddenly Leo's horse lifted his head and tail at the same time, shivered slightly. Large, greenish droppings plopped to the ground.
Cynthia frantically waved the air in front of her face. "For God's sake, Leo."
"What do you mean Leo? It's the damn horse doing it, not me."
"Couldn't you have moved him first or something?"
"He and I have grown apart. He doesn't confide in me anymore."
The horse finished, swished his tail back and forth a few times, then dipped his head back to eat more grass.
"Would you look at that?" Leo pointed. "He doesn't even wait a respectable time. Just eats and shits. What the hell kind of animal is this?"
Cheryl shook her head with disgust, as she always did over her parents' antics. In high school they'd been a constant source of embarrassment, her father always cracking corny jokes with her friends, trying to be one of the guys. Christ. Sarah never seemed to mind, but then Sarah didn't have that many friends. Not the ones that counted anyway.
Leo Roth looked at his family. He knew he was acting the fool, but he was scared and he didn't know why. He didn't want them to see how frightened he really was. He had to be the strong one, keep them all together. He'd even accept Cheryl's obvious contempt now; it was better than having her as terrified as he was.
"So what are we going to do, Dad?" Sarah asked. "It'll be dark soon."
"We could make camp here," Cheryl suggested. "We passed a stream half a mile back."
Leo nodded, considering.
"Why don't we just keep going another hour," Cynthia said. "That'll bring us a few more miles closer to getting off these creatures for good. I'll break out the can of plums as a treat."
"Sounds great, Mom," Sarah said.
"I'm in," Cheryl agreed.
Leo looked over his shoulder, back into the woods. Nothing moved. A couple birds warbled at each other, but other than that everything was peaceful. Still, something nagged at the back of his neck, some kind of chill. Silly. Maybe. Aw hell, what did he know about the woods. He was just acting like a dumb city boy, jumping at every toad.
"Sweetheart?" Cynthia said.
Leo jerked his horse around, pointed it ahead. "We go on."
"One more hour?" Cheryl pleaded.
"Promise. Just one more." Leo smiled. "Wagons ho-oh."
They rode on.
Cynthia concentrated on keeping her horse next to Leo's, though for some reason every time she caught up, his horse would surge ahead a couple steps. "Leo, don't you want me next to you?"
"Yes, but this stupid horse doesn't."
"It's Mom's horse he doesn't want," Sarah explained. "He wants to be the lead horse. You've got to rein him in more if you want Mom riding next to you."
He turned around and winked at the girls. "I don't know, I might have a good thing here." The girls laughed. Cynthia pretended to be mad, but laughed too.
"A clown I married, A real joker."
"It was in the cards, dear."
The girls groaned.
"Even Rodney Dangerfield wouldn't use that one," Cheryl said.
Leo laughed. "Where do you think I stole it?"
He was feeling a little better now, safer. There was nothing like the laughter of your own family to make the rest of the world shrink away. Everything would be just fine, he was sure. He felt silly now for still gripping the slingshot in his left hand.
"Do you think things are as bad at Aunt Paula's as they are around here?" Sarah asked.
"I don't know," Leo said. "It all depends on the-"
Cheryl screamed. "Daaddyyyy!"
Men were swarming all around them, dropping out of trees, jumping up from under piles of leaves. They brandished weapons, machetes, bayonets, spears, a couple guns.
"Hold your fire!" someone barked. "Don't waste the bullets."
Two men grabbed Cheryl, yanking her roughly off her horse. Leo heard her clothes being ripped, her cries, a loud slap.
His horse was prancing wildly from side to side, but he tightened his grip on the reins and swung the horse around in a tight arc. Digging his heels into its ribs, he urged the horse into the two men who were attacking Cheryl, knocking both to the ground. Cheryl scrambled to her feet, her blouse torn down the front, her pants bunched halfway down her hips. She dashed for her horse, but another man grabbed her around the waist and swept her off the ground.
Leo saw Sarah kick one bearded attacker in the face, watched him slam back into a tree. He glanced over his shoulder as three men leaped at his wife. One clutched a handful of her hair and jerked her out of the saddle. She screamed, but kept fighting, her arms and legs flailing at all of them at once.
Leo hunched low, gigged his horse again, and plowed into two of the men. As before, they tumbled to the ground. While Cynthia clawed at the third man's face, Leo lifted his slingshot, nestled a small metal ball into the leather pocket, stretched the rubber tubing back to his chin, and let it fly. The metal ball whistled through the air, punched through his wife's attacker's cheek, and shattered the bone. The man fell to the ground clutching his bleeding face.
Leo dropped another ball into the leather pocket, swung around toward his daughters to protect them. But just as he did, he caught a glimpse of a giant bear of a man crashing through the brush toward him, a raised machete in his hand. The man's eyes were fixed on Leo, glistening black pearls behind slits of flesh. He had to be at least seven feet tall, but he ran with remarkable speed, dodging low-hanging branches with ease. His face was strangely calm, like a jogger just hitting his stride. The machete reflected spears of lights as it came closer.
Leo felt as if he were trapped in a vat of honey, moving with dreamlike slowness as he raised his slingshot, aimed it at the charging giant, began tugging the rubber tubing back.
But too late.
The machete winked in the light, then sizzled in a wide arc toward his arm. He felt a tug at his left sleeve, saw his hand fly off into the woods, land five feel away in a nest of leaves, still clutching the slingshot.
He looked at his arm with confusion, saw the blood pouring from the stump. It looked like something from a bad horror movie. Unreal. Fake blood. He started to laugh, held up the bloody stump for everyone to see, as if it were a practical joke. Looked into the giant's face, saw him smiling. He understood the joke. Then watched as the smiling giant swung the machete toward his throat. The blade seemed to move so slowly, Leo knew all he had to do was move and it would miss him altogether. So simple. Just move.
Suddenly he felt a solid blow at his throat, a sharp stinging, then nothing. He heard a gurgling, saw the ground rushing at him. Thought about how stupid horses were. Died before he finished the thought.
Dirk Fallows lowered the binoculars, a satisfied grin cracking his rugged face like a rocky chasm. "Here, Foxworth, take a look." He offered the kid the binoculars.
"Thank you, sir," Foxworth said, quickly wiping the dog blood from his hands onto the thighs of his fatigues. He took the binoculars and peered down into the woods.
"Over there," Fallows said, nudging the glasses a couple inches to the left.
Foxworth studied the scene for a few seconds and whistled. "Holy shit!"
"Don't worry, Foxworth, they'll save you some."
Foxworth lowered the glasses and leered. "I hope so, sir. Them twins is mighty nice looking. So young and all."
"By morning they'll be a lot older."
"Yes, sir," Foxworth chuckled, looking through the binoculars again. "Boy, Sergeant Cruz sure whooped the shit outta that guy. Jesus."
Fallows stood up. Cruz had certainly done the job down there, but in an eerie way. Fallows had had the binoculars focused on Cruz's face as soon as he'd shown himself. Yet, Cruz had remained so expressionless, even as he hacked that guy's hand off and nearly sliced his head from the shoulders. There was a thin smile, but not one of pleasure or disgust. More like a twitch than any display of emotion. Fallows couldn't figure the guy out. Sadists he understood, at least they enjoyed what they did. But Cruz seemed to neither enjoy it nor dislike it. It was more as if he simply was compelled to do it, like a robot programmed to destroy. It could make him difficult to control in the future. Fallows would have to keep an eye on Cruz.
Foxworth stood up, handed the binoculars back to Fallows. "What's next, Colonel?"
"Yes, sir. You said as soon as we'd made a couple more hits and collected some tradeable goods, we'd be off on a major campaign."
Fallows brushed his close-cropped white hair with one hand as he stared at the kid. "You anxious to fight, Foxworth?"
"Yes, sir. I'm ready."
"You wouldn't think so if you knew the target as well as I do."
The kid squared his shoulders. "I'm not afraid of nobody, sir."
Fallows laughed. "That's because you're a stupid asshole, Foxworth, who doesn't know which end speaks and which end farts."
Foxworth frowned, lowered his eyes. "Yes, sir."
"Now get back to skinning that dog. I want you used to the smell of blood, because soon that smell is going to fill the air."
"Yes, sir." Foxworth trotted back to the dog carcass and continued his work.
Col. Dirk Fallows tucked the binoculars back into their leather case, snapping it shut. He'd had a couple months to work out the plan and was sure of its success. Every detail had been considered. Every option. Tonight, after his men had enjoyed themselves with their captives, he would tell them the rest of the plan. Not all of it, of course, but enough.
He heard his troops tramping up the hill and turned to watch. The women's screams had been reduced to dim whimpers of resignation. Cruz marched ten feet ahead of the others, who leered and pawed anxiously at the females. Cruz stared straight ahead, Fallows noticed with a grin, as if indifferent to their prize. Well, he'd already gotten his kicks.
Suddenly Cruz stopped, spun back on the men, grabbed Dennis Grover by the hair, and dragged him across the campgrounds toward the firepit.
"Hey! Shit, what the-" he protested, his feet scrambling for footing, his arms snatching at air.
The others stopped and stared, the women terrified, the men relieved that it hadn't been them that Cruz held.
Fallows watched silently, allowing Cruz to continue, knowing there was a reason behind Cruz's brutality.
"Fuck, Sarge!" Grover pleaded. "What'd I do?"
Cruz flung him face forward into the dirt next to Foxworth's feet. "You're the one that made the noise. Almost scared them away. I taught you better."
"It wasn't me, Sarge. I swear it!" Grover was a combat-hardened veteran, tough gritty. But confronted with Cruz's wrath, even rocks whimpered.
Cruz stared at him with disgust. "It was you."
He reached down, wrapped his thick fingers around Grover's neck and forced his face forward into the pile of guts Foxworth had scraped out of the dead German Shepherd. "Eat, you stupid bastard."
The men squirmed with sick expressions. Fallows smiled.
"Oh, God, Sarge," Grover begged. "Give me a chance. Please."
Cruz pulled his bloody machete out of its sheath and held it over Grover's head. "Here's your chance, pal."
Grover's face was pale, slightly green as he looked at the slimy heap of dog innards glistening eight inches away.
"C'mon, Grover. Let's see. Start with the intestines. They look nutritious."
Grover took a deep breath, scooped up a handful of steaming intestines and took a bite. It squished against his teeth like a fat worm. He chewed slowly, meticulously, holding his breath against the randy taste.
"Swallow," Cruz said, nudging Grover's neck with the machete.
Grover swallowed hard, but it wouldn't seem to go down. He kept swallowing until it did.
"Try the heart next. You need all you can get."
Grover lifted it with one hand like a precious jewel, brought it to his mouth. Suddenly his stomach heaved and pitched, spewing vomit. Chunks of dog intestine shot out of his mouth.
Cruz booted Grover in the middle of the back, sending him face down into the vomit and organs.
"Other than that, you did well, men." Fallows raised his hands in a welcoming benediction. He smiled, his pale colorless eyes twinkling like melting ice as they approached. "And for that you will be amply rewarded."
The men sent up a roaring cheer for their leader, hats flying in the air, arms waving merrily.
Fallows kept his smile in place, but he was thinking. Thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow would be Eric Ravensmith's turn.
"What can I do to help?" Annie asked.
Eric pointed with his screwdriver. "Hand me that piece of rubber hose over there."
Annie followed the line of the screwdriver, picked up the short length of hose from the bed, and dropped it on the small oak desk where Eric was tinkering. "Hey, look," she said, snatching up one of the items scattered across the desk. "You know what this looks like?"
"A sardine key," Eric said.
"Yeah. Just like a sardine key."
'That's because it is a sardine key. We picked up a couple dozen of them last week when we toured the Dead Zone."
Annie frowned, tossed the key back on the desk. "You mean eight of you risked your lives sneaking through that godforsaken Dead Zone just for a handful of sardine keys?"
"Of course not," Eric grinned. "We also got a bunch of these nifty mousetraps."
Eric gestured with his chin. "Slide over that spool of monofilament fishline, would you?"
Annie nudged the spool over, picked up an orange flare, hefted it. "What're you making, some kind of gun?"
"Trip flares. We hide these all around the perimeters of University Camp and hopefully anybody trying to sneak up on us will set one off. Then we know right where to look for them."
"Hmmm. Clever little devil." She stood behind Eric and kissed the top of his head, nuzzling her nose in his hair. "You smell funny."
He continued fastening the mousetrap to the wooden stake, tightening the screws. "Gee, I can't understand why. We just washed this shirt two weeks ago and I've only worn it ten times since."
"It's not just you. It's me, you, the kids. Everybody. And it's not a bad smell. It's just, you know," she shrugged, "funny."
"You mean earthy."
"I prefer 'natural.' It sounds cleaner."
Eric chuckled. "Well, whatever you call it, better get used to it. Considering the water shortage and our changed diet, we're all going to be smelling a lot more 'natural.' "
"I kind of like it. It's certainly a hell of a lot better than that sterile sanitized way we all used to smell. Yesterday I was working in the garden with Gertie Potts when she dug up half a bottle of Ralph Lauren cologne. She sprayed some on faster than a starving man will eat a stew. It smelled so sweet I thought I'd puke."
"Ah ha," Eric nodded. "That explains it."
"Why you smelled that way last night."
"What smell? That was just my natural scent."
"Yeah, you and Ralph Lauren."
Annie grabbed a single strand of hair from atop Eric's head and yanked it out.
"Owww!" Eric dropped the screwdriver and rubbed his head.
"That should teach you not to make fun of me when your hands are full."
Eric scraped his chair back and jumped to his feet. "Now you've had it. I warned you." He spun around, hands out, fingers wiggling in the air.
"Oh Jesus, no," Annie pleaded, backing away. "No tickling, Eric. Please. I'm sorry."
"Too late for that now." He came toward her, herding her across the tiny room into a corner.
"It was an accident, Eric. I swear. Here," she held out the strand of his hair like a flower. "We'll put it back."
He stepped closer, his arms outstretched to prevent her breaking for the door.
"Stop it, Eric, this is childish." She straightened herself, adopting her stern parental expression. "I will not permit you to bully me."
Eric wiggled his fingers.
Annie collapsed in the corner, her arms pressed to her sides, her hands covering her hips, her most ticklish spot. "Please, I didn't mean it. I forgot."
Eric leapt forward, dropping to his knees and bundling her up in his arms. He pressed his lips against hers. She kissed back, touching her tongue to his. When they broke, he lifted her to her feet. "Let that be a warning, young lady. There's plenty more where that came from."
"Yeah? Then I might just have to pluck you bald."
He laughed, wiggled his fingers at her.
"Use those itchy fingers for something more productive," she grinned, pointing at the desk. "After all, you're the Security Chief of the whole University Camp. You have responsibilities, duties, a calling."
He gave her a look. "You're asking for it. Have fingers, will tickle."
Eric pulled up his chair and hunched over the desk – again, twisting eye screws into the base of the mousetrap. "Can you give me more light, honey?"
Annie walked over to the single window and slid another 2x4 board out of its brackets. Yellowish-orange light stabbed into the tiny room. It was the only kind of light they got anymore, a hazy amber so popular in motel paintings of sunsets. Through the gap, she could see the clear plastic cover over the swimming pool glazed with orange light like a slab of Jell-0. She leaned the board against the wall and returned to the mattress, where she was cutting a vinyl seat cover into "feathers" to be glued onto wooden shafts, eventually becoming arrows for long bows or bolts for crossbows. When she finished another dozen shafts, she and Eric would go over to the basement of the library, which was now the hospital, to see how Jennifer was doing. She'd picked up some kind of summer cold last week, but the doctor wanted to keep her isolated, just to be safe. With their limited medical supplies, they had to be careful about epidemics. There was too much to do, too many walls to defend against the Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone.
It had gotten its name from Jennifer, who'd read a Stephen King novel of the same name. All the kids at school had been reading those spooky novels, the ones with children threatened by vampires, ghouls, zombies. Annie sometimes wondered if that's how they saw adults, as sinister monsters terrorizing them. It made her want to hug her kids more, everybody's kids. In King's novel, the Dead Zone referred to a psychic state, a place in the recesses of the mind. But here their Dead Zone was literal. It meant every place outside University Camp.
At first it had been called Dead Zone because of the mass burnings of dead bodies that took place to prevent disease. But later, as the survivors began establishing their own groups, their own laws, it became a threatening description. Wandering through the Dead Zone could mean death-or worse-from a hundred different tribes or individuals that prowled the ruins. Some of the other camps out there were like University Camp, generally benevolent. But others were less enlightened. They existed only to prey on others. To take what they wanted and destroy the rest.
Annie glanced around the room, smiled. It was hard to believe this same tiny room that had served as Coach Ryder's office for eighteen years now housed the entire Ravensmith family. Coach Ryder used to sit behind that same scarred desk where Eric was making trip flares, smoke his Dutch Masters cigars, and watch his water polo team practice, practice, practice. "I want you guys in the water until you grow fins on your ass," he'd tell them, then retreat to this room and watch as Jim McDonald, his assistant coach, put them through the drills. They were on their way to their fourth consecutive state championship when the quake hit. Coach Ryder had been taking the shortcut around the pool to the locker room to borrow twenty bucks from Jim McDonald to take the women's volleyball coach out for a drink. Then the world started shaking. The lifeguard stand toppled over, knocking him unconscious and into the pool. He drowned very quickly.
During the Reorganization, when University Camp was established, Eric had claimed this room for his family. It allowed him to keep an eye on the pool, which had been drained, repaired, and finally filled with fresh water. Anyone caught stealing from the pool was banished from University Camp into the Dead Zone. Annie had scrubbed the room the best she could without using water, but still that faint stale odor of Coach Ryder's cigars lingered.
The furnishings were simple. Against either wall were two beaten mattresses Eric had carried from a smouldering house around the corner. At night when Annie's face lay against the mattress, she could still smell the fire that had destroyed the home. Even without the mattress, the air was laced with a charcoal bitterness from the old fires and the new ones no one bothered to put out. The only time she could escape that smell was at night, when she cuddled next to Eric and buried her nose against his naked chest.
Someone knocked on the door with a familiar rhythm: shave-and-a-haircut, two bits.
"Hey, open up in there. You've got company."
Eric picked up the crossbow leaning next to his desk, cocked the bowstring, slid a bolt into the groove, and pointed it at the door. He nodded at Annie, who quickly unlatched the series of bolts and locks on the door, and pulled it open.
Tracy Ammes stepped in, her hands in the air. "Friend."
Annie peeked out the door to both sides, then closed and locked it again. Eric removed the arrow, released the bow, returning both to within easy reach.
"Hi, Tracy," Eric said.
"I don't know about your other guests, but I get the willies every time I know I'm coming over. You never know when that thing might accidentally go off."
Annie and Tracy hugged.
"Eric doesn't believe in accidents,'' Annie laughed. "Just ask him."
"Is that right? You don't believe in accidents?"
"That's right," Eric said without looking up from his project. "Cause and effect. Everything is somebody's fault."
"What about last week when Bob Lindwall broke his foot when it crashed through the floor he was repairing?"
"What about Susan Nordahl being thrown from her bike yesterday when the tire blew?"
Annie winked at Tracy. "What about the time last summer you were showing off doing high dives at the pool and your bathing trunks came off?"
"That was different," Eric said, "that was an-"
"Accident," Annie and Tracy chorused with him.
He looked up and smiled. "That's right."
Tracy flopped down on the mattress next to Annie and began helping her cut the vinyl. "I just dropped by to ask if Timmy could stay another half hour at the Day Care School. He's in the middle of a hot chess game with Sheena Brill and it looks like she might just take him."
Annie glanced at her watch. "Fine. We'll pick him up on the way to visit Jennifer. How do you like working there?"
"It's okay," Tracy shrugged. "We try to teach them, as much as we can, but the kids are different ages and abilities, and there aren't enough of any one group that we can afford to use one teacher on them."
"Sounds like the old fashioned one-room schoolhouse."
"Exactly. And to think I used to be nostalgic for those good ole days. I was hoping to teach some art, but the Council's decided art isn't necessary for our present condition, so the closest I get is fingerpainting with five-year-olds." She sighed. "So much for Enlightenment."
"At least things couldn't get worse."
"Think so? Try keeping Councilman Epson from pawing you to death every time he gets within range. He's starting to wear the material through on the seat of my pants." Tracy glanced around the room. "Looks different in here."
"Yeah, I finally pulled up that tacky carpet. Some rain got in before Eric fixed the roof. It took me a couple weeks to decide whether I preferred the smell of mildew to that of smoke. I opted for the more romantic scent of ashes."
Tracy laughed. "At least you have a private room. After three months of sleeping on wrestling mats with a hundred other women, I'd kill for something like this."
"Council laws, my dear. Only married couples get the private rooms."
"How provincial. I overheard Derek Yancey and Kerne Nash talking about getting married just so they can get a room. Apparently the guys don't like their half of the gym any better than we like ours."
Annie shook her head. "Council won't approve. I helped draft the wording of the law just to prevent those kinds of marriages. We just don't have the room."
"What about pregnancies?"
"We haven't worked the details out yet on that, but the sentiment of the Council seems to be in favor of forced abortion of anyone who's become pregnant since the quake. For another couple months anyway."
"My God, Annie. I thought Epson was morally opposed to abortions."
Annie nodded. "Times have changed. It's less of a medical risk right now to have an abortion than to carry the baby and give birth."
"Well, there goes my other plan for getting a room." Tracy shifted Annie's wrist to look at her watch. "Gotta get back to the school. My turn to do nightwatch with the orphans."
Eric twisted around in his chair as Annie unfastened the locks. "Where's your bow?"
"I gave it back," Tracy said. "They were short on bows and I never really got the hang of it anyway."
"What weapon are you using?"
"They gave me a hunting knife."
'Then wear it. Always."
"Christ, Eric, what's the point? I don't think I could use it if I had to."
"If you had to, believe me, you could."
Annie squeezed her shoulder. "It's not just the outside you have to worry about, Tracy. You know that."
Tracy nodded. She remembered two instances so far where members of the camp had gone berserk. Steve Conrad had raped and strangled his wife before Eric had fired an arrow through his chest. Tom Flannigan had stolen food from the cafeteria, then threatened to jump off the library roof. Eric had talked him down, then convinced the Council to expel him from University Camp. Tom's wife and children had chosen to stay behind.
"Okay," she said, "next time you see me I'll be packing my blade, baby." She hugged Annie and waved at Eric, closing the door behind her.
"She's got a crush on you," Annie said as she relocked the door.
"Come off it."
"It's true, super stud."
Eric looked up and shook his head. "You women think you know what everybody's feeling."
"Relax, I'm not accusing either one of you of anything. I'm just stating a fact. I find it kind of flattering."
"No, to me. My good taste."
Eric snorted, returned to tying the fishline to the flare.
"She's very attractive," Annie continued, settling in with her scissors and vinyl. "And she's smart as hell. Not to mention talented."
"I thought you two were friends."
"We are. I know she would never make a play for you. She's too loyal, too sensitive."
"You've convinced me. I love her."
"I'm serious. She's got things pretty tough. Stuck in a gym at night with a hundred other women, working with kids all day. She's pretty lonely."
"She tell you this?"
"She didn't have to. I've got eyes."
"Not to mention a long nose to butt into other people's business."
"What are friends for?"
"I'm beginning to wonder."
"Is there a point to the description of Tracy's emotional life?"
"No. Just wanted you to know I think she's pretty terrific. Too young, of course, lacking my maturity and sophistication. But still…" Her voice trailed off.
Eric put the flare down and turned in his chair. "Just what are you suggesting?"
"Bullshit. I know you. I'm being set up." He dropped to his knees and shuffled over next to Annie, squeezing her hands in his. "Nothing's going to happen to you. Not while I'm around."
Annie smiled lightly, but a tear rolled down her cheek. "I know that. But accidents can happen. Disease. That damn haze in the sky. Something you can't control. I just want you happy. You and the kids."
"So you're doing some preliminary matchmaking."
She shrugged, wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "My last horoscope told me to be organized."
Eric leaned forward and hugged her tightly, crushing her next to him. She felt thinner than three months ago, but then who wasn't? He felt a tear slide down his cheek and he wasn't sure if it was from his eye or hers. It didn't matter. He hugged her closer.
Urgent knocking on the door. "Dr. Ravensmith! Dr Ravensmith!"
Eric lifted Annie to her feet, rearmed the crossbow while she unlocked the door.
Philip Marcus rushed in, holding his bow in one hand, grasping his aching side with the other. "Gotta hurry, Dr. Ravensmith. They want you right away."
"Who, Philip?" Eric asked, lowering his bow.
Philip struggled to catch his breath. "The Council. Emergency session. They sent me after you."
"What's it about?"
He shook his head, gulped air. "Don't know. Except, they want you to go into Dead Zone." He looked at Annie, then at his feet.
"Okay, Philip, you run ahead. Tell them I'll be right there."
"But they told me to bring you right back. Stay with you all the way."
Eric's expression didn't change, but there was a chill in his voice. "Run ahead, Philip."
"Yes, sir," Philip said, turned, and fled.
Eric pulled a black turtleneck sweater over his head, started strapping his quiver and knife on. "I'll just see what they want. Don't worry."
Annie nodded, looked around the tiny room. Two mattresses. A Coleman lamp. Four cardboard boxes, one for each of them to keep their clothes. A flashlight for night trips to the latrine. Four long bows, three small, green fiberglass models that had been liberated from the university's athletic department for Annie and the kids, and Eric's thicker Bear bow, the gift from Big Bill Tenderwolf. A wooden desk, the only thing left over from Coach Ryder except the cigar smell. And a box of equipment for making arrows that Eric had brought back in the early days of scavenging, when most people weren't sure what they needed. How often had Annie and Eric seen people darting about with TV sets? Cameras? Jewelry?
But Eric had known what to do. Had brought them back to the university, helped them establish University Gimp, set up the hospital, saved the food that had been stored in the cafeteria. Planned the water supply. Decided which buildings were worth defending, strung the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp. Had refused a seat on the Council, but reluctantly accepted-temporarily-the job of Security Chief.
At night he'd walk the perimeter, checking the guards. Annie had seen him staring off, eyes searching the hazy horizon, looking for a familiar face. In their room he slept lightly, startled by every noise, a loaded crossbow within easy reach. He was waiting, she knew. Waiting for Dirk Fallows.
"Maybe Fallows is dead," she said suddenly as he buckled his utility belt. "Or wasn't even in the state when it happened."
"Or maybe he's too busy surviving to worry about some dumb macho grudge."
Eric stuffed his quiver full with bolts. "Maybe."
Annie sighed heavily. "He's out there, right?"
He turned to face her. The orange light from the window streaked down his face, making his scar look like an open wound, bleeding. "Right."
She took his face in her hands, stood on her toes and kissed him lightly on the lips, her eyes pressed closed. As if she could force out the memory of Matt Southern, who'd taken three men into the Dead Zone last month in search of generator parts. None had returned.
"Take care," she said.
"Count on it," he smiled and dashed out the door, the crossbow clutched in one hand, the arrows rattling against each other as he ran.
She closed the door, fastened each lock in turn, started gluing strips of vinyl seat covers to wooden shafts.
"This is not a request, Eric," Dr. Donald Epson said angrily. "It's a direct order from the Council."
"And if I refuse?"
"Are you refusing?"
Eric leaned his crossbow against the wall, hung the quiver of bolts over the metal stock. The five members of the Council sat at a long table in the conference room at the back of the bookstore where Billy Mendoza, who once ran the bookstore, used to hold weekly poker games with a few faculty and administrators. Billy used his winnings to send his Cuban mistress to Florida once a year to visit her mother. Eric had sat in on a couple of those games, personally contributing to her Florida fund both times. It had been Eric's idea to include the bookstore as part of University Camp because it had been built last year under strict earthquake-endurance guidelines. And, as with the library, because the books were valuable commodities, though only Eric had seen why at the time.
"I'm waiting for your answer, Eric," Dr. Epson said sternly, brushing his thick gray moustache from his lips. He was Council chairperson and always sat tinkering with a rubber mallet which he used as a gavel. He was a short, compact man who had managed to salvage a couple neckties and a sports jacket from his home, and wore them now like a badge of authority. Before the quake he'd been Dean of Instruction at the university, a competent but not well-liked man who the faculty prayed would take an early retirement. His wife had been visiting relatives in New Jersey during the quake, which was not unusual -since she had a lot of relatives and spent most of the year traveling to visit them. "Well, Eric? Let's hear it."
"Take it easy, Donald," Trevor Graumann said. "Eric doesn't need to be lectured by you."
Eric glanced up at Trevor and smiled. As the old man had predicted that night at dinner, he'd survived the earthquake with plenty of supplies to see him through. And if he'd stayed in his house with his hidden shotgun, he'd have been fine for months. But some feelings are stronger than survival, and he'd gone out looking for Eric's mother. When he finally returned, his home had been ransacked and all his goods stolen. Not that it mattered; Maggie's death had taken the life out of him. He stayed holed up in his ravaged house until Eric caught up with him, made him his family's adopted uncle, and nominated him onto the Council in his own place.
The three other Council members were Griff Durham, once the biggest real estate broker in the county and the leading Republican fund raiser; Dr. Joan Dreiser, their only medical doctor, whose pre-quake practice had been limited to dermatology; and Toni Tyler, a state representative who'd come home for her daughter's wedding the day before the quake hit. The daughter and groom were both killed.
"Well, Eric," Dr. Epson persisted. "We don't have time for your little waiting games. We explained the situation to you and expect you to fulfill your obligation to this Council and the community."
"For God's sake, Don," Dr. Joan Dreiser sighed. "Let's keep it friendly. This isn't the Inquisition, and you're not, uh…"
"Torquemada," Eric offered.
"Right. That's the son of a bitch. So put your silly little gavel down and let's get to business, I've still got rounds to make at the hospital." She brushed her gray-black hair from her forehead and leaned back in her chair. Her white lab coat, hopelessly stained with old and new blood, torn here and there from wear, was hanging on a brass coatrack in the corner. Her left foot was up on an empty chair to relieve the swelling in her ankles. She was fifty-five but still put in eighteen-hour days, seven days a week.
Toni Tyler, slightly overweight from being dined by Sacramento lobbyists aware of her weakness for pasta, tapped her pencil on the table. "Perhaps Eric can tell us exactly why he refuses this assignment?"
Dr. Epson shrugged, dropped his mallet loudly on the table, and sat down, giving the knot in his tie a little tug. "Fine. Let's hear it then."
Eric walked across the room, pulled out a chair and sat directly across from Epson. Their knees brushed, and Epson jerked backwards as if jolted with electricity. The close proximity made Epson squirm a bit, as Eric knew it would.
"Well, you want me to take a group of people out into the Dead Zone to meet with a group from another camp across town. What are they called?"
"El Dorado Center," Trevor said. "They staked out the stores at that shopping center on the corner of El Dorado and Hastings."
"What kind of stores?"
"Let's see, they have an Angel's Hardware, Thrifty Drugs…"
"A pet store," Dr. Dreiser added. "Bought my cat there two years ago."
Trevor counted them off on his fingers. "They've got a grocery store there, a Lucky's or a Ralph's."
"Ralph's," Toni Tyler said. "And a Kentucky Fried Chicken, some clothing stores, a place that rents video movies, an ice cream store, a Japanese restaurant."
"Okay," Eric held up his hand. "That gives me an idea. They certainly have enough to make good their offer."
"That's right," Griff Durham said, staring at Eric. He was a big man, with broad shoulders and a doughy face made comic by thick, bushy eyebrows and a pencil-thin moustache. He wore a red plaid hunting jacket and carried a Walther P-38 tucked in his waistband, the only working gun in camp. He was used to getting what he wanted and didn't take it well if he didn't. No matter how much the world around him changed, he never would. He looked at everybody as if sizing them up for a fist fight, which he'd had his share of too. "We could use those generator parts they offered, son. Your last mission didn't do too well in that area."
Eric turned to face Durham, his face placid, his voice calm. "Not my mission, Griff. As I recall, it was some brilliant planning on this Council's part that was responsible for sending Matt Southern and his men out there. You sent them out without consulting me, while you knew I was busy reinforcing the perimeters near the library."
"Mat Southern was an experienced police officer," Dr. Epson said, "with six years-"
"Matt Southern was a kid who'd never handled anything more dangerous than a drunken football player during Homecoming Week. And you sent him out with a bunch of guys even less experienced, into a war zone that even a hardened veteran would balk at. And then you wonder why none of them came back. What do you people use for common sense?"
"We need those generator parts, Ravensmith," Durham said. "We've got a fuel reserve, and we've got the basic motors. But without those parts we'll never get them working."
"He's right, Eric," Dr. Dreiser said. "I could sure use some electricity at the hospital. We salvaged all kinds of equipment from the campus infirmary, but we can't use them. Not without those generators."
"And we could set some lights up at night to guard the perimeter," Dr. Epson said.
Eric leaned back in his chair, rocking it back on two legs. "I know how important it is. But I know that there's a safer way to go about getting what we want. I told you that before and it still goes. The only difference now is that we've lost four men."
"At least we tried," Durham growled.
"Wrong. They tried. You sat on your asses while they got theirs blown away. Now you're asking me to do the same thing."
"These are dangerous times, Eric," Toni Tyler said in her reasonable politician's voice. "We don't always have the luxury of optimum safety."
Eric smiled. "Especially when you don't have to go out yourself."
"It doesn't matter what you think about us," Dr. Epson said. "As I pointed out earlier, we aren't asking you. We're telling you. We took a vote and we agreed three against two, with Trevor here and the good doctor dissenting. We want you to meet them, give them the farming and technical books they want in exchange for whatever generator parts we need."
Eric stood up, turned his back, and marched toward the door. "Forget it."
"Where are you going?" Dr, Epson demanded, his voice squeaky with anger. "Answer me!" He pounded the table with his mallet. "Answer me or I'll have you and your family expelled from University Camp immediately."
"For God's sake, Donald," Trevor gasped.
"You will do no such thing," Dr. Dreiser said, stamping her sore foot on the floor.
Even Griff Durham was shocked by such a threat. "Shut up, Epson."
"I will not! I'm Chairperson of the Council. Elected by the population of University Camp. Eric is this community's Security Chief, appointed by this council, and as such it is his duty-"
Eric grabbed his crossbow and spun around to face them. "You people don't seem to understand the situation out there. We are a tiny fort in hostile territory surrounded by warring tribes. The only reason we survive is because those on the outside are at war with each other as well as with us. Councilperson, Security Chief." He sneered. "Those are bullshit terms from a polite way of life that doesn't exist anymore. You are a war council and I am your warlord. We are at war right this minute, with everyone outside this camp. And the sooner you accept that fact, the better our chance of surviving the week."
"We aren't at war, Eric," Toni Tyler said. "We're conducting peaceful transactions with another group. Like two countries doing business together. We're simply trading goods. It's simple economics, don't make more of it than it is."
"That's right, Ravensmith," Durham nodded. "We're just making do until we're all rescued."
Eric was incredulous. "Rescued?"
"Sure," Dr. Dreiser said. "How long could it be?"
Eric shook his head. "You people still don't understand, do you? Trevor, where are the leaflets?"
Trevor Graumann opened his charred briefcase and pulled out a handful of yellow leaflets. He tossed them in front of him where they landed with a thud.
"Does that include last week's?"
Eric walked back across the room and picked up the top leaflet. "I'm going to assume you've all read these, though it's clear that you don't fully understand them. So I'm going to explain it slowly and bluntly. That way you can get a realistic view of our situation, and make decisions accordingly.
"First, forget about any help from the government. The most they can do right now is fly over, and I mean way over, and drop these goddamn bulletins once very two weeks." He swept his hands across the pile, scattering them along the table. Some fluttered off the edge. "Did you notice the careful drawings, the scientific explanations, the apologetic forecast? Boil it all down and it says one thing: Deep Shit. That's what we're in." He held up one of the flyers with a printed map. "See this map? This is what the United States looked like before the quakes. This was us. California. Now look at the map next to it. This is what the United States looks like now. But wait a minute. Where's California?" He stabbed the paper with his finger. The sound echoed like a shot in the quiet room. "Here we are. Five miles to the west. What's all this space between us and them? Water. Cold, blue ocean."
Durham bristled. "We aren't children, Ravensmith. We understand all that. Part of the mainland broke off, from San Francisco to the Gulf of California. We've all seen the satellite photos and drawings they dropped. Scientists have been predicting the possibility for years. You don't see any of us sitting around crying over it, do you?"
"No, not crying. Just burying your heads." He pointed at the door. "Why do you think the sky's always that orange-yellow color during the day, and that dim gray-pink at night?"
"We know all about the Long Beach Halo, Eric," Toni Tyler said, tapping her pencil on the table. "But according to these government flyers, it's probably just a temporary situation."
"Depends on your definition of temporary. They explain it very clearly, don't they? An inversion layer, a dome of chemical gases formed when the quakes damaged the containers of chemical weapons we had stored at Long Beach harbor. Somehow the weather conditions caused by the quake combined with the escaping chemical gases and formed this damn umbrella sealing the whole damned island in, from San Francisco to the tip of Baja. A super acid fog. We can't get out, the outside world can't get in. In fact, we're warned right here in this flyer-notice the big red print-not to attempt to leave the island by boat. It seems that those who tried and passed through the Halo became diseased and contagious. Suggest anything to you?"
Dr. Dreiser sighed. "Biological weapons."
"Bullseye, Doc. It wasn't just chemical weapons that were stored in Long Beach, but biological ones too. And now they're mixed into that lovely little cloud."
"Impossible!" Dr. Epson shouted. "They would have told us."
"Really?" Eric said, flinging the flyer back onto the table. "Not when our government has proclaimed to the world we'd gotten rid of them years ago. How do you think the rest of the country, never mind the world, will react when they realize there are probably other storehouses just like Long Beach's? Nope. They'll stick to their story. Only problem is, they can't get in here without being contaminated, and we can't get out. How do they word it? 'Anybody attempting to pass through the phenomenon risks contaminating the outside world and will be dealt with severely.' For those who can't interpret military jargon, that means-"
"Kill on sight," Durham said quietly.
Toni Tyler tapped her pencil nervously. "But they also say it's just a temporary phenomenon. That it'll probably dissipate on its own."
"Possibly. But it's been intact for three months without any signs of dissipating. We can't count on that happening, at least not in the near future. We have to start thinking about here and now. Thinking like survivors."
Dr, Epson jumped to his feet. "Submarines! They could dive under the water, avoid the Halo altogether."
"Yeah," Durham said. "What about that? Subs."
"Maybe," Eric said. But their estimates put the dead here at between ten and fifteen million, which leaves about five to ten million people to track down, transport across land, then ship to the mainland. How many subs do you think it would take to transport five million people?"
"It would take ten years," Trevor said. "And that assumes they want to bring us back."
"What do you mean?" Toni asked.
"Well, if Eric is correct in his evaluation of the situation, and I think we can agree that he probably is, then they're not going to be anxious to take the chance of bringing us back."
Toni shook her head. "Why?"
"Because," Durham said, "they can't be sure whether or not we're already contaminated, just from living under that fucking-excuse me, ladies-Long Beach Halo."
"But we aren't sick or anything," Dr. Epson said. "I feel exceptionally robust. Doctor?"
Dr. Dreiser lifted her swollen ankle back onto the chair. "It's possible we've absorbed whatever's up there at such a moderate rate that our bodies have built up an immunity. But we could still be carriers to those outside. Like anthropologists who would discover some lost tribe and end up wiping them out simply by passing along a cold germ. The anthropologists, like most of civilization, had developed immunities. But the tribe, never before exposed, found the germ fatal. It's possible."
Eric watched as each fell into a long, profound silence, staring at their hands, the wall, thinking. He hadn't wanted to shatter what little hope of rescue they'd been clinging to all these months, but it was time for them to take their present situation seriously. To start thinking of it as permanent, which it probably was. He didn't like it any better than they did, though he'd had longer to get used to the idea. Every once in a while the sense of loss was overpowering, and some past image would rush into his mind, dance tantalizingly out of reach, and make him sad. Last week it had been an image of Time magazine, which he used to like to lie in the bathtub and read. No more Time. Yesterday he'd thought about Raiders of the Lost Ark and felt sad because he'd been looking forward to taking the kids to the sequel. Now there wouldn't be a sequel. At least for them. Right now he thought about his old neighbor, Gary Thompson, the dentist who begged to cut Eric's lawn. They rarely spoke, except about the lawn, the weather, the Lakers. Now Eric missed him.
"Okay, back to the matter at hand," Eric said brusquely.
Everyone looked at him with a slightly dazed expression.
"The generator parts. El Dorado Center's offer."
Toni Tyler shifted her hefty bulk in the chair. "It seems to me that if we accept your evaluation, Eric, we are even more in need of those parts. Our generators will be crucial to our survival."
"She's right," Durham said grudgingly, not liking to agree with a woman, even a fellow Republican. "We'll have to deal with them."
Eric sat down again. "Maybe. But let's examine the facts a little first."
This time no one argued.
"How did their offer arrive?"
"Tossed over the fence an hour ago," Dr. Epson said, pushing a wrinkled piece of paper across the table with the head of his mallet. "It was tied to a rock. A couple of kids were smooching near the south perimeter behind the cafeteria. They found it."
Eric read the brief note quickly. "I see they mention generator parts specifically."
"So?" Durham asked.
"How did they know we needed generator parts?"
Durham shrugged. "Maybe because we haven't used any electricity since we've been here. If we had working generators we'd have used them, right?"
"But there's another possibility."
Eric's reddish-brown eyes flashed. "They were told."
"By whom?" Dr. Epson asked.
"Matt Southern. One of the others with him."
"For God''s sake," Durham said. "Why would they?"
"Because they were forced to. Tortured, maybe. Knowing your enemies' weaknesses is the first step in defeating them."
"There he goes again!" Dr. Epson said. "He thinks everyone out there is out to get us."
"It's a safe assumption," Eric said.
"But it's so cold and inhuman, Eric," Dr. Dreiser said. "Maybe they're just a group of people like us, trying to make contact, trying to survive. They're probably as afraid as we are. But they took the first step. Don't we owe it to them-to ourselves-to follow up?"
"Not to the mention the generator parts," Durham reminded everybody.
"It's a big risk," Eric said. "It could be a trick."
"What's the big risk?" Dr. Epson asked. "A few boxes of library books, that's all."
"Not to mention my life and the people I'm taking with me out there."
Dr. Epson looked down. "Well, I didn't mean…" His voice trailed off.
"We understand the risks, Eric," Toni Tyler said.
"Do you? Did you read this note? They want us to meet them at the Bank of America building down the street at midnight. Midnight, for Chrissakes. They must be watching old Thin Man movies in that video shop. Why not do it in the daytime? It's not like we're breaking any laws."
"They mention that in the note," Dr. Epson said.
"They're afraid we might try to jump them, steal the parts."
"Sure," Eric said, standing up. "And maybe they're right. Hell, maybe they are just trying to protect themselves. But chances are it's a setup. And it's just not worth the risk. I won't ask anybody to go out into the Dead Zone on something as lame as this. We're better off continuing to send out scouting patrols on our own, trying to find the parts we need."
"But you've scoured the nearby area and haven't found anything yet," Durham said.
"Lots of people want that kind of stuff. We'll just have to go farther away."
"What about that risk?"
"There's such a thing as acceptable risk, Durham. And at least then we'll know what we're walking into. Good evening."
Eric walked out of the room, snagging his bow and quiver on the way out.
Philip Marcus was sitting on a counter near the cash register, looking out the front door, when he saw Eric winding around the piles of books and displays of Bic pens. "How'd it go in there?" he asked.
Eric smiled at him as he sailed by. "Fine. Just fine."
But Philip had seen that smile. He hopped off the counter and picked up his bow. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
"Close your eyes."
Eric hesitated. "What?"
"Close your eyes. We have a surprise for you." Annie pressed her fingertips against Eric's eyes to make sure they were closed. "Timmy, bring it over."
Eric heard movement, something being set on the desk in front of him, Timmy's familiar giggling. He smiled. Annie's cool fingers felt so good he was in no hurry for the surprise.
"Okay, give us your finger," Annie said. "And keep your eyes closed. Or else."
Eric felt her lifting his right hand. Timmy's tiny hands were tugging at Eric's index finger. "If you're planning on sticking my finger in an electrical socket, forget it. We won't have electricity for a couple more weeks."
"Have faith, Dad," Timmy said. "Did I ever trick you once in my whole life?"
"You were the one who wanted me to do the high dive that day I lost my trunks."
"I didn't know they'd come off. I was just a kid then."
Eric laughed. "Then?"
"Yeah. In a couple months I'll be thirteen. A teenager."
"Enough, enough," Annie said. "Let's continue with the surprise. It's getting late and I don't want to use up all our candles."
Eric's finger was guided through the air. He had to take a step forward to keep up with it. Finally it was lowered toward the desk and placed on a flat, plastic ridge. "Okay, v can I open my eyes now?"
"Nope," Annie said. "First you have to press down with your finger. Hard."
Eric pressed the plastic ridge and it clicked down. A switch of some kind. A slight hiss and whirl. "Now what? Is it supposed to-"
"It was twenty years ago today/Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play/They been going in and out of style…"
Eric opened his eyes and stared at the battered Panasonic tape recorder. "Christ, it's the Beatles. Where did you get this?" He turned the volume up slightly. The sound was scratchy but strong.
Annie cupped her hands around her mouth and pretended to shout. "A bit hard to explain over the noise, guv."
Eric laughed, turned the volume down.
"These kids and their rock 'n' roll," Annie winked at Timmy, shaking her head.
Timmy nodded sternly, imitating an adult, wagging a warning finger. "Next it'll be sex and drugs. Kids today have no respect for traditional values."
Eric mussed Timmy's hair. "How'd you get to be such a smartass at twelve? Not from my side of the family. I was a sweet shy kid at your age."
"Ha! That's not what Grandma said." Timmy stopped abruptly, looking up at his father. He knew mentioning Grandma Maggie still made both his parents sad, and now he might have ruined all the fun they were having.
But Eric grinned and hugged Timmy to his hip. "Well, there were one or two times that Grandma had to teach me some respect."
"Hmmm," Annie said, "probably involving young girls in the neighborhood."
"We did play a lot of doctor when I was a kid. I was Ben Casey, brash but brilliant young surgeon. Little Debbie Morganslicht always wanted me to take her appendix out."
"And of course she had to disrobe."
Eric shrugged. "After all, it was major surgery. I must have removed that sucker a hundred times that summer. Until Mom caught me giving a post-op exam in the garage."
"That must've put a dent in your medical career."
"Well, I never did figure out why she looked so different than I did. It wasn't until a couple years later that Debbie and I finally discovered the answers."
"Hey, you guys," Timmy jumped in. "You shouldn't be talking that way in front of a kid like me."
"A kid like you? If I'd been as smart as you when I was your age, I'd have run for president instead of the garage." Eric hugged Timmy again, tickling him in the ribs. Timmy laughed and squirmed. Eric leaned over and kissed Annie on the lips. "Thanks, guys."
Annie held up her hands. "As much as I'd like to take credit here, I'm afraid I had nothing to do with this. It was all Timmy and Jennifer. They did everything."
"Mostly Jenny," Timmy said, knowing his dad would be pleased with his modesty. "She found the tape recorder in the library under one of the study tables. It had headphones attached but they were busted." Eric laughed. "Another student studying hard."
"It wasn't working right, so she got Rydell Grimme to fix it. I think she's got a crush on him. But don't worry, she's still very naive about relationships."
Eric and Annie exchanged glances. "Thanks for the reassurance," Eric said.
"That's okay. Anyway, Rydell fixed it. In the meantime I traded my last pack of Carefree peppermint gum for a couple Duracell batteries from Troy's bike light. Well, the details don't count, but Rydell managed to use the library taping equipment and the batteries to record the only Beatles album that the library still had."
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
"Right. And there was still enough juice in the batteries to run the recorder, but probably not for long, so better save it for when you really need a shot of Beatles."
Eric stared at the recorder, watching the tape in the cassette spin. The words drifted in from a distance. "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain/'Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies." He felt Annie's arm sliding around his waist. She was smiling, the way she always did when something Family was going on. The thing was, Eric knew he was smiling the same way. He looked down at Timmy. "Thanks, kid. Best present I ever got."
Timmy grinned a wide, cheek-bursting grin.
"In fact," Eric announced. "I think we should go over to see Jennifer right now and tell her so."
Annie hesitated. "It's a bit late, Eric. They might not let us in at the hospital."
"Nonsense. Nothing like a little music to cheer up the sick. Besides, we'll only stay a couple minutes. Long enough for me to kiss her thanks, anyway." He leaned over her ear. "And maybe find a babysitter for Timmy."
"I heard that," Timmy said. "Aren't you guys a little old to still be thinking about sex?"
"Your mom is, but sometimes she remembers her youth. Vaguely."
Annie laughed. "Men!"
Annie looked into Eric's eyes, could see what no one else could in those reddish-brown circles. Most people saw the raw power there, the strength and intelligence. Some even saw the steely edge of anger, a burning rim of hate. But Annie could also see the compassion, the tenderness. She saw emotions that Eric had spent years suppressing in order to survive and as a result had atrophied, gone numb. In their years together she had revived that dead half. No matter what she ever might accomplish in her lifetime, what great triumphs, nothing would ever compare with that feat. Not even giving birth. She had brought a man back to life.
She helped Timmy on with his sweater, handed him his bow, which he started to slip over his head and shoulder.
"No," Eric said. "Carry it in your hand, the string resting against your forearm. Keep it ready, Timmy. By the time you pulled it over your head in an emergency, it might be too late. Okay?"
"There, that's more like it. Now you look like a proper warrior."
Annie looked at her little boy, the bow clutched in one hand, the arrows resting in their plastic quiver on his belt, expectancy in his voice. He was waiting for her approval. She tried to imagine him actually shooting an arrow at someone, killing him. Or worse, being shot at, an arrow piercing his small chest, his body flopping lifeless into the dirt. When they'd first married, she and Eric had agreed to teach the children how to do as many things as possible as they grew, including shooting guns and bows. But they had also agreed not to encourage them along any particular line. No social or sexual stereotypes. Let them decide for themselves what they wanted, who they were. As a result, Jennifer had always been as athletic as Timmy. Both had had their share of fights, with each other and other kids, but neither had developed into a bully. Neither had a cruel streak. Eric and Annie had been careful, conscientious parents, participating in the selection of TV programs and movies, encouraging reading. Trying to raise two well-adjusted children in a maladjusted world. Now that veneer of civilization was being slowly peeled away. Her twelve-year-old son was waiting for his mother to approve of him being called a warrior. But what choice did she have? If he was to survive in this new world, he would have to be harder than before. Tougher. Like Eric, who could shed that veneer as easily as a snake his skin. Sometimes that ability made her envious, sometimes scared.
"You look fine," she smiled weakly. "Fine."
Timmy seemed pleased as he handed Annie her bow.
Eric grabbed his crossbow and the tape recorder and gestured toward the door. "Stay close and move along the walls. Right?"
"Right," Annie and Timmy agreed. It was the usual procedure for walking at night.
Eric unbolted the door and checked outside. The sky was its usual gray-pink, something like what twilight used to look like. Except the sky remained this color all night. "Okay, let's go. The Ravensmiths on parade." They started out the door.
Suddenly an explosion of sound.
A bell clanging.
A drum booming.
The sounds of Emergency Red Alert. They were under attack.
Eric shoved Annie and Timmy back inside. "Lock it!" he yelled as he fixed a bolt in his crossbow and sprinted across the campus toward the bookstore.
Running felt good. Useful. Eric hated the feeling of helplessness and confusion an alarm always gave. A shortness of breath, a squeeze at the bladder. At least now, as his feet bounced soundlessly across the gravel, he was burning the rush of adrenalin that sizzled through his stomach like a lit fuse. Around him people responded quickly to the alarm, scattering in the dark to their posts as they snatched arrows from their homemade quivers or hefted crude spears. Just as they had done during the drills Eric had put them through three times a week since the founding of University Camp. Only now it was for real.
Eric sucked air deeply as he ran, the sharp charcoal tinge stinging his nostrils. He wondered if they'd all eventually get used to that smell, as they had to the gray-pink night and yellow-orange day like a Peter Max painting. When they got back to the mainland, would they appreciate the brisk fresh air again, or would that too smell "funny"?
When they got back.
Christ, now he was doing it. Hoping. He shook the thought out of his head as he ran, concentrating on scanning the grounds for the intruders. The roofs, the barbed-wire fences, the walls of office furniture and useless machinery they'd piled as a barrier against the hostile world. The Great Wall of Orange County, Annie had called it. Inside lived Civilization. Outside, the Dead Zone.
Eric's eyes stabbed at every movement, every shadow. But he saw no intruders, no attackers. The only movement came from his own people scuttling to their posts, clinging desperately to their weapons like a dying priest to his rosary.
Then the noise stopped. The bell and drum were silent.
Eric hurdled an overturned bicycle, dodged another citizen fumbling clumsily with his Coleman lantern, spanked off the side of the gym, and bolted full-speed for the bookstore, the source of the alarm. He could hear men and women mumbling nervously to each other as he passed them, wondering where the attackers were. Fingering their weapons, anxious to kill anything that seemed threatening. Eric had to discover what was going on before they began accidentally firing on each other.
As he cut around the corner of the bookstore, he saw Philip Marcus standing in front of the huge kettle drum they'd moved here from the Music Department. He had the drum mallet in one hand, his long bow in the other. Standing next to him was Season Deely, a slim blonde in a blue Nike running suit clutching the hammer she'd used to ring the bell. She was leaning against the wooden post from which the ten-inch iron bell hung, a memento from Professor Ernesto Alvarez's tour through Mexico last summer with a rowdy group of his Spanish students. The bell was a replica of the one that had hung at the Franciscan Mission of San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo because of a nearby grove of alamo, or cottonwood, trees. Eric had appreciated the irony of using this particular bell for their alarm, though militarily University Camp was far more defendable than the Alamo had been.
"What in hell's going on?" Eric barked at Season and Philip.
Season shrugged, pointed her hammer at the entrance of the bookstore.
"Orders," Philip said.
Eric marched through the open doors and down the aisles of dusty calendars and university bumper stickers into the back section. The door of the conference room was open and the carpet was squishy under his feet with dark puddles of blood.
Trevor Graumann lay crumpled next to the long oak table. His chair was overturned, his papers scattered all about the room. The brass coatrack was overturned with Dr. Dreiser's white lab jacket tangled around it.
"Is he dead?" Eric asked.
Susan Connors, an RN who ran the hospital with Dr. Dreiser, was kneeling beside Trevor, tugging at his eyelids. "No, he's just unconscious. Doesn't seem too serious. No bleeding, anyway."
"Then whose blood are we all wading through?"
Susan Connors gestured toward the conference table where Dr. Epson, Griff Durham and Toni Tyler stood whispering. "Ask them. They called this meeting. Won't tell me jackshit." She looked up, her eyes moist but hard. "While you're at it, ask them where Dr. Dreiser is."
Two men rushed into the room carrying a stretcher.
"About time, fellas," Susan Connors sighed, twirling her stethoscope absently. "Let's get him over to the hospital. And careful with his head. He may have a concussion."
"What's the fucking story?" one of them asked, looking around the room. "The alarm made my three-year-old wet the bed. And the little bastard sleeps between my wife and me."
"I've seen your kid, Roy," Susan said. "And pissing on you is the least he could do for giving him your looks. Now get Councilman Graumann onto your stretcher and out of here. Our leaders need privacy," She didn't bother keeping the sarcasm out of her voice.
Eric turned to the three members of the Council. The muscles in his face were tight, stretching the skin tautly across his face like a plastic death mask. His voice was crisp as dried leaves. "Explain."
They all looked at him, avoided his eyes. Dr. Epson nodded toward Susan Connors and the men hefting Trevor Graumann onto the stretcher. "Let's wait until we're alone, Eric."
"Let's not," Eric said quietly.
"It's okay," Susan said. "We're all done here. We wouldn't want to be responsible for hindering the Council's brilliant strategies." She started to follow the stretcher out of the room, turned, twirled her stethoscope. "But if we're not under attack, I'd sound the fucking bell, I don't want to be up all night treating arrow wounds from people shooting each other."
"Tell Season to sound the Yellow Alert," Eric said. "That should relax things until I figure out what's going on."
Susan smiled, pointed her stethoscope at Eric. "You got it."
When she left, Eric waited until he heard Season hammering put the Yellow Alert pattern on the bell before speaking. "Where's Dr. Dreiser?"
Dr. Epson swallowed, glanced at the others. He removed his glasses and sagged into a chair like a deflated doll. "Gone."
Eric's face remained expressionless as he turned and walked to the door, avoiding the soggy patches of blood. He leaned out the door and called, "Philip! On the double."
They heard the slapping echoes of running, then saw Philip Marcus burst into the room. His bow was at the ready, his cheeks flushed even in the warm summer evening. Eric noticed that lately the boy walked with a straighter, more confident posture, the kind he used to have only inside the classroom. "Yes, Dr. Ravensmith?" He didn't even look at the others.
"I want you to gather a group of volunteers. No marrieds unless you have to. They should be fairly athletic. Use your own judgment."
"What should I tell them they're volunteering for? In case they ask."
Eric stared at him, said nothing.
"Right," Philip nodded, turned and jogged out of the room.
Eric set his crossbow gently on the table and pulled up a chair. He slowly sat down, like the master of ceremonies at a formal dinner. His hands lay flat on the table top, as if he were willing them to stay there rather than do whatever it was they wanted to do. Something violent. The scar on his cheek and neck bulged like an engorged vein on a weight lifter as he spoke, the voice so flat and dead it frightened even Griff Durham.
"What happened exactly? Details."
Toni Tyler and Griff Durham also sat down, one on each side of Dr. Epson. In the flickering light of the Coleman lanterns they looked particularly old and sexless.
"After you left we kicked around a few more ideas," Dr. Epson said. "Three of us tried to persuade Joan and Trevor to, well…"
Eric managed a grim smile. "Replace me?"
"Well, yes. It was an idea. They both refused to discuss it. Even though we had a majority vote, we knew we couldn't make it stick with the residents here unless we were unanimous. You're too damn popular around here. They'd be more likely to replace the three of us than you." He smiled weakly at Eric as if expecting him to acknowledge the compliment. When Eric said nothing, Dr. Epson continued. "Anyway, the three of us left. Joan and Trevor stayed behind to talk, I don't know about what. About twenty minutes ago there's a pounding on my door. Davey Easton stood there talking so fast I could hardly understand him."
Eric interrupted. "Easton was supposed to be on guard duty near the cafeteria."
"He was. Only when he was relieved, he went over to see Kyle Moore who was standing watch on the other side of the cafeteria. They're buddies. But when he got there he found Kyle unconscious."
"Lump as big as a grapefruit on top of his head, but otherwise okay."
Eric shifted in his chair. "Why did Easton come to you? He knows the routine. Any problems he sees me or sounds the alarm."
"Hell, Eric," Griff Durham said. "Easton's only a kid. He panicked when he saw his buddy lying there."
"Besides," Dr. Epson added, "my room in the library is closer. Actually, I think he was more interested in getting Dr. Dreiser for Kyle than anything else. I just happened to be on his way to her. I sent a couple men over to take Kyle's place while we searched for Joan. Since she wasn't in the hospital, I thought she might still be here with Trevor. When I got here, this is what I found. I sent for the rest of the Council and we decided to sound the Red Alert."
Eric's eyes narrowed. "You sent for the Council before me? If we've been penetrated, you should have notified me immediately. Whatever clues there were have probably been trampled by now. Jesus!" His hands curled to fists.
Dr. Epson looked nervous. "It was a judgment call, Eric. I wanted to avoid a panic, if possible. I've never had to deal with a situation like this before." He rubbed the pink rawness on his nose where his glasses had rested.
Toni Tyler began straightening the scattered papers on the table. "We did the best we could, Eric. Under the circumstances."
"Did Kyle see anything before they knocked him out?"
Dr. Epson shrugged. "He's still unconscious. But Davey Easton saw some biood near where he found Kyle. It wasn't Kyle's."
"Well, if that wasn't Kyle's blood and this isn't Trevor's blood, it must be from one of our intruders. Maybe he cut himself on the barbed wire or something." Eric paused, fell silent for a few moments, then turned back to Dr. Epson. "What else have you got? About the kidnapping."
Dr. Epson pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket, straightening his tie before passing the paper to Eric.
Eric unfolded it and read: "WE'VE TAKEN OUT A LITTLE INSURANCE TO MAKE SURE OUR SWAP GOES THROUGH AS PLANNED. YOU'LL GET THE DOCTOR BACK AFTER THE TRADE IS COMPLETED. ONLY NOW WE WANT A DOZEN BOWS TO GO WITH THE BOOKS. A GESTURE OF GOOD FAITH. NEW MEETING PLACE: JACK IN THE BOX ON CORNER OF BASIL AND THYME. MIDNIGHT."
He laid the paper flat on the table, smoothed it with both hands. The message was all large block letters, written with a thick, red-felt marker.
"They must've figured we wouldn't go through with the trade," Griff Durham said.
"A safe bet," Eric said. "Anyway, now they want more than books. They want our weapons."
"What do we do?" Toni asked Eric. She stopped shuffling papers to listen.
"You're the Council. It's your decision."
"What do you advise, Eric?"
Eric thought of little Jennifer lying sick in the hospital, her phlegmy coughing, watery eyes and clammy skin. And the others lying in long rows like an army barracks. The broken bones, sores, bleeding ulcers, burst appendixes. And Dr. Joan Dreiser the only medical doctor in the camp. But he had to be honest with himself, he cared less about the others than about Jennifer. And what if Timmy or Annie got sick, needed an operation. Annie's appendix was still intact; Timmy had a cyst removed from his elbow last year, it might grow back. If for no other reason than protecting his own family, he would have to get Dr. Dreiser back.
"Do you have a list of the books they asked for the first time?"
Toni nodded. "No specific titles. Some basic survival texts on purifying water, gardening, carpentry, electrical equipment, medicine. That sort of thing. We've got plenty of books on that stuff in the library and here in the bookstore from various classes."
"So we make the swap?" Griff Durham asked.
Eric ignored him, spoke to Toni. "Get the books loaded right away. There's still plenty of backpacks on the shelves in the bookstore."
"What about the bows?"
Eric looked at his watch. "Betty hurry. We've only got two hours."
Toni rushed her bulky body out of the room, almost knocking over Philip Marcus as he hurried in.
"Volunteers outside, Professor."
Philip looked embarrassed. "Four. Five including me."
"That's plenty. Good job, Philip."
"Thanks, Dr. Ravensmith."
"And for the last time, call me Eric. I'm not just saying that to be pals. I'm saying it because if you ever need to warn me or call for help, by the time you said my title and last name, one of us could be dead. Eric. Got it?"
Dr. Epson came around the table. "What are you going to do with these volunteers, Eric?"
Eric tapped Philip on the shoulder, crooked a finger for him to follow. They walked briskly through the bookstore and out the front door, Dr. Epson and Griff Durham in tow.
The four volunteers leaned against the wall or sat on the ground. Eric knew them all: Rydell Grimme, Molly Sing, Tag Hallahan, and Season Deely. All young and athletic. But that wouldn't be enough for what he had in mind. Not nearly enough.
"So," Rydell Grimme asked, leaning on his bow and plucking the string as if he were playing a bass, "just what have we volunteered for?"
"A trip," Eric said.
They stirred uneasily, suddenly knowing what he would say next.
"A night in the Dead Zone."
"Shit!" Rydell grinned. "Why didn't you tell us up front it was a suicide mission? I'd have worn my kamikaze underwear with the plastic lining."
Season Deely snorted. "It'd have been nice if you'd worn any underwear."
"That's not funny," Tag Hallahan said, jumping angrily to his feet. "This isn't a joke, Ravensmith. We should've been told about the Dead Zone. I thought you only wanted some extra guards or something. Nothing like this."
Eric smiled in a friendly way, patting Tag on the shoulder. "No need to stay. Tag. We've got enough without you. Providing no one else backs out." Eric dropped his smile and hand, and turned his back on Tag, facing the others.
"I didn't say I was backing out," Tag mumbled quickly, "We just should've been told, that's all."
Season Deely, tough, cocky, barely twenty-two, a perpetual bored expression on her face, laughed. It sounded like the crack of a pistol. "What's the difference? We'd have to go out there sooner or later, might as well be now. Hell, it'll be a kick after this boring place."
Eric took two steps, stood directly in front of her, smiled, then reached out and grabbed her by the throat with one hand, his icy fingers clamping her windpipe closed. She gurgled for air, clawed furrows of skin from his hand. Blood welled between his knuckles, but his fingers tightened until she swooned slightly, started to go limp. Then his fingers sprang open. Rydell grabbed Season as she sagged toward the ground.
"What the fuck-!" Rydell snarled, holding Season as she gasped for air, rubbed the raw, bruised skin at her throat, coughed convulsively. "Are you crazy, man?"
Eric nodded. "We're all crazy or we wouldn't be going out there. But we're not so crazy that we don't want to make it back again. And to do that we need people at our side that we can count on. If not, what she just got is just one of the 'kicks' you can expect. If not from whoever's out there, then from me." He looked over at Molly Sing, her round, Chinese face placid as she leaned against the bookstore. "You're the only one who hasn't said their piece. Anything to add?"
Molly shrugged. "When do we leave?"
"Soon. I'll fill you in on the details when I get back. Philip, make sure everybody's armed to the teeth. Knives, darts, throwing stars, whatever you can dig up at the armory. And plenty of arrows."
"We won't be gone that long. And if we are, it'll be too late for water." He turned and walked into the bookstore, heard Season choke out "Son of a bitch!" behind his back. He kept walking. She was right.
And if the others didn't agree with her by now, they soon would.
"Eric?" He heard Griff Durham and Dr. Epson trotting after him. Eric ignored them, instead using the time to review his team as he headed toward the conference room. It was a simple process, mentally picking and poking at each one, probing for their strengths and weaknesses like a man dismantling a time bomb. Being wrong held the same dangers once they were out on the battlefield.
There were files on everybody in University Camp, compiled at Eric's suggestion several months ago. Each resident had completed his own file, then undergone a debriefing interview to see what important information might have been overlooked. The files contained medical histories, crude and incomplete, patched together from scraps of memory. It also contained a list of skills, educational background, hobbies, jobs-anything that might prove useful to the group. Men who'd once made stools and bookshelves in their garages were now reinforcing buildings. Professor Grippo from the Agriculture Department led a group of former Sunday gardeners as they now grew and harvested food for the whole community. Betty Forbes, who once managed her husband's fried chicken restaurant before they'd divorced, was in charge of the cafeteria. Everyone had a skill, a usefulness. To some it seemed like the first time in their lives they had a worth.
Eric had read each file several times, studied them completely. He could scan them in his mind as clearly as if they were in front of him. With each step toward the conference room, he flipped through them, picturing the various handwriting, the occasional typed one from the few manual typewriters they'd salvaged. One of them had a broken "o" which sometimes looked like a "c." That's what he visualized as he recalled Rydell Grimme's file.
Rydell Grimme, 26, was the strongest of the five in terms of sheer physical power. He cleared six feet with a couple inches to spare, his muscles solidly stacked but not exaggerated. He still jogged ten miles a day, even though it was only around the camp perimeters. But Rydell was a lot more than just physically strong, he was exceptionally bright. He'd worked at the university for the past four years in the Maintenance Department, first as a janitor washing blackboards and scraping dried gum from desks, then on the grounds mowing grass, pulling weeds. Finally, they discovered what a whiz he was with machines and promoted him to repairing overhead projectors and air conditioners. But there was no way they could know how sharp he really was; he'd neglected to mention on his job application his degree in physics from MIT.
Eric didn't know why Rydell had kept it a secret, or why he went from MIT to peeling wads of gum from desks. Was he hiding from someone or something? Eric hadn't asked and Rydell hadn't offered. One thing Eric was certain of, it wasn't fear that changed Rydell's career goals. He had seen enough of Rydell to know he was cool, arrogant, and quite brave. Perhaps too brave.
He remembered Molly Sing's file, the tight precise handwriting like some ancient lace embroidery. She had worked for her father, an acupuncturist from Taiwan who owned many condominiums and houses in the affluent neighborhoods surrounding the university. Molly managed his real estate holdings while Dr. Sing twisted long, thin needles into the sore backs of local executives. Molly's mother had gone back to Taiwan to visit family five years ago and decided not to come back.
Molly was short, barely 5'2", but she was athletic from her daily hundred laps in her father's pool. Her hair, bobbed in a modified Prince Valiant cut, was so black it seemed purple at times. She was only twenty-four now, but moved sullenly with a fatalism others misinterpreted as Oriental calm. Eric saw it as something else, though he hadn't decided on what yet.
Tag Hallahan was the oldest of the troop, having edged into thirty a couple months ago with no notice from anybody except Eric, who'd wished him a happy birthday in passing. Tag had looked surprised, slightly embarrassed, mumbled "Thanks" and hurried away. His history had been simple: attended the university, received his bachelor's and master's degrees in library science, then immediately went to work for the university as a librarian. He'd spent the last twelve years of his life at the university, his eyesight growing worse, his shoulders becoming more stooped. But his file showed another aspect of him that would have shocked his co-workers at the library. His hobbies were many and diverse, all involving physical danger: hang gliding, mountain climbing, scuba diving, dirt bike racing. Eric had interviewed Tag personally after reading the file, checking to see if these were real experiences or just some fantasy daydream. Tag had sat across the desk from Eric polishing his glasses and answering technical questions about each sport until Eric was satisfied he really had done all those things.
Not that he didn't look physically capable. He must have been at least as tall as Rydell Grimme, though he lacked about twenty-five of Rydell's muscular pounds. He was lanky, almost bony, with thick black-rimmed glasses that reminded Eric of Buddy Holly, Still, he was handsome, not in Rydell's dark, rugged way, but in a softer, somber way. He had shaggy, red hair that flopped over the top of his glasses and a sparse, red moustache that would never fill out. The only thing that bothered Eric about Tag Hallahan was a certain nervous energy he seemed to generate. That combined with his unusual hobbies tended to make Eric think Tag had something to prove. A dangerous motivator.
Season Deely, 22. Eric shook his head in exasperation at the thought of her. Oh, she was beautiful enough to be a major topic whenever two or more men in the camp congregated. Speculative guffaws, watery-eyed leers, mournful sighs. She could be a poster queen for the typical California blonde. Curvy, but muscular from years on the university track team, ballet since she was five, gymnastics since she was seven, and volleyball on the beach at her father's Newport Beach home. Her parents were internationally famous, he the sexy macho actor whose films always featured a role for his less-talented wife. They'd been in Spain filming when the quakes shook their daughter loose from their safe world.
Eric had first noticed Season when he'd caught her stealing marijuana from the camp gardens. They grew enough to use for the hospital in place of sedatives no longer available. He'd let her go with a warning. The second time he caught her, she'd spit in his face and punched him in the stomach. Eric did not hold with hitting anyone smaller or weaker. Unless they hit first. He'd slugged her in the stomach, watched her crumple to the ground, hugging herself and wheezing curses, then dragged her by the heels to her mat in the gym. Since that incident, she was even more belligerent, rude and insulting, but Eric noticed she also spent more time around him than necessary. First volunteering to be on call to sound the alarm, now this. There could be a lot of reasons for this, all of them demanding he keep an especially sharp eye on her.
And Philip was Philip. Anxious to emulate Eric, please him. The ancient student/mentor relationship that predated even Plato and his teacher Socrates. He was smart and capable, gentle and modest. Not the most agile physically, but not afraid to try whatever was necessary. Eric had a soft spot for Philip, his enthusiasm, his loyalty.
In a perfect world, none of them would be called on to do what Eric had in mind. Sure, technically they were volunteers, but that was bullshit and Eric knew it. He had manipulated them into it. It was a classic maneuver, executed just as he'd learned it from Dirk Fallows-his mentor. Eric could hear Fallows' harsh voice now. "First, Eric, withhold information about the mission until you get them committed; there're always a few greenhorns who don't know any better than to volunteer, always a few with something to hide or prove. If they balk when they hear the mission, be generous, let them go, but be sure they feel worse now than they would if they stayed. Clap them on the shoulder. Use the right terms, 'back out' or 'stay safe.' Then, and this is crucial, turn your back on them, face the others. Makes them feel like slime, and keeps the others from wanting the same treatment. Works every time with the kids. After that, they'll go through hell for you."
"Doesn't it bother your conscience?" Eric had asked him once. Fallows had barked out a reptilian laugh, scraping jungle mud from his boot with his bayonet as he quoted, " 'Conscience is but a word that cowards use/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.' Richard III, Act IV, scene iii, line 310. Think about that, Eric me lad." And he'd laughed again, wiping his muddy bayonet on the neck of Warren Hoagan's mutilated corpse. Warren, 19, whom Dirk had coaxed into volunteering for a mission everybody but Warren had known was impossible, had been captured and tortured. Which had been Fallows' plan. The time it took Charley to torture Warren gave the rest of the Night Shift a chance to sneak up on them. Warren had been used as a stalking horse.
But was Eric any better? Taking five inexperienced civilians into a war zone where their only chance of survival was doing exactly what he told them. Without question. Without remorse. And if anything happened to him, the rest were automatically dead. He'd manipulated them into taking a mission none of them really wanted, and chances for survival weren't good. But neither was the alternative: a camp of 256 people with no doctor.
Or was that bullshit too? A "noble quest" meant to excuse him from being just like Dirk Fallows. Because with each cruel day, Eric was having trouble remembering what those differences separating them were.
"Eric, damn it, wait for us." Griff Durham's voice growled over his shoulder.
Eric didn't slow down. He walked into the conference room, held the door open for Durham and Dr. Epson, slammed it shut behind them. They both jumped at the sound.
"The plan is simple, gentlemen. We're going out there with the books to meet this bunch."
"What about their additional demand," Dr. Epson asked. "The dozen bows?"
"They'll have to do without."
"They'll kill Joan."
"Maybe. I'm hoping they'll listen to reason and realize they're better off with the books in hand than arguing about it."
"And if they aren't so reasonable?"
"Then we try to persuade them."
Dr. Epson shook his head. "You could get her killed!"
"What makes you think she's still alive?"
"Well, they… they said she would be. Besides, they must know you'd want to see her before you'd trade with them."
'True. If they were going to trade. I don't think we've seen the kind of good faith from these people that inspires trust."
Durham spoke up. "So you plan to jump them. Kill them."
"If we have to."
"Good God, man," Dr. Epson sighed, "I hope you know what you're doing. What you're risking. Not just your lives, but Dr. Dreiser's, and thereby all the rest of ours. Over what? A lousy dozen bows. I say pay it and be done."
Eric raised his crossbow, still cocked and loaded with a bolt. He pushed it into Dr. Epson's pudgy stomach and slowly released the safety. His finger tightened around the trigger.
"See here, Eric," Dr. Epson rasped, flattening himself against the wall. "Have you gone insane?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Eric caught Durham's slight movement. "Don't reach for your gun, Griff. I'd hate to pin him to the wall like a bug." Durham's hand dropped to his side. "That's better. Now ask yourself, Dr. Epson, why I'm able to make you do anything I want right now. Why one man can control two." Eric leaned the bow deeper into Dr. Epson's stomach. "Time's up. Never mind, I can see you're having a little trouble catching your breath, so I'll answer. Because I've got a weapon pointed at your belly button. If you had the weapon, I'd do what you wanted. Simple mathematical equation. Now, given the extent of hostility outside University Camp, and the probability that it will keep getting worse, weapons are more valuable than the doctor. Without them, we won't survive long enough to need a doctor." Eric held the crossbow for a few extra seconds, then reset the safety and lowered the bow.
Dr. Epson started breathing again, peeling himself from the wall with a shiver.
Eric continued, "Now, once we leave here, you lock this place up as tight as it will go. Maintain a Yellow Alert until we get back. Passphrase will be, uh…" He tightened lips into a razor smile. "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."
"Hmmm, Hamlet," Dr. Epson nodded approvingly, the teacher momentarily rising above the administrator.
"Hell," Durham grumbled. "This isn't a spy ring, damn it. Something simple like 'Air Force One' or 'Sachmo' would be easier to remember."
Eric didn't argue the point. He opened the door and headed back toward his troops. Maybe Durham was right, but Eric didn't mind indulging in a little irony now and then. Besides, all the guards would have to memorize the phrase, and any passphrase that included the word coward usually made the guards very conscious of not acting like one. Another lesson from Dirk Fallows.
Durham and Dr. Epson followed after Eric, unable to match his own brisk stride. He spoke to them over his shoulder as he marched. "If we aren't back by dawn, then we aren't coming back. Under no circumstances send any more people after us. And don't let anyone in, even if they've got one of us with them, no matter what story we tell you. The only people who get back in here are those that left. No one else." He stopped suddenly, spun around to face them. Durham and Dr. Epson, avoiding getting too close to Eric, collided into each other. Eric resisted smiling. "Do you both understand?"
"Yes," Dr. Epson said. "We understand."
"Good." Eric pivoted back around and stalked out of the bookstore.
Philip was handing out various weapons he'd picked up from the armory. In the early weeks of scavenging, before the Dead Zone became too dangerous, they'd managed to gather a fair number of weapons: darts from sporting goods stores, toy stores and dens of private homes; knives from kitchens; swords and daggers from the prop room at the Theatre Department; throwing stars and nunchakus from a nearby Kung Fu school. There were even a few boomerangs discovered in the university's student Lost and Found, though no one knew how to use them effectively.
"How's it going?" Eric asked.
"Well, Coach," Rydell grinned, "I think we're ready for the big game. I know we can beat those bums from Roosevelt High and make our school number one again. Right team?" He tucked a few throwing knives into his belt; Eric wondered if he knew how to use them.
"Blow it out your ass, Grimme," Season Deely said. She stood with hands on hips. She still wore her blue Nike running suit with matching Nike running shoes, both a bit stained and worn, as was everyone's clothing. A red bandanna was knotted around her forehead, keeping her long, blond hair out of her eyes. She carried a fancy compound bow, whose pulley system allowed the archer to hold the bow steady longer. Attached to the handle was a green plastic arrow holder and six aluminum hunting arrows.
"That looks like Scott Sherman's rig," Eric said.
"It is. He's lending it to me." She shifted a hip and sneered to indicate the loan didn't come without certain payment.
"That's a seventy-five pound draw. Can you handle it?"
"Sure. I'm a hell of a shot and you know it."
Eric had seen her on the practice range a few times and he knew she really was a good shot. But that was with a forty-pound draw. At a mattress.
"That all you're taking then?"
She gave him a cocky look. "It's all I need."
"Unless you've got some armor in 38C," Rydell said.
Season spun toward him. "Just 'cause someone wrote Tiny on your jockstrap, don't get on my case."
Rydell laughed. "That's pretty good."
"Thanks," she said sarcastically, "now I can finally die at peace."
Rydell laughed again, pulled up his pant leg, and taped a flat throwing knife to his hairy calf with masking tape. He noticed Eric watching him, looked up with a grin. "Saw this in a movie once."
Eric doubted that, not with the skillful way he was taping it. But he didn't say anything. Not yet.
"Let me know if you need a volunteer to pull the tape," Season said. "I'd like to make your leg as bald as your brain."
Rydell laughed again, but Eric could tell he was staring at him.
"How you doing, Molly?" Eric asked.
Molly Sing stood in her plaid flannel shirt and bib overalls buckling a cartridge belt over one shoulder like a bandito. But instead of cartridges, each leather strap held a dart. Brass, wood, tungsten, plastic-all kinds and sizes of darts. Fortunately the belt was wide enough to separate Molly's chest from the points of the darts.
"You know how to use those?"
"Yeah. We had a board in the den. Used to clean out all my friends of their allowance when I was in high school."
"Well-" Eric began.
"I know," Molly interrupted. "This ain't high school. Right?"
Eric smiled, nodded. "Don't forget your bow, too."
Tag Hallahan was tightening the strap of his quiver, which he wore on his back the same as Rydell and Season. Molly and Philip wore theirs on their waists.
Eric gave the strap a tug. "Good fit."
'Thanks." Tag seemed pleased, then embarrassed and looked away.
"Yet set, Philip?" Eric asked.
"Ready," Philip said. He was smiling eagerly, his bow polished, his arrows neatly arranged in his quiver. "Thought this might help," he said, pulling a black knit cap over his head.
Across the quad, Toni Tyler was leading four others, each carrying a brand new backpack with the university's buccaneer logo, complete with eyepatch and dagger between blackened teeth. Toni's overweight body didn't take to running well, and she stopped a couple dozen yards away to walk the rest of the distance.
"Here," she panted. "The books. Agriculture, mechanics, medical. Everything they asked for." She dropped her backpack on the ground at Eric's feet, then gestured for the others to also do so.
"Thanks, Toni," Eric said. He waved his team closer. "Okay, guys and girls, take the next fifteen minutes to check your weapons, go to the latrine, drink some water and/or say your prayers. When I get back, we leave." He set his crossbow down on the ground and jogged off into the dark.
"Where are you going?" Dr. Epson asked.
Eric didn't answer. They didn't have to know everything.
Annie was sitting on Timmy's mattress in the corner, hugging her knees to her chest.
"You forgot to bolt the door," Eric said as he closed the door behind him.
"No, I saw you coming through the window."
He leaned over and peered through the cracks between the boards covering the window. "It's too dark to see out there, even with this Disneyland sky."
"I saw you," she repeated.
He let it drop. Not that he doubted her, he'd just been making small talk to avoid telling her what he was about to do. He went over to her, kneeled beside her and took her face in his hands. He saw her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying, but there was no trace of tears now. She looked up into his eyes and her pupils reflected the flames from the Coleman lamp next to her.
"With Tracy for awhile."
Eric nodded, not asking for an explanation. He opened his mouth to talk, to explain, to soothe her worries. But suddenly she was pressing her lips against his and the words tumbled back into his throat like a wolf buried in an avalanche. She was tugging at his clothes now, her fingers insistent, desperate. He tried to pull away, to explain, but she covered his mouth with her hand.
"Fuck me," she whispered.
He didn't hesitate. It was clear she'd already guessed what he was going to tell her, the words so familiar they were tasteless, odorless, colorless. She didn't need assurances now; she needed passion, an explosion of movement.
They removed each other's clothes with rare efficiency, tossing them in separate heaps next to the mattress. There was no need or desire for tender foreplay. Annie flopped onto her back and opened her legs. The moist pubic hairs caught the light's flame and glistened with mock fire. She reached up, her fingers trailing coolly along his scar, down his powerful chest, hard stomach, into the thatch of rough hair.
Eric hovered over her a moment, studying her thick, long hair as it twisted carelessly around one shining breast and completely veiled the other. Her beauty was almost too much and he felt his leg muscles lapse slightly. He took a deep breath and lowered himself on top of her, his straining penis sliding into her body so easily, so effortlessly, like piercing a cloud. He felt the rippling of her vaginal muscles clamping around him, then the violent thrashing as they bounced atop the thin mattress in something that was more than love. Almost religion.
His head was nestled next to hers, his lips pressed against her smooth shoulders. He could taste her sweat, hear the strained gasps as she bucked under him. Eric lifted his head and looked into her open eyes. They stared at each other as they felt the pressure mounting, the locomotive climbing their spines, blasting its steam from all sides.
She came seconds before he did, her eyes narrowing but still gazing at him. Her mouth was wide with concentration, and once again he delighted in the wrinkles around her eyes and brackets at the corners of her lips. They'd earned each and every one of them, he thought, and the pleasure of that thought pushed him past all control into his own orgasm, his hands clutching her buttocks as he lifted her off the mattress, grinding further into her.
Afterwards they kissed, eyes closed, lips almost painfully mashed together.
"That's enough," Annie said, pushing him away. "You'll be late."
Eric didn't ask her how she knew. He'd learned long ago how transparent he was to her. To others he was an enigma, a conundrum as complex as a Chinese box, a half-faced Sphinx. To Annie he was as simple as a tear.
Annie did not get dressed. She sat cross-legged on the mattress, naked and smiling, watching as Eric tucked his shirt into his pants.
"I want to go with you," she said, the smile suddenly gone.
Eric said nothing, slipped into his quiver.
She shrugged. "That's what I thought you'd say."
"You know why. The kids."
"I know. Maybe you're going to think I'm a terrible mother or something, but I love you more than I love the kids. Rotten, huh?"
Eric smiled. "No. Because I feel the same way about you. But it's going to be distracting enough out there taking care of these kids. I don't want to worry about you too. Understand?"
Annie stood up, her hair hanging to her hips. "I've got a present for you."
"More Beatles tapes?"
"What is it?"
She lifted the corner of the mattress they'd just made love on and pulled out a samurai sword. Lifting it delicately with both hands, she presented it to Eric with a ceremonial bow.
Eric took the sword from her, hefting it a couple times before pulling the blade out a few inches. "It's magnificent," he said. "Where'd you get it?"
"I bought it."
"Oh, you've been out shopping again."
"Sort of. After what the kids got you, I couldn't be outdone. Well, as you know, Joyce Harvey's been seeing a lot of Gordon Petrie-"
"Right. As we all know."
"Don't get superior. You love gossip as much as I do. Anyway, Joyce told me all about Gordon's fascination with weapons. How he used to make swords, knives, spears, all that stuff as a hobby."
"He told us all that," Eric said. "That's why he's making them for University Camp now."
"Uh huh. But you didn't know that he brought a few of his former creations with him, which he's kept buried-"
"Forget it. I promised Joyce I wouldn't squeal. Besides, that's not important. What is important is that this is an exact replica of the kind of swords ninjas used to carry in 17th century Japan. It's sharp as your tongue and almost as long. The guard here is oversized to be used to pull the owner over walls or obstacles. The scabbard's tip is removable so you can use it as a hearing aid, a megaphone, or an underwater breathing tube. And this cord here lets you tie it across your back like the guys in those Kurasawa movies. Pretty damn clever, huh?"
"Remarkable." Eric had been taught how to use such a weapon as a member of the Night Shift because some assassination assignments demanded complete silence. They weren't even permitted to carry guns then. But for most of the time in Nam, it was not a very practical weapon, not in a world of Uzi submachine guns and grenade launchers. But now, it was more than practical. He looked at Annie. "What'd you buy it with?"
Annie laughed. "What kind of gentleman would ask a lady such a question?"
"Hmmm. I think I've been insulted."
"You know better. It's just that this is quite a work of craftsmanship. Not something to be given up lightly, especially after carrying it through an earthquake."
She kissed him lightly. "Okay. Joyce and Gordon want the use of our little home here one day a week for two months."
She shook her head. "Men. How quickly they forget once they've had their lust satisfied. Try to remember how difficult it is around here for a couple to have any privacy."
"Yeah. Still seems like a small price." He tied the sword across his back, fastening his quiver to his waist. He was anxious to get going now, get it all over with and come back home to Annie.
Sensing his restlessness, Annie pecked him on the cheek and pushed him playfully toward the door. "Thanks for the roll in the hay. Jocko. Let's try it again sometime."
He didn't know what to say, nothing seeming enough. Finally he settled for "Bye" and a kiss.
"Don't be too late," she said.
"No, I won't." He heard the door close behind him, the locks sliding into place. It was a cold, metallic sound that sent a chill of loneliness across his neck.
Within three minutes he was leading his combat team to the makeshift gate through the barbed wire and into the Dead Zone.
Season Deely looked around at the eerie darkness, the vague glow of distant campfires, and shivered. "It's worse than I imagined."
They moved on.
"What was that?" Tag asked, stopping to listen.
"What?" Philip asked.
"That noise. Like a whistling." He crouched down, tightening his fingers on the bowstring.
Season gave him a scornful frown. "It's just the wind, Tag."
"I don't know," Philip said. "It sounds different than the wind. Not as steady."
"He's right," Rydell said. "It's spooky like… my God, what's happening to me?" He stiffened his fingers into claws and bared his teeth like fangs. Hissing like a steam iron, he leaned over Season's neck and bit her lightly. "I vun to trink your bloot."
"Big tough men," Season said disgustedly, pushing Rydell away. "At least Molly and I aren't afraid."
"Speak for yourself, Season," Molly said. "I've been scared since we left camp."
"Jesus Christ. Our fearless leader tells us to wait here for him while he scouts around, and we all turn into the Hardy Boys in Transylvania."
Rydell looked around, the playfulness gone from his face. He silently signalled the others to get ready. Arrows were firmly inserted into bows, bows gripped in left hands, three fingers hooked over the string. They pressed their backs together, each facing outward in a different direction. Each scanned his own horizon, studying the hazy night for threatening figures. They stood in the middle of a parking lot, surrounded by abandoned cars, most of which sat like squat toads with doors open and interiors gutted.
Rydell stooped a few inches, bringing his head down behind the roof of the Camaro in front of him. The others did the same, making themselves smaller targets.
"Do you see something?" Tag asked Rydell.
"No, but somebody's there."
"Hey," Philip said. "The whistling stopped."
Rydell nodded. "And the wind's still blowing, so there goes that theory."
They stood there for five or ten minutes, no one was certain how long. No one spoke or moved. They were fixed mannequins coiled as tense as steel traps.
Finally, Philip broke the silence. "Eric should have been back by now."
Rydelt wiped the sweat from his lips with his wrist. "Yeah. What's keeping him?"
"Well, somebody's got to say it. Maybe he's not coming back."
"Shut up, Hallahan!" Philip snapped. "He'll be back."
"Fuck your hero worship, Philip." Season turned to face them. "Tag may be right. We have to consider that possibility."
"Yeah, we do," Rydell agreed. "But you better hope Tag's wrong, because without Ravensmith, we might as well shoot each other right now and save whoever's out there the trouble."
"A bit melodramatic, but basically correct." Eric's voice sounded muffled.
They al! looked frantically around. Saw nothing.
"Down here," Eric said, and rolled out from under the Camaro. He stood up, brushed his hands against his pants, and shook his head sadly at the others, "Too damn easy."
"What the hell's going on?" Tag asked.
Rydell stared at Eric. "A test, classmates. And we failed."
"Not failed," Eric said. "D-. At least you noticed something was wrong, though I had to whistle to get your attention. Of course, you'd probably have been dead shortly afterwards."
Season leaned against the Camaro. "I thought we were out here to get Dr. Dreiser back. Not to play stupid games."
"You're right, Season. Believe me, this was no game. We've only been gone from camp for twenty minutes; we're less than three blocks away. And already you would all have been dead. It's no game, not to the people who live out here. I sneaked up on the five of you as easily as if you were asleep. Out here, that's fatal."
"So, what did you expect? We're not professional mercenaries, just regular people. We were never paid to kill women and children." She let the accusation hang like a thick fog.
"Knock it off, Season," Philip said. "I'm getting a little tired of your mouth."
"I'm afraid I have to go along with Philip," Rydell said. "We needed this lesson. And I for one am glad we got it and can still walk away."
Eric held up his hands. "Personally, I don't care what any of you think. We do things my way and anyone who doesn't like that is free to leave. Now." He waited, looked at each in turn. No one moved. "Fine. Grab your backpacks and let's go. We've got to see a man about a doc."
They hoisted their packs back onto their backs and followed closely on Eric's heels. Eric pretended to ignore them, but he could see they were much more alert now, much more frightened. It was a cheap trick, but it had worked. They wouldn't relax again until they were back inside University Camp.
Movement was painfully slow as they picked their way across the parking lot of the Woodbridge Medical Building. Each step had to be seized, fought for, captured. Then the next step. It wasn't the shortest route to the Jack in the Box, but it was the safest. Eric would have preferred the original meeting place, the Bank of America. The route there would have been easier, with plenty of cover. But that was in the opposite direction. With luck, they'd still arrive more than an hour early. Plenty of time to stalk their quarry, determine what the others had in mind.
And, if necessary, kill them all.
They walked in hunched, jerky steps, clinging to the sides of cars and searching the dark for movement. Eric kept an eye to the rooftops and upper story windows, perfect sniper nests. His body seemed to automatically remember the old moves as he led the pack, dodging ahead to secure a position, then waving for the others to follow, one at a time.
They were hunkered behind a rusty Dodge van with four flat tires and a siphoning tube still dangling out of its gas tank. There were no more cars between here and the Woodbridge Medical Building, just open space. On the other side of the building and down the street two blocks was the Jack in the Box. Thirty-five yards separated the van from the building. Thirty-five exposed yards.
"Okay," Eric whispered to the others. "Same as before. Wait for me to reach the wall. Don't move until I wave. Each person waits their turn, running only when signaled. The rest keep their bows ready to cover the others. Especially the roofs and windows. Questions?"
"Let's do it," Season said, the edge of fear in her voice unmistakable.
Eric nodded, turned and dashed toward the building, zigzagging the thirty-five yards like a scorpion on a hot skillet. When he safely reached the side of the building, he kneeled, snapped his crossbow to his shoulder, and swept the area around him. Not seeing any movement, he waved for the next runner.
Season Deely didn't hesitate. She sprinted like the track star that she was, not bothering with any zig or zag. Just a straight line toward Eric, her feet slapping pavement in a frenetic beat.
When she reached him, she pressed her back against the wall and readied her bow.
She started to speak, choked on the word, swallowed. "Fine," she said. "Fine."
Eric waved again.
Rydell Grimme imitated Eric's pattern with perfect precision. He lacked Season's blistering speed, but made up for it with cunning. He slammed into the wall next to Season, raised his how. "Better than miniature golf." he panted.
Eric waved again. Molly Sing, slow but steady, followed, joined the others. Then Tag Hallahan. He jolted out from behind the van, churned mightily for ten yards, then tripped over a break in the pavement and sprawled head first for another five yards. Without pause, Rydell and Molly dashed out, yanked him to his feet, and dragged him back against the building.
"You okay, Tag?" Eric asked.
"Sure, I just tripped, that's all. No big deal." He took a deep breath, blew the fear out. "Sorry. I'm fine. Thanks for the help." He brushed the rips in the knees of his pants, winced from the stinging. Some blood smeared onto his palms.
Eric waved to Philip. Saw a glimpse of white teeth as Philip smiled, waved back.
Then the rumbling echo of metal grating against metal, like the roar of a monster at the bottom of a well.
Suddenly, Eric saw Philip running toward him, saw the short man leaping out of the sliding side door of the Dodge van. Saw Philip glance over his shoulder, the expression of terror when he looked back again, his arms and legs churning desperately. Saw the short man's arm flinging something. Philip twisting in midrun, tumbling sideways, his hands clutching the knife sticking out of his throat. In the hazy darkness, the blood pumping out of his throat looked like spraying oil.
Another man jumped from the van, then another. Their clothes were dirty and tattered, their hair long and wild. One had a spear made from a broom handle with a steak knife lashed to one end with wire. The other had a compound bow with the distinctive green tape wrapped barber pole fashion along the upper limb. It was the same bow that Matt Southern had been carrying the day he'd led his group out of University Camp for the last time.
The first man was running toward Philip's body to retrieve his knife. Eric followed him through the sights of his crossbow for a few yards, then squeezed the trigger. The sound was like a zipper being closed too fast, then the dull thud as the short bolt punched into the man's chest, spun him around into a comic pirouette, and dumped him onto the pavement.
The other two let out eerie howls, like coyotes baying at the moon. The one with the spear ran forward a few steps and hurled his weapon. It lofted high into the air, arced smoothly, then clanged into the wall five feet above Eric.
The man with the bow was tugging his arrow back with a bead on Eric. But he never made it. Five arrows snapped at him almost simultaneously, though only two actually. hit him. One caught him in the chest, the other chipped a hunk of flesh off a rib. Two of the arrows bounced off the van while the third disappeared into the darkness of the parking lot, skidding along pavement.
The man with the bow crumpled. His fingers released the half-pulled string, catapulting the arrow ten feet ahead. He fell backwards, knocking his head against the van's bumper.
The spearman, now without a spear and too frightened to grab for the bow, took off behind the van, vanishing into the same thick darkness that had swallowed the arrow. They could hear the thwacking of his feet for a few more seconds. Then silence.
Rydell started after Philip but Eric pulled him back. "Wait."
Eric peered intently at the darkened parking lot, the black husks of the abandoned cars lurking like so many backs of dinosaurs trapped in a tar pit. "Okay, Rydell and Molly, see to Philip. Tag and Season, come with me."
They split into two groups and crab-walked across the lot. Eric motioned for Tag and Season to bracket the open door of the van. With his crossbow cocked and loaded, he dove into the yawning black door, his bow lifted toward the darkened back. His shoulder smacked into a surfboard, but otherwise the van was empty. There were crumbled cellophane wrappers from Twinkies and some empty Sugar Pops boxes, some tattered clothes, torn comic books, but otherwise nothing.
"Empty," Eric said as he jumped out of the van.
"Philip's dead," Rydell called.
Eric walked over to the man with Matt Southern's bow, tipped him onto his back with a nudge of his foot. Beneath the long, wild hair was a dirt-smeared face. He smelled foul, even by current disaster standards, his skin oily and broken out, his gums peppered with raw sores. The short bolt with the red plastic feathers sticking out of his chest was Eric's. Dark blood bubbled around the shaft like boiling soup. The other arrow that had wounded him had nipped its chunk of flesh from the rib and kept going. Eric leaned closer to the face for a better look. Beneath the ravaged face, a boy of seventeen or eighteen. Eric's stomach muscles bunched up, his fists balled against his legs. He remembered this feeling from Nam. The clawing in your guts when you faced your dead or wounded enemy, his limbs half ripped from his body, an eyeball hanging on his cheek by a tiny strand of nerve. The smooth face of a thirteen-year-old boy or girl. The only way you got through it was to remember your own dead buddies, not much older, screaming in agony as they tried to scoop their own intestines back into the hole in their stomach.
Eric marched over to Philip's body. He needed to see what these kids had done, to stoke his hate like a furnace until the guilt evaporated.
The blade had entered the back of Philip's neck, severing the sternomastoid muscle, and puncturing the esophagus before the knife's handle wedged into the neck. Philip's eyes were still wide with horror and surprise. Death wasn't at all the way Philip had expected it to be. Not the way he'd read about it in history books.
Molly was bending over the body of the kid who'd thrown the knife, Eric's bolt sprouting from his chest in almost the same spot as on the other kid. "Hey, Eric! I think this one's still alive. I've got a faint pulse. Just barely."
Tag and Season were still over by the van gathering the spent arrows.
"Jesus," Season's voice rang out with excitement, "it was me. My arrow. It's got blood on it. I shot the bastard too." Her face was flushed as she held the arrow up to show the others. "My God, I really did it. Would've skewered his fucking stomach if he hadn't moved. I goddamn did it."
Eric walked slowly toward her. The others watched, confused about what response to have. Congratulate her? Too grotesque. Offer sympathy? She was too high, too excited for that. She was pacing in circles, waving the arrow. Once she almost tripped over the kid's leg and hauled off and kicked the corpse, "Son of a bitch," she growled.
Eric had seen this kind of reaction before, had experienced it himself the first time in battle. The thrill of having survived when a buddy dies. Then the guilt at being alive, compounded if you've killed someone and get to look in their face afterwards. Then the hatred. At your friend for having died, at your enemy for having made you a killer. And finally at yourself,
Season was laughing in Eric's face as he approached her. "You see, you pompous ass. I did it. Even with a man's bow. Maybe it wasn't a kill shot, but it was better than any of these other clowns did."
Eric laid his crossbow on the ground, took another step toward her. She flinched back as if she thought he would strike her. Instead he opened his arms and hugged her close to him.
"What the hell are you doing?" she screeched, struggling to push him away. But his arms held her tenderly, yet tightly, and soon she stopped resisting.
"Relax," he said, stroking the back of her head. "We're all scared. And angry." He looked into her eyes; she stared back, her eyes slightly dazed as if in shock. "You're a hell of a soldier, Deely, Three months ago, most civilians probably wouldn't consider that much of a compliment. But right now, it's the highest praise you can give someone. It means you're tough, resourceful, clever. A survivor. Someone who can be counted on. Okay?"
Season stepped out of his arms, nodded, adjusted the bandanna around her forehead. "What is it they say in the macho movies? 'Thanks, I needed that.' " She grinned. "Only I really mean it."
Eric winked and spun back on the others. His voice was flat but crisp, as if nothing had happened here. "Okay, we've wasted enough time here. We have a meeting to go to. Let's move out."
Molly looked up. "What about this boy? There's still a pulse."
Eric picked up his crossbow and trotted over to the dying boy. Except that his hair was longer and darker, he looked very much like the other kid. Perhaps a year or two older. Maybe they were brothers. Cousins. Maybe the circumstances made them look alike. It didn't matter. Eric lifted his foot above the boy's neck, lowered it slowly over the throat, and pressed, leaning his weight heavily on the foot. The boy's fingers moved slightly, curled and uncurled, then nothing. "Now he's dead," Eric announced. "So let's move out."
There was a shocked silence, a stunned pause, then they all moved at once.
"Tag," Eric called, "bring the kid's bow and all his arrows. Rydell, grab the backpack from Philip. We'll need the books. The rest of you converge against the building. Now!"
They jumped at his voice, dashing toward the Woodbridge Medical Building as if someone had fired a burst of bullets at their feet.
Eric leaned over the dead boy, grabbed the bolt close to the chest, wedged his foot on the chest for leverage, and pulled with a slight twisting motion. It was like yankinga stubborn cork from a wine bottle. But fortunately his arrows had field tips and not hunting broadheads, which he would have had to shove all the way through the body. There was a sloshing, sucking noise from the wound, reluctant to give the arrow up. But it finally slid out, dripping blood from the tip. Eric wiped the shaft on the kid's pants, then stuck the arrow back in his quiver. He ran over to the other body and retrieved his arrow the same way, relieved that he'd sent the others ahead. They were watching him, of course, but the darkness and the distance allowed them to ignore what they chose to avoid. As he jogged across the lot to join them, he purposely glanced at Philip's clenched face. His skin tingled as if his veins were pumping sulfuric acid, and he sighed sadly as he realized yet another nightmare had been added to his growing repertoire.
"How much longer?" Tag whispered.
Eric didn't have to look at his watch. It had only been a few seconds since he'd checked it last. "Any time now."
"Are you sure those guys we killed back there aren't the same ones we were supposed to meet?"
"I'm sure. They were just scavengers, killing anything that moved. Just relax and get back to your post."
Tag hesitated, but did as he was told. Eric had positioned him across the street from the jack in the Box, squatting behind an overturned Datsun 280Z. It was the kind of car Tag had always wanted to own, reading about it in the library's issues of Road amp; Track, Car amp; Driver and all the other magazines he sneaked off to read while supposedly checking inventory. Now, as he peered through the shattered windows of the upside-down car, he felt a twinge of regret that he'd probably never have one. At least not with gasoline. For the first time in his life, it occurred to him that he might die. Really die. Like Philip. Like those kids.
When he'd first started working at the library he was still a student just out to earn a little extra money and meet girls. He was remarkably successful at both. It was the first place he'd ever felt like he belonged. It wasn't a tough decision to switch from a social ecology major to library science. Then after graduation, the job became permanent and he thought he was the luckiest guy in the world. He had a job he liked. He met plenty of pretty young girls, some of whom he dated, though True Love always seemed to elude him. He'd been counting on True Love to hit him by the time he turned twenty-five, twenty-eight at the max. When it didn't, he began to suspect True Love was harder to find than he'd been led to believe. He certainly liked the girls he dated, and they liked him. He wasn't a dynamo in bed, but he was fun and considerate. There'd been plenty of girls who'd wanted to make more of the relationship, but they hadn't been right. No loss of appetite, sudden urges to compose poetry, staying awake wondering what she was doing. In short, not T.L.
Maybe it was to compensate, or just to distract. Whatever the reason, Tag began noticing the sports periodicals for the first time a couple years ago. Windsurfer, Ski Thrills, Ripcord, Hot Rod. He would leaf through them with fascination; the only letter he'd won in high school had been for band, the slide trombone. Now, staring at the glossy photographs of somersaulting dirt bikes and soaring hang gliders, he knew what he must do. He must make himself more worthy for True Love.
He tried everything. No sport was too dangerous, too exotic. There were lots of times he was afraid, his bladder swollen with tension, but he never backed out. He'd wanted to, lots of times, he was ashamed to admit. Still, he hung in, dove out of airplanes, swam the ocean bottom, scaled steep cliffs. And though he'd come through it all, he'd not yet found True Love. Just a lot of pretenders to the throne.
"Stupid," he said to himself, shaking his head. Because now, stooped on cramping legs behind an overturned Datsun 280Z, staring at a dark Jack in the Box at midnight, it occurred to him for the first time that he might die. He saw Philip's face in front of him, the once-pleasant features twisted with agony and fear. Tag felt a chill rake across his neck and quickly glanced over his shoulder.
He looked thirty yards to his right, saw the ghostly outline of Season's body hunched behind a bus stop cabana. It was too dark to make out her features, but he could sense her fear as easily as he could smell the charred air. The same with Rydell and Molly, decoys standing across the street in front of the Jack in the Box, the five backpacks piled next to the drive-up window. Molly was leaning against the wall while Rydell played soccer with a stone or something. They were even more scared than he was right now, and he didn't blame them. He'd heard Molly gulp like a cartoon character when Eric told her what she had to do. Rydell had made a joke, but his voice had cracked a bit. And the sweat on his face was evident even in the dark.
Only Eric had seemed unperturbed. He had issued orders, set positions for a crossfire, all as calmly as if he were back in the classroom discussing 15th century Italian art. His expression never seemed to change, the hard edges of his face always dominating. And that scar flicking along his jaw like a serpent's tongue, exploding on his cheek like a sunspot. Yet Tag had noticed the pain tearing across Eric's face-the self-blame mixed with hate. Then it was gone, disappeared as quickly as a spring rain. Now there was the stone face, the solid marble man. Still, Tag had to admire the man's strength. They'd all huddled against each other, even Rydell, as they'd watched Eric twist that arrow out of the dead boy. Had that only been minutes after he'd tenderly hugged Season, calmed her hysteria? Then crushed a dying boy's windpipe? How could they all be the same man?
Tag peered at his watch. Twelve-thirty. Whoever they were supposed to meet was a half-hour late. He took a deep breath, looked across the street to the empty gas station where he'd just left Eric. The pumps were torn off their concrete islands. It had been one of the few gas stations that hadn't been burned. But it had been pretty thoroughly drained, though not by University Camp. Tag's eyes scanned the station for Eric, whom he had last seen crouching in the open garage. From here the darkened garage looked like a forbidding cavern leading to the center of the earth. But no Eric. Where the hell did he go?
Suddenly he felt a hand grip his arm.
His heart clattered in his ears like an alarm bell. Fear and panic flooded over him until he felt he was drowning in it. But he had to do something. He twisted around, realized it was too late for the bow, tugged at the knife in his belt.
"Easy, Tag," Eric said, his powerful fingers squeezing Tag's shoulder, stilling all movement. "Follow me."
Tag followed Eric, his heart still hammering against his ribs. How had Eric sneaked up on him so quietly? It was spooky.
They moved swiftly along the street, Eric silent but Tag's slight noise alerting Season. They squatted next to her.
"What's up?" she asked.
"I don't think they're going to show," Eric said.
"That doesn't make any sense. They called for the meet."
"I didn't say they weren't here. I just said they aren't going to show themselves." Eric made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "They may be waiting out there, planning to jump us on the way home. They think that we'll figure they decided not to show for some reason. And then we'll let our guard down. That way we'd be much better targets going home than we were coming here. Old strategy, but effective."
"What do we do?" Tag asked.
"Wait. For now."
"What about Dr. Dreiser?"
"I haven't forgotten her."
Season leaned her back against the plastic wall of the bus stop cabana and closed her eyes. "Christ, it won't be the same without her tramping around the place in her filthy jacket, complaining about her bad feet." She opened her eyes, giggled. "It was Dr. Dreiser who had the foresight to make sure we stocked all those contraceptives in the beginning. Foam, suppositories, condoms. Hell, even you didn't think of that."
Eric smiled. "No, I didn't."
"Wouldn't expect a man to," she teased.
"He's not a doctor," Tag said, feeling defensive.
"It has nothing to do with being a doctor. Joan thought of it because she's a woman. She's-"
Eric bolted to his feet. "She's a woman!"
Season looked at Eric. "I hope that didn't come as news to you."
Eric's eyes blazed as he shook his head angrily. "Of course! Damn it, I'll kill them. If they aren't dead already." He stood up, grabbed his bow, and ran across the street to Molly and Rydell. Season and Tag scrambled after him.
"What's up, Coach," Rydell said. "Is this a forfeit?"
"We may have already lost," Eric growled, clawing at the pile of backpacks, dumping them onto the ground. Thick books spilled out onto the ground tumbling over one another. Eric flung the backpacks to the side and snatched up a handful of books, reading the titles: "A Guide to Social Etiquette, Rollout: Improve Your Racquet-ball Game in Six Weeks."
Rydell reached down and grabbed some books. "Look at this. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Ten Days That Shook the World."
"What's going on, Eric?" Season asked. "This isn't what they asked for."
Tag started stuffing the books back into the backpacks.
"Leave them," Eric said. "We don't have time. We've got to get back to University Camp."
"Hold on," Rydell said. "I don't get it. What about Dr. Dreiser? The swap?"
"There is no swap. Let's go."
They started running, Eric leading the pack by ten feet.
"But who kidnapped Dr. Dreiser?" Rydell called after him,
"Who?" Eric said, his voice tight and menacing as it drifted eerily out of the darkness. "It was Dr. Dreiser."
It wasn't the sight of blood that sickened Eric. It was the smell. Heavy. Thick. Like overripe fruit rotting in the sun. Cloying like dried rose petals. It drowned alt other senses, submerged them until the act of breathing became claustrophobic.
Eric forced himself to breathe evenly as he waded past body after mangled body, but the air, once charcoal-laced with the memory of raging fires, now swarmed with the sourness of death. It was as if the air were too dense to be breathed, or didn't contain enough oxygen, or just didn't want to support any life form capable of this carnage.
'They didn't have a chance," Rydell said, stooping to check the pulse of one of the guards. He let the wrist flop limply to the ground and stood up.
"Jesus," Season gasped as she stepped over the toppled barbed-wire fence.
Molly and Tag jogged up behind her, their mouths gaping as they stared dumbly around what was left of University Camp.
"Right," Eric said sharply. "Let's get to work. Rydell and Season, start fixing the fence here. Molly and Tag, scout the perimeter for any other breaks."
"Shouldn't we check for survivors first?" asked Rydell with some shock.
"Yes," Tag agreed, "or search the grounds to see if there are any invaders still around?"
"They're gone," Eric said. "This was a hit and run operation. They're not sitting around raping women or getting drunk. As to survivors. They'll be coming out of hiding soon as they know it's us out here. The wounded will just have to wait until we've secured our defenses. We don't want them coming back. Or any of the others waiting out there. Do we?"
Molly grabbed Tag's arm, tugged him after her. "Let's go check the perimeters, partner."
Rydell glared at Eric for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to argue. Eric stared back, his eyes unflinching, his face grimly set. Finally, Rydell nodded reluctantly. "C'mon, Season, grab that post. We'll wedge it between these desks."
Eric sprang off across the grounds toward the bookstore, ignoring the corpses and moaning wounded he passed or hopped over. Why hadn't they heard the alarm bell or drum? They could have been here sooner. Helped. Done something. As he edged around the cafeteria, he saw why. The kettle drum was smashed in, the post with the iron bell was splintered in half. Griff Durham, the hammer clutched in his hand to strike the bell, lay sprawled in the parched brown grass, two arrows sticking out of his back.
Eric forced his body to do what was militarily correct, what he'd been taught, rather than what it wanted to do. It wanted to throw his bow down and run for Annie. To see if she was okay, or if she'd managed to hide herself and the kids in time. But Eric didn't bolt. He ran purposefully to the bell, unstrapped it from the wood beam it had hung from, pried the hammer loose from Griff Durham's death grip, arid banged that bell with an All Clear pattern any survivors would recognize. At least now he and his soldiers could move around the camp without fear of being accidentally shot while mistaken for the intruders.
"Come on out, people!" Eric shouted. "We need help. There's work to do."
As he hammered the bell dangling in his hand, he could see doors opening, faces peering out of fourth-floor library windows. Some staggered from wounds, others staggered from shock. But they came, their weapons hanging limply at their sides.
"Those of you still armed take guard positions around the perimeters. Anyone outside comes near the barriers, kill them. Anyone. You three-yeah, you-start checking the bodies. Help the wounded first, then start dragging the dead over in the open quad." Everyone wandered off wordlessly, following orders because it was something specific to do, easier than thinking about what had happened.
Satisfied that they were at least defensible again, Eric now ran for his home, for Annie. He checked each dazed face as he dashed past, hoping to recognize her features among the living. But she wasn't there.
Perhaps she was still home, hiding there with the children, huddled behind the desk with a bow. Waiting for him to come back and protect them.
"Help me. Please, help me," someone begged hoarsely as Eric ran by. Out of the corner of his eye he recognized
Fred Donnelli, a stockbroker whose father had been a tailor, qualifications enough to make Fred part of the clothes making group at University Camp. A crossbow bolt had pinned his shoulder to door, blood spiraling down his arm. Eric kept going, the image of Annie fixed in his mind. Fred could wait.
But Eric couldn't. He pivoted sharply around, ran over to Fred Donnelli. He quickly examined the bolt, saw that it was a broadhead hunting tip. "This is going to hurt, Fred," he said.
"It already hurts." Fred sagged weakly. "I had another one in the side, but I managed to work that one through." He pressed his left hand against the wound. Blood seeped between his sticky fingers. "I just don't have the strength anymore, Eric, to aaiiiieee."
Eric snapped the samurai sword from the scabbard on his back and leaned Fred forward to expose an inch of the shaft sticking between his back and the bolt's tip. Then with a chopping sweep, Eric severed the wooden shaft and yanked the arrow from Fred's shoulder. Fred slid to the ground.
"Thanks," he said, his eyes heavy, his tongue thick in his mouth.
Eric whipped the sword back into the scabbard, grabbed his crossbow, and ran on without answering. Fred's shoulder wound was minor, but the hole in his side had looked bad. Maybe fatal. He needed medical attention right away, but not from Eric.
Lanterns were being lit around the camp as people busied themselves with the wounded, secured guard posts, dragged the dead away. The wretched sounds of sobbing and crying echoed throughout the camp like distant cries of a mournful bird. Eric ignored their pain and suffering, concentrating on his own fears of what lay ahead.
He took the short cut through the locker room and around the pool, finally rounding the last corner. What he saw sent electrical currents buzzing through his heart.
The door was open.
He was through it in seconds, his eyes raking every inch of the room in a glance. Empty.
No Annie. No Timmy.
He ran back out to the main grounds, grabbing people roughly by the shoulders, shaking them for answers. "Where's my wife? My son?"
No one knew. Some too devastated by their own loss to care.
"The hospital," he said aloud, already running in that direction. Of course. Annie would go to the hospital in the library to check on Jennifer. Hope surged through his body, catapulting him toward the library.
Susan Connors was holding the door open with her backside while two men carried a woman in on a stretcher. A long deep gash divided her arm lengthwise, exposing muscle and bone. "Get her in here," Susan urged. Half a dozen people were asking her questions at once. She answered each patiently, but quickly, sent them running for whatever she ordered.
Eric saw her react when she saw him coming. She looked over her shoulder, hollered something he didn't hear from that distance. He saw Tracy running up behind her, the two of them talking, looking at Eric as he approached.
"Is she here? Annie?" Eric said.
Susan and Tracy blocked the doorway with their bodies. "No, Eric," Susan said. "Annie's not here."
"Where is she?"
"I don't know."
"Don't feed me that crap. If she's dead, tell me."
Tracy put her hand on Eric's arm. "Really, we don't know where she is. Most of us have been in hiding in the top floors of the library. It all happened so fast. One minute everything was quiet, normal. The next, they were all over us. Killing and looting. I don't know how it happened." A sob caught in her voice, but she shook it off, aware that there was no time for that now.
"If you two don't know where Annie is, why are you trying to keep me out of the hospital?"
"We're not, Eric. It's just that Annie isn't here."
He stared at the two of them, the nervous shifting of their eyes, the fidgeting. They were hiding something. "Jenny," he said suddenly, shoving them brusquely aside as he plowed through the door.
He knew the way, weaving among the patients, jostling nurses. He vaulted over the circulation desk that now served as a nurses' station, through the back offices where the contagious were kept. Behind him he heard Tracy and Susan calling his name, pleading for him to stop.
"For God's sake, Eric, wait!" Tracy hollered.
He pushed open the door marked Film Library, practically toppling a black male nurse who'd been swabbing a woman's cut and bruised forehead with alcohol.
"Hey, man, watch it." Then he recognized Eric. "Sorry, Eric. I, uh, sorry…" The rest trailed off into mumbled apologies and condolences.
But Eric didn't hear. He was already through the open door where he'd last seen Jennifer, only a few hours earlier. She'd been lying on her mat, the covers pulled up under her chin the way he used to tuck her in when she was a little girl. She'd been coughing slightly, but the worst was over, she'd be home in a day or two. Eric had played his scratchy Beatles tape while Jennifer made faces and called him old-fashioned. "Get with it, Dad," she'd grinned. But she'd been delighted that his gift worked. She'd praised Rydell Grimme so lavishly for fixing it that Timmy teased her about having a crush on "Rye Dill Pickle." Jennifer had protested and blushed and thrown a crumpled tissue at Timmy. Eric had laughed, the sound of his own laughter surprising him slightly, the way it sounded so normal. Annie must have noticed it too, because she'd squeezed his hand affectionately and laughed.
But that lump under the bloodstained sheet couldn't be his little girl.
"Jenny," he whispered, as if not to disturb her.
He took a step, held the sheet gently between thumb and forefinger and slowly peeled it back. She revealed herself in stages, like a vampire in a cheap horror film, The blood-matted hair, the open-eyed death stare, and…
"Don't, Eric," Tracy said, grabbing his arm.
He shook her off, knocking her into the wall with a thud. He lifted the sheet.
Jennifer's throat lay gaping from ear to ear, the dark wound hanging open like a grotesque, drunken smile. Blood had cascaded down her neck and soaked the sheet beneath her. It was a clean, crisp slice, done with a single motion by someone who'd done it before. Practiced. Professional.
Eric felt a constricting at his own throat as he tenderly lowered the sheet. He imagined the knife puncturing her skin just under the left ear, slicing the tracheal cartilages, her terrified cries, begging, explaining they were making a mistake, surely she had never done anything worth dying for. Before they'd severed her vocal cords, had she cried out for Daddy to save her? He was sure she had.
He felt a gentle hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Eric," Tracy sobbed. "I'm so sorry."
"This is how we found her a few minutes ago," Susan Connors said. "Sally Zimmerman out in the hall saw them do it. They knocked her on the head when she tried to stop them."
"Don't know. Haven't seen her or Timmy. Sorry." She began to nervously twirl her stethoscope, caught herself and stopped. "You okay, Eric?"
"Susan!" a voice called desperately. "Gotta bleeder here with internal injuries."
"Eric?" Susan said.
He looked up from the covered form of his daughter and glanced at Susan. "Go on. You're needed out there."
She hesitated, saw Tracy nod at her to go. "Be out there if you need me."
Tracy took a tentative step toward Eric. "You want me to organize a search party to look for Annie and Timmy? We can comb this place in half an hour."
"First things first," he said, brushing past her.
Outside the room, the black male nurse was taping a bandage to the woman's forehead. Eric recognized her as Sally Zimmerman, the nurse who'd witnessed Jennifer's murder. He nudged Dennis Gilbert, the male nurse, away and stood in front of her. The bandage, only partially taped, flapped down, exposing a nasty bruise.
"Hey, man," Dennis protested, "I'm trying to patch this lady up."
"It'll keep a few seconds." He stared into Sally's frightened eyes and he realized that she was frightened of him. He realized something else: he didn't care. He wanted information; she had it. That's all he cared about. "What happened. Try to remember every detail."
Sally's eyes shifted nervously to Tracy and Dennis, avoiding Eric's. "It all happened very fast. Very fast. I mean, I'm not really a nurse or anything. I just help out here, do what I'm told." A sob caught in her throat and she blinked out a couple tears. "I was in with Jenny, picking up her food tray from dinner. I always forget these rooms so I have to come back at night. Jenny was asleep. Suddenly we heard a lot of noise, some screaming. Men carrying big flashlights and weapons came in here."
"They came straight to this room? They didn't bother anyone out there first?"
Sally shook her head. "I didn't hear them talk to anyone. They marched straight through."
"Well, there were four who came in here."
She touched her bandage gingerly. "Am I still bleeding, Dennis?"
Eric grabbed her wrist. "Describe them."
"Christ, Eric," Tracy said. "Stop bullying her. She'll tell you."
Dennis stepped closer, though his voice was nervous. "Come on, Eric, Sally's had a rough time too."
Eric held the wrist a few seconds longer, then released it. "Describe them."
"Well, they were all dressed in army fatigues. Two of them were young, about my age, late twenties. One of them carried a bow, the other had a submachine gun but I guess he never used it, because one of the older guys congratulated him on his restraint."
"The older guys. Tell me about them."
She dropped her voice as if afraid they might overhear her. "I'll never forget them. Ever. I close my eyes and I can see them right now, as if they were branded on my eyelids." She took a deep breath, composed herself. "One of them was huge, biggest man I've ever seen. Like that basketball player, uh, Kareem something. Only meatier. He grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall." Her fingers traced the bruises on her neck, "He was scary, I'll tell you, but not nearly as much as the other guy. The one with white hair and the square jaw. My God, his eyes were so pale I thought they might be infected or something. But I guess not, because he moved around pretty well. He kept calling the big guy Cruz, I think. Cruz only called him Colonel. No name."
"Fallows," Tracy gasped. "My God."
"Go on, Sally," Eric urged.
"Like I said, it all happened so fast. They marched into the room, shined their flashlights into Jenny's face. Then the colonel, what'd you call him?"
"Yeah, well, he asks her in a real sweet voice, like he was her uncle or something, if her name's Jennifer Ravensmith. Jenny doesn't answer him at first. The colonel pats her on the head, smiles, and…" She burst into tears, shook her head wildly, unable to go on.
Eric kneeled beside her, patted her on the head. When he spoke, his voice was soft and gentle. "I know, Sally. It must have been horrible for you. But you've got to go on. Just a little more." He lifted her head, wiped some of the tears from her eyes.
"Like I said, he was stroking her head, smiling at her, when suddenly he turns to the big guy, Cruz, and says, 'Kill her.' Just like that, still smiling."
"What did Cruz say?"
"That's another spooky thing. He doesn't say anything. He just nods, walks over to Jenny, and starts strangling her as simply as if he'd just been asked to pass the salt. I don't know what got into me, but I screamed and jumped at him, trying to pry his fingers from her throat. He looked at me like I was a pesky gnat or something, reached up, took a handful of my hair, and tossed me head-first into the wall. I sank to the floor kind of dazed, but I saw the rest. The colonel tells him not to strangle her, that strangling didn't make enough of a statement."
"Enough of a statement?" Eric repeated.
"I don't know what he meant, but that's what he said. So he handed Cruz a knife and said, 'Cut her.' Just like that. And he, well, he did it. He cut her. Thank God Jenny was already mostly unconscious from the choking."
"Yeah," Eric said. "Thank God."
"I just meant, you know…"
Eric smiled, squeezed her shoulder. "Thanks for what you did in there. Trying to save Jenny. Brave thing to do." He turned and marched through the doors.
Tracy ran after him. "Where are you going now?"
"What about searching for Annie and Timmy?"
He looked at her, his reddish-brown eyes stabbing into hers. "I know where they are."
Dr. Joan Dreiser sat in the chair behind the conference table. She was slumped forward slightly, but the arrow poking out of her chest was wedged against the side of the table keeping her propped upright. Her head hung limply to one side.
Next to her, at the center of the table, Dr. Epson sat stiffly tapping his mallet against his palm. He looked ten years older than the last time Eric had seen him, his eyes vacant, his skin gray and sagging. His mouth kept dropping open and he seemed to have trouble keeping himself from drooling.
"Eric, you're finally back," he waved happily, rapping the mallet on the table. "What's your report, son? How'd the trade go? We'll have electricity in no time, eh?"
Eric approached him slowly.
"Dr. Epson?" Tracy said.
"Tracy?" He grinned and winked. "Did you see? Eric's back. That means a successful mission. He's never let us down yet. Can't wait to install those generator parts. Oversee the whole thing myself. Owe it to the community, I do." He rapped the table again with his mallet.
Eric continued walking. When he got to the table, he stood directly across from Dr. Epson.
"Well?" the old man said, rubbing his eyes, "Let's hear your report, Eric. It's getting late, you know."
Eric lurched across the table, grabbed Dr. Epson by his loosened tie, and jerked him out of his chair until he was half lying on top of the table. He tugged the tie high over Dr. Epson's head until it choked him.
"Listen to me, you crazy son of a bitch, you better snap back to reality within five seconds or I'm going to hang you up like a dead pig. You got that?"
"Eric!" Tracy shouted. "Can't you see there's something wrong with him?"
"Right. And I'm giving him therapy."
Dr. Epson clawed at the tie biting into his skin, cutting off his air. His eyes bulged slightly, his tongue protruded between dry lips.
Eric loosened his grip and Dr. Epson sucked in a lungful of air. "Damn it, Eric, are you insane? I'm Chairman of the University Camp Council. Watch yourself or Dr. Dreiser and I will have to bring charges against you."
"No you don't, Epson," Eric growled, leaning his face toward Dr. Epson's. "Don't retreat into craziness, don't hide in there. You don't get off that easy. Not after what you've done."
Tracy wedged her body between the two men, trying to pry Eric away. "What are you talking about, Eric? You're the one who's acting crazy."
"Betrayal," the weary voice behind them answered. "He's talking about betrayal."
"Trevor," Dr. Epson said, straightening his tie. "About time you got here. Joan and I have been waiting for hours. Have you seen Durham anywhere?"
"He's coming, Donald," Trevor Graumann said, walking unsteadily into the room. "I saw you at the hospital, Eric. I was just coming out of my unconsciousness. They told me about Jennifer. The rest I could guess." He stooped down, retrieved his pipe, wiped the stem, and stuck it in his mouth. "I take it you've guessed it too."
Tracy shook her head in confusion. "What are you two talking about? What betrayal?"
"Would you mind lighting the other lamp, Tracy?" Trevor said, pointing at the far end of the table where the Coleman lay on its side. "It's a bit too dark in here."
"Sure," she said, pulling a Bic lighter from her pocket. The room brightened considerably, though the extra light only made Dr. Epson look worse.
"How much do you know, Eric?"
"Just what I pieced together. The Council decided to go against my advice earlier this evening about trading for the generator parts. Once I left the room, the discussion was reopened and they decided to send me on a wild goose chase in the opposite direction, which would leave them free to make their own deal with these people. So they staged Dr. Dreiser's kidnapping."
"I wasn't a part of it, Eric. I want you to know that."
"I know. That's why they decided to drug you until it was all over. I imagine Dr. Dreiser did that."
Trevor nodded sadly. "She didn't want to. But she wanted those parts so badly, for her hospital, you know. She just let herself get talked into it."
"I imagine it was Griff Durham who knocked the guard out to add some authenticity, and Dr. Dreiser who spread some blood from the hospital around the room for special effects. After we left, they sent another delegation out to meet our friends with the generator parts. Somehow they tricked their way inside, and the slaughter began."
Dr. Epson hammered his mallet on the table. "You're out of order, young man. This is not parliamentary procedure. Councilman Graumann has the floor."
Tracy sank into a nearby chair, her body numb. "You mean it was our own council who let these monsters in?"
"Yes," Trevor answered, "They thought they were doing the right thing. They thought they were buying us electricity, light."
"They thought!" she yelled, jumping out of her chair. "They thought! They risked all our lives without asking us, without advising us of the risks? What arrogance!" In her rage, Tracy jostled the table, disloding the arrow balancing Dr. Dreiser. Her body toppled off the chair onto the floor.
"Joan? Joan, are you all right," Dr. Epson said. "Nasty fall, eh?"
"How did you know, Eric?" Trevor asked. "I mean about the double cross."
"The note. They constructed a kidnap note that referred to Joan as 'the doctor.' But after the 'kidnapping' her lab jacket was still hanging on the coat rack, and she wasn't carrying any medical equipment, so how did the kidnappers know she was a doctor? Certainly Joan wouldn't risk telling them."
"The question now, of course," Trevor said, "is why did these savages do it? What was to gain? They didn't stay long enough to steal much of value. It seems all they did was kill. Not very logical."
Eric's voice was distant. "It was Dirk Fallows."
"Oh," Trevor sighed. "That explains it. What about Annie and Timmy?"
"He's got them. Jennifer was sick, so he didn't want to bother with her. He just slit her throat. But he has Annie and Timmy."
"How do you know?" Tracy said. "We haven't even searched the grounds yet. They might be wounded somewhere, or still hiding."
"Or dead," Trevor said.
"No, he didn't kill them. It's me he wants. To make me suffer. He'll drag it out as long as possible. He wants me to think about what he did to Jennifer, what he might do to Annie and Timmy."
"Sounds like a very sick man."
"Not a man. A thing. It looks human, but that's the only similarity. But he knows what he wants. Always."
Trevor sucked on his pipe. "And he wants you to follow him, right?"
"So what are you going to do?"
Eric's lips cracked, revealing clenched teeth. "Follow him."
"Yes, follow him, my boy," Dr. Epson mumbled absently. "We all need someone to follow, eh?"
Rydell Grimme peered into the dark room, squinting in the dim light from his lantern. "That you, Molly?"
Molly Sing was sitting on the floor leaning against the wall, her face slack with exhaustion. "Anybody found him yet?"
"Nope. Son of a bitch seems to have disappeared."
"It would be just like Eric," she nodded with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. "Do you think he's left the camp?"
Rydell shrugged. "Maybe. But I doubt it."
"I don't. We've had a dozen people searching for him for almost an hour and nobody's seen any trace of him. To me that suggests he's not here."
"You can't tell with Eric," Rydell said, entering the room, his lantern held in front of him. Molly winced slightly at the light. "He could be sitting right next to us and there's a good chance we wouldn't notice. Some kind of Zen trick."
Molly glanced around the semi-dark room. "If you're here, Eric, don't show yourself until I've had another five minutes rest, okay. My feet are ready to bark."
"Mine too," Rydell agreed, walking slowly around the room, holding out his lantern here and there to examine something. "So this is where he lived?"
"Yup, the four of them. Not exactly Jim and Betty Anderson."
"You know, Father Knows Best. Did you ever notice how all those TV families had two-story houses? Ward and June Cleaver, The Brady Bunch, even Archie Bunker."
"I don't know. We didn't have a TV when I was a kid."
"Oh. Moral or financial?"
"How come you didn't have a TV? Moral or financial grounds? Your parents didn't want their child corrupted by the tube, or they couldn't afford one?"
"A little of both, I guess. My mother didn't want me to learn about sex until I was too old to use it. And my father didn't want to take the money away from his drinking fund."
"Oh, it was like that, huh?"
"Yeah." Rydell poked around on Eric's desk. "Did you see these?"
Molly clicked on her flashlight, shined it at the desk. "Yeah, what are they?"
"Trip flares. He was building trip flares." Rydell shook his head and grinned. "Clever son of a bitch."
"I don't think a man should be referred to as a son of a bitch in his own home. Especially by uninvited guests."
"Right. The loss of manners is the first step of our descent into savagery. Stiff upper lip, that's the ticket, what?"
"It's possible, but I don't think I've ever heard a worse British accent in my life."
Rydell slipped out of his quiver and plopped down next to Molly. The lantern sat at their feet, casting a flickering light onto their faces. "Reminds me of Boy Scout camp."
"You were a Boy Scout?"
"A Boy Scout, a Cub Scout, every kind of scout there was to keep me on the right track."
"The right track?"
"The manly track. Masculine, macho manhood. My father had read an article in Reader's Digest about the ten warning signs of homosexuality in children and he was determined that I never show one of those signs."
"Did it work?"
He looked at her, her eyes twinkling mischievously, a half grin curling her lips. He took a deep breath and smelled her distinctive odor. That was one of the pleasant side effects of this new lifestyle they'd all been forced into, each person had a very distinctive scent. He understood now why dogs sniffed each other when meeting. Molly's scent was delicate, yet hearty, like stir-fried vegetables. He felt his mouth watering as he leaned over and kissed her.
She accepted the kiss without moving, either to encourage or protest. Her arms bung limply at her sides, but her lips parted to allow his tongue to enter her mouth. She sucked on it a little, then pushed him away.
"Don't you have the wrong girl, pal? I'm the short oriental with the Chinese doll haircut. I think you've mistaken me for the gorgeous blonde with the big tits." She smoothed the bib of her overalls against her chest. "See, no tits."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Reality, man. You're a pretty decent hunk of guy considering the depressed market lately. Okay, let's be honest. You're a knockout in any market. But me? Well, I've been around enough to know that guys like you always end up with Gidget. It's in the script, man."
Rydell laughed. "Relax, the doctor will be right here. I think you're going through a severe case of TV withdrawal."
Molly's laugh tinkled like wind chimes. "Maybe. My father used to have the thing on day and night, trying to learn English and American customs."
"My God, what a distorted view of us he must have gotten. To say nothing of his children."
"Still, it's warped."
Molly shrugged. "Maybe."
He reached out, smoothed her hair lightly with his fingertips.
"I told Tag I was going to rest here, so he should be picking me up soon." She stared into Rydell's eyes. "That doesn't really give us enough time for a quick boff, does it?"
Angrily, he jerked his hand away from her hair. "Jesus, is that what you think this is all about?"
He hesitated, sighed. "Yeah, okay, partially. It's such a rare occurrence around this camp to be alone in a room with a woman, well, you know."
"Yeah, we're just as horny as you guys. It's not much fun catching a quickie behind buildings at night. The draft is murder."
Even in the dim light, Molly could see Rydell was blushing. She laughed. "Don't look so shocked, man. What do you think the women talk about at night on their side of the gym? When and where the best places in camp are to do it. The sixteen-year-olds are the worst. Half of the time it's hard to sleep because of all the women masturbating themselves or each other. It's a little like a prison. Hell, a lot like a prison."
Rydell nodded. "Yeah, well, men aren't quite so open. Most of them don't talk about it, but you can see they think about it a lot. As for masturbation, never in the open." He chuckled. "I think that was one of the ten warning signs for homosexuality in that article my father read. Apparently everybody's father read the same article."
"What about the gays?"
"Whatever they do they do in private, just like the rest of the guys. I think men are embarrassed by wanting sex."
There was a couple minutes silence as each drifted into his own thoughts.
"If we'd had the time. You know."
"It's just that I wouldn't want Tag or Season walking in on us."
He looked at her. "Do you think I do?"
"Maybe. You look like a bit of an exhibitionist."
"I'll do it with my hand, if you want. Easier to hide if we're caught. Or if you want to do it to yourself while I watch, that'd be okay. Some guys get off on that."
"Can we change the subject, please?"
"Sure, I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"Like hell you didn't."
She laughed. "Okay, maybe I did. A little."
Rydell leaned over and kissed her again. This time her arms were around him, crushing him to her. He was surprised by the strength in her arms. She nibbled his lip lightly like a hamster and they giggled into each other's mouth.
"You think they found him yet?" she asked, nuzzling against his neck.
"Nope. They won't find him until he's ready to be found."
"What do you think he's doing right now?"
She leaned back against the wall and frowned. "What are we going to do now?"
"God, I wish I knew. It looks like Trevor Graumann is going to be Chairperson of the Council. New members will have to be elected."
He shook his head. "I doubt it. He's going after his wife and son."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Uh oh. You want to go too, right? I think I see the ugly macho head of Daddy Grimme rearing."
His voice crackled with bitterness. "Who taught you psychology? Dr. Joyce Brothers? Or Ozzie and Harriet?"
"Bob Newhart." She touched his arm. "I didn't mean anything, you know. Just shooting my big mouth off without checking to see if it's loaded."
He nodded sullenly.
"Hell, we were better off talking about sex."
He looked into her face. "You're not the kind who tries to joke people out of bad moods, are you?"
She shrugged helplessly. "Afraid so. Mary Tyler Moore with slanted eyes."
The sound of footsteps outside the door interrupted them. Rydell nodded to Molly to stay put. She picked up her bow and eased an arrow out of the quiver. Rydell plucked a throwing knife from his belt, poised it over his shoulder.
"Hey, anybody in there?" Season called before popping her head into the doorway.
"It's only you," Rydell said impatiently.
Season jerked a thumb at him and spoke to Molly. "Get him. Bah, humbug to you too." She slipped her quiver over head, laid it on the floor next to her bow, and sat down on the mattress next to Molly where Rydell had been sitting. "Oh my God. Oh, that feels good. I never thought I'd get to sit again."
"Any sign of Eric?" Molly asked.
"Nope. Wherever he is, he doesn't want to be found yet. We've combed, teased, and blow-dried this camp three times already. Still no sign. Tag told me you were hiding out here so I thought I'd join you." She raised her eyebrows suggestively. "I didn't realize you had company of the male persuasion. I can keep watch outside the door if you guys want some privacy," Neither of them answered her, so she just shrugged and closed her eyes. "Suit yourself."
"Anything new out there?" Rydell asked to change the subject.
Season rolled her head toward him, half-opened her eyes. "Same old same old. People are still in shock about what the council did. They're scared now that we don't have a doctor. Susan was a surgical nurse, but you know people, they like professionals with titles, little letters after their names. She's doing a hell of a job at the hospital, but people are still asking her what would Dr. Dreiser do."
"What about Trevor Graumann?"
"He's organizing people, keeping them busy. The old guy really knows what he's doing. And since he's the only one who didn't have anything to do with this disaster, people are starting to listen to him. In the meantime, Dr. Epson is locked in a room in the hospital until they figure out what to do with him."
"What can they do?" Molly asked.
Season laughed sharply. "If most people get their way, they'll lynch him."
"They wouldn't," Molly said.
"Probably not," Rydell said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if they expel him from University Camp."
"Expel him? They might as well lynch him. You saw what it's like out there. He wouldn't last an hour, especially in his present condition."
"I'm not saying they will expel him, just that they might. After all, we don't have the facilities or manpower to care for him."
"God, you can be cold," Molly said.
"Uh oh," Season grinned. "Trouble in paradise. Your first spat."
"Knock it off, Season," Molly said angrily.
Season was stunned by the hostility in Molly's usually placid voice. "Sorry," she mumbled, meaning it.
A heavy silence.
Season broke it with nervous chatter. "You guys given any thought to what you're going to do now?"
"What do you mean?" Molly asked.
"I mean around here. Things definitely aren't going to be the same anymore. Not after tonight. They counted twenty-three dead of ours." No one was ghoulish enough to ask for names. The community was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, so it didn't really matter who was killed. It would be someone they knew, probably liked.
"Anyway, this is a good chance for us to run for council. After braving the dangers of the Dead Zone, we've built pretty good reputations. And we obviously didn't have anything to do with the massacre tonight. If we get Eric to endorse us, I bet we could get the votes. We'd all be on the council together, really get this place rolling."
"Rydell's thinking of going with Eric," Molly said suddenly, an edge to her voice.
"What?" she asked incredulously. "Go with him? Where?"
"After his wife and kid."
"Right, his wife and kid. But do you know who has them? Col. Dirk Fallows. You ever hear of him, follow the trial in the papers?"
"Yeah, I know all about him."
"And did you hear the descriptions of his second in command, what's his name?…"
"Cruz," Molly offered.
"Yeah, Cruz. He's the bastard that slit Jenny Ravensmith's throat. Supposed to be seven feet of pure mean. That's who you'll be up against. Just you and Captain Bligh."
"Let me worry about that."
"Men," Season sighed, shaking her head. "They all think they have to wear their balls on their sleeve. I'll tell you one thing about Eric, if he were you he wouldn't go. You don't have any experience, any training."
With a sudden flick of his arm, Rydell tossed his throwing knife across the room. It stuck in the center board covering the window. "Yes I do," he said quietly.
Season and Molly exchanged looks.
"Where'd you learn to do that?" Molly asked. "Boy Scouts?"
He laughed, trying to lighten the conversation, but neither woman smiled back. "My father taught me. His campaign to make me a man was ceaseless. Did I mention he was a SWAT commander in Atlanta?"
"No," Molly answered stiffly. "You didn't."
"Yeah, well, it's not something that comes up often in normal conversation. 'What's your father do for a living, young man?' 'Well, sir, he's a SWAT commander.' Tends to dampen polite conversation. Anyway, he taught me everything his own troops learned, and then some. Knife throwing, marksmanship, climbing, just about everything a young boy needs to know at a public school in Atlanta." He pointed at his bow. "Except archery, unfortunately. College was to be a necessary evil, then right into the police department as a rookie, and finally a member of his own crack corps."
"It was his dream, not mine. Is this where the dramatic music comes in?"
Molly nodded. "Strings usually."
"Well pretend. Anyway, he wanted me to study-criminal justice, I wanted to study philosophy and theology."
"Theology?" Molly said, shocked.
"Yeah. I wanted to become a minister."
"Jesus, forget what I said earlier, okay? I didn't mean anything."
"I said minister, Molly, not eunuch. My dad and I used to have some real screaming matches at home about that. Well, I was always very good in science and math, so my mother's compromise was physics. That's what I got my degree in."
Season tilted her head at him. "You've got a degree in physics? I thought you worked at the university as a janitor or something."
"Maintenance, if you please. After graduation I let my father talk me into at least trying out for the force, giving it a chance."
"And?" Molly asked.
"I gave it a chance. I didn't like it, so I quit. He hasn't spoken to me since."
"And your ministry?"
He shrugged. "Lost interest in that by my sophomore year."
"That leaves physics."
"I wanted to take a few years off, see if I was still interested in that enough to pursue it any further."
"And? Christ, why do I have to pull every word out of you?"
Rydell laughed. "And I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted by all of them. I'd decided to go back in the fall. But the best laid plans of mice and men…"
"Tell me about it," Season said. "At least you had some choices. My parents had me acting since I was eight months old. They thought it was so cute to stick me in their films, kinda like Alfred Hitchcock, which is who I looked like as a baby. When the rest of my friends were trying to figure out which end of a tampon you inserted, I was in my own sitcom."
"Friends of the Family," Molly said.
"Yeah, right. I was pretty horrible, huh?"
"I know. I didn't know how to act, still don't. But I had the right look, and the right name. We ran for four seasons. When I decided to go to college, my parents thought it was a great idea. Until I told them I was going to major in physical education. They thought only dykes liked that."
"Your parents read Reader's Digest, too," Rydell said.
"I don't know what they read, except Variety. Anyway, I ended up doing a lot of sports, and you know what? I loved it. And you know what else? My folks thought it was great too. They came to every event I competed in whenever they were in Los Angeles."
"Happy ending," Molly said.
"I guess so. I was pretty happy, everything just as I wanted it. Except for one little problem. Guys."
"You're kidding?" Molly said, surprised.
"I wish. It seemed that every guy I went out with thought he had to compete with the image of my father in movies. They were always trying to be so cool, you know, staring with sophisticated indifference. Acting cynical. In bed they were so concerned about their performance you'd think they were auditioning for Francis Ford Coppola. Jesus, what a mess. I think if-"
"Hey, Molly!" Tag Hallahan's voice shouted above his running feet. He burst into the room, looked surprised to see all of them, but recovered quickly. He was panting as he spoke. "It's Jennifer Ravensmith," he said urgently. "She's missing. Her body's gone."
The moon might have been full, it was hard to tell. The shimmering haze of the Long Beach Halo hung like a thick cloudy veil between heaven and earth making the moon look like a spilled blotch of phosphorescent milk. Still, it provided enough diffuse lighting for Eric to see what he was doing.
He stood atop the roof of the library and scanned the ravaged world around him. Far off into the distance were dozens of scattered campfires like fallen stars. He imagined the many people huddled around them, desperate for warmth, jumping at every sound in the night. Good people like the ones here, anxious not only for survival, but to preserve the dignity of civilization. But there were also evil people to whom survival was the only end, and that justified any crime. People like Fallows and his henchman, Cruz. And among them, Annie and Timmy. Frightened, alone. Waiting for deliverance.
Eric knew what he'd done wrong. He understood his mistake.
He thought about this as he stood balanced on the edge of the roof, constantly adjusting his balance to the ever-shifting wind that nudged him. He looked down, felt the grinding in the pit of his stomach that heights gave him. He smiled and began removing his clothing. All of it. He knew his fatal error now and was going to do something about it. Now.
At last he was naked, balanced with his back facing the edge of the roof. The breeze swirled gently around him, ruffling the hair on his body, tensing his genitals. Eric felt the movement, but was otherwise numb to the sensations. The wind was neither warm nor cold, heavy nor light. It only existed.
"Ritual," Big Bill Tenderwolf had lectured him. "Ritual provides answers when we are not yet certain of the questions."
"Sounds like you've been reading too many fortune cookies," Eric had replied with a youthful smirk.
Big Bill had laughed. "Perhaps. But even the ritual of fortune cookies has its function. Ceremonies have no intrinsic meaning, I'm sure a clever boy like you has figured that out already, right? Every time you see a funeral you shake your head at the hypocrisy. After all, the person's dead, right again?"
Eric said nothing, amazed and a little ashamed that his thoughts had been so transparent.
Big Bill had clapped a meaty hand on Eric's shoulder. "Those are perfectly natural conclusions. For the young. But the adult needs more. During especially emotional times, whether happy or sad, the prescribed ritual is a comfort. It gives strength. It forces order where there is emotional chaos. Sometimes it forces a person to face himself." He tapped a finger against his temple. "Maybe it is all a state of mind, but it is formidable. Like self-hypnosis. And sometimes it can release powers in a person they didn't know they had. Ritual is nothing to be mocked, boy."
Eric hadn't understood that until much later, maybe not even until this very moment. Still, Big Bill Tenderwolf had taken him into his home in the Hopi village of Shongopovi and taught him the many rituals, customs and folklore of the Hopis. How the Hopis had emerged from a horrible underworld when the earth was not yet fully formed; how they migrated south looking for a sacred spot, some for the exact center of the Earth; how they were led by the Twins, also called the Little War Gods, who helped stabilize the surface of the Earth and taught them how to survive, as well as ceremonies. How these gods, sensing their people's weariness, would come and dance for them, until they poked fun at their peculiar faces. But before returning broken-hearted to the underworld, they permitted ceremonial masks to be made resembling their faces. And ever since then, Hopis have donned these katcina masks to perform the dances necessary to stimulate harvest, bring rain, and promote warfare.
Big Bill Tenderwolf had taught him the katcina dances, the peculiar warbles, the pulsating rhythm, the seemingly arbitrary pauses called t'a. Eric had been reluctant at first, embarrassed at his ignorance more than anything else.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," Big Bill had grinned, his eyes twinkling. "If you can do this simple rain dance, which is stationary for Christ's sake, by the end of the week, I'll set you up with Lilith Twopenny."
Lilith Twopenny was easily the most desirable girl Eric had ever seen and a cousin of Big Bill. Many times Eric had wanted to ask her out, but hadn't had the courage. This seemed like an easier way. "Deal," he'd agreed. Hours and days of practice later, Eric performed the ritual rain dance to perfection. Big Bill applauded, appropriately impressed.
"So what about my date with Lilith?"
He put his arm around Eric and said. "Never forget this lesson. There is no date with Lilith. It would be wrong of you to expect a reward to exceed the deed. However, you can almost always count on the punishment to be greater than the crime." He shrugged and roared with laughter. "We Hopis have a saying in such cases: That's life."
However, that evening Lilith Twopenny came over for dinner, the beginning of a romance that lasted until she left for UC Berkeley two years later. The last he'd heard she was married, had three daughters, and designed computer games for Atari.
Eric stepped away from the edge of the roof. He had no katcina mask now, had long ago forgotten the rain dance, the basket dance, the corn dance. But he knew what he must do now.
Slowly he walked to the center of the roof. His lantern flickered there like an insolent reminder. Next to the lantern were three objects, each lined up meticulously next to the other. His gold wedding band, the only piece of jewelry he'd ever worn. The cassette player given to him earlier that evening by his children. And the body of Jennifer.
He kneeled beside them, staring at each.
Down below, people were shouting his name, calling for him, but he didn't hear them. He was leaving this world, entering one where none of them could ever follow. He closed his eyes now and chanted softly a single word.
With each chant he entered another darkened cavern. He was naked and hungry, without torch or weapon, but still he pushed ahead. In the back of the deepest cave he could see the unblinking eyes glowing. Still he chanted.
It was clear to him now. His mistake. What scholars of tragedy would call his fatal flaw.
Only it had been fatal to others, not him.
He entered yet another dark cave, saw the eyes glowing brighter. Like truth.
Eric chanted the word over and over, its two syllables tripping mechanically from his tongue.
His mistake: to try and live in two worlds at once. He had tried to be the father, husband, teacher of the civilized world, and at the same time he'd tried to be the warrior, soldier, protector against the savage world. He had failed in both worlds. His instincts had been dimmed, his senses dulled, he had been operating on the memory of what he used to be. This had resulted in disaster. He should have recognized the council's ploy right away, but he was drunk with trust. He should have been wary of a van with closed doors, avoided it. But he had his eyes on the roofs, the windows. Now Jennifer and Philip were dead, Annie and Timmy kidnapped. And it was Eric Ravensmith's fault.
So if there was any chance of getting Annie and Timmy back, Eric Ravensmith must die.
Eric was in the last cave now, the deepest one. The creature's eyes were fierce and red. He could hear its fetid breathing, smell its corrupt breath, the scent of rotting flesh.
He opened his eyes, still chanting silently the single word, the two syllables. Lifting the bell glass from the lantern, he puffed out the tiny flame. Then he opened the fuel latch and began pouring the oil over Jennifer's body. Some splashed on her face, running down her cheek and neck, sizzling when it touched the dried blood of her wound.
Eric Ravensmith, family man and teacher, had to be destroyed. Only then could Eric Ravensmith, warlord, be fully born.
He laid the cassette recorder on Jennifer's chest, closed her soft but stiffening hands around his wedding ring.
The old Eric who made so many mistakes would never be able to save Annie and Timmy. The old Eric was too emotional, too human. The Eric who would save them had to be tougher, crueler, much less human. The Eric who would kill Dirk Fallows had to be just like Dirk Fallows.
Still he chanted that word over and over, the two syllables growing louder in his mind though no sound escaped his lips.
He picked up the knife from beside the empty lantern. Slowly, methodically, he unscrewed the pommel to reveal a hollow handle. The pommel doubled as a compass. Inside the handle were matches, a fishing line and hook, and a wire saw. He removed a single match, flicked the head with his thumbnail. With a flash the match hissed into flames.
He looked down into his daughter's face. Everything that meant something to that other Eric was here. Everything that connected him to other people. The wedding ring, a sentimental hunk of metal. The cassette recorder with the scratchy Beatles tape, cheap plastic and wires playing adolescent fantasies. And Jennifer, merely the decaying carcass of someone he once knew. Once they were all destroyed, there'd be nothing to keep him here, nothing to hold him back. No memories, no graves to visit. Nothing.
He dropped the match on her white nightshirt. The flames leaped with a whoosh, crawled up and down her body like a ravenous beast.
The bitter smell of burning flesh mixed with the acrid sting of burning plastic. But Eric didn't move away. Less than a foot separated him from the pyre. His own skin was red from the heat, the hairs on his legs and arms began to singe slightly. Still he sat immobile, his scar reflecting the macabre flames, running along his jaw like molten lava.
When the flames were sated and waning, he rose, dressed, waxed his crossbow string, and started for the door.
The old Eric Ravensmith was dead.
The Eric Ravensmith descending the stairs now was more ruthless, cunning, deadly. More like Dirk Fallows than Dirk Fallows.
The sight of him startled everyone.
They didn't know what to expect, but what they saw was not it.
Eric was smiling.
It was a grim smile, to be sure, with no trace of humor. Still, considering the circumstances, any kind of smile seemed grotesquely out of place.
"Are you all right, Eric?" Trevor Graumann asked, his hand on Eric's shoulder in a fatherly manner. He noticed Eric stiffen at the touch.
"Fine, thanks, Trevor," Eric nodded, then shrugged subtly but firmly away from Trevor's hand.
Trevor was hurt by this, but said nothing. Finally when he spoke, he noticed a formal tone to his voice that had never been there before. "Eric, I must talk to you about Jennifer."
"I buried her, Trevor. Don't worry."
"I buried her. She was my daughter."
"Granted, Eric. But where did you bury her? We have rules about that here, sanitation rules you established to protect the rest of us."
"But no one saw you bury her. We've been looking all over the camp for you."
Eric shrugged. "I guess you didn't look hard enough."
Trevor stared at Eric, shocked by the almost insolent tone. "Are you sure you're all right, Eric. I mean, the shock and all. Perfectly understandable if you'd like to lie down or something."
"I'm fine, Trevor," he said. "So let's drop it, huh?"
Trevor started to respond, but merely shook his head instead.
Eric started toward the cafeteria.
"Where are you going, Eric?"
"Supplies. I'm going after them, Trevor." He looked at his old friend, felt the old Eric's sentimentality rising, pushed him back like a child into a well. "Supplies," he repeated, and walked on.
"It's suicide, son," Trevor called after him. "What's done can't be undone. Not with the earthquakes, not with Jennifer. Not even with Annie and Timothy. There are too many of them, Eric. We need you here."
Eric kept walking, ignoring Trevor's words. Their logic assaulted him, tried to wedge themselves into his brain. What's done can't be undone. That's life.
"Eric! Wait up." Rydell Grimme's voice carried crisply through the night. He was running across the quad with the rest of them, Season, Molly, and Tag. Within seconds they were standing in front of him. Rydell's face was flush with excitement. "You're going, aren't you? I mean, after Fallows."
"After my wife and son."
"Right. That's what I mean."
Eric stared at him silently.
"I want to go with you. To help."
Season jumped in suddenly. "Me too. I want to help too."
Molly frowned with surprise. "When did you decide that?" she asked Season.
"Just now, I guess."
Eric looked at Molly and Tag.
"Don't look at me," Molly said. "I like it right here. Food and water and occasional sex."
Tag nodded, embarrassed. "Sorry, I don't think it's for me."
"Good," Eric said finally, "at least there are two of you with some brains. What in hell makes you think I'd take a couple amateurs with me? Did you think you were doing me a favor? More than likely you'd end up getting me killed. And yourselves. So forget it. Stay here and live."
Rydell stepped forward, shaking with anger. "Maybe we aren't hot shots like you, Ravensmith. Experts at everything from bug mating to killing with an eyelash, but we were willing to go. We aren't children and we aren't stupid. We know the risks. We're willing to take them. Not for you. But for your wife and child. They deserve the chance your daughter didn't get."
"You done?" Eric asked.
"Yeah, I'm done."
He turned to Season. "Anything you want to add?"
"Yeah, I want to add that you're a son of a bitch."
"There may be hope for you yet, lady." He walked away, stopped after half a dozen steps. Without turning around he spoke. "We leave at first light. Bring your weapons, canteens, food, and the usual survival gear you've all been instructed on." He turned and faced them. "One other thing we should get straight up front. The only reason I'm taking you is because I might be able to use you. And I mean use. I don't care about your lives, only how they might help me save my family. If it means sacrificing one or both of you, I'll do it. I'll treat you like any other piece of expendable equipment." He paused. "See the two of you at 0500. If you decide not to show up, you've got more brains than I give you credit for."
"See you then," Tag Hallahan said.
"Don't look at me," Molly said. "I don't go in for mass hysteria. I'll be sleeping at 0500, 0600 and all the 0-hundreds I can manage."
"Smart girl," Eric said and walked away.
Trevor Graumann stood in the dim morning light in a heavy cardigan sweater, his pipe stem clattering between his teeth. The sky was already laced with the first bright tendrils of morning, and he found the orange color oddly cheering.
He yawned, almost dropping his pipe. He'd been, up until only a few hours ago, trying to talk some sense into Eric. Failing that he argued with the three others who were going with him. Only the pretty little Chinese girl, Molly Sing, had taken his side and tried to talk them out of it. But to no avail. They were filled with the stubbornness of youth, giddy with the idea of an adventure, a quest, a search for the Holy Grail.
The worst part was that somewhere, deep down inside, Trevor Graumann wished he were going too.
He had not seen Jennifer, but he'd heard the gory description of what had happened. He knew Eric had no choice, being the kind of man he was. But he also recognized the hardening of soul he'd put himself through to be able to do it. This too was dangerous. To become the very thing you hate is easier than returning again.
He shook his old head, rubbed his stubbled chin. He had other worries now, the elections, defense. Without Joan and Eric, things would be much more difficult here. But they would manage somehow. The way people have always managed. With a little courage and a lot of luck.
He looked at his watch. Almost five o'clock.
Trevor saw Eric strolling toward the gate now and for a moment he considered forcing Eric to stay, turning the guards on him. But that idea passed quickly. None of the guards was any match for Eric. Especially now. He even walked differently than before, his step more purposeful, his gait determined. Somehow he even looked bigger.
From the gymnasium came the other three, Rydell leading them. Season and Tag flanking him. Their pace was brisk, excited, practically twitching.
They all converged on him at once.
"I won't insult you with any more appeals to logic," Trevor said, "because it wouldn't do any good. Would it?"
"No, sir," Rydell said.
Eric looked out through the gate. His voice was solemn. "Let's go."
Trevor stood in front of Eric, held out his hand. Eric looked confused a moment, then took the hand in his to shake. Eric hadn't realized how cold his own hand was until he'd felt Trevor's warm flesh.
Suddenly Trevor pulled Eric close to him with a hug. "Like a son," he mumbled. "Like a son."
Eric resisted the contact for a moment, then responded with a hug of his own. Only to get it over with, he told himself, to get the old man aside. But he felt a tug at his heart as he looked at Trevor's kind face. Then it was gone. The ice formed over his skin again, his heart numbed.
"We're going through," Eric called to the two guards posted near the gate. Both nodded, waved encouragement.
"Wait, damn it," Molly's voice hollered as she pattered toward them, shifting her bow and holding her jiggling arrows. "It isn't easy looking this good so early, you know." She glanced at Rydell who was smiling broadly, then at Eric, whose face showed a faint flicker of pleasure. "Okay, okay," she said to him. "I'm not as smart as either of us thought."
"Then that's something we all have in common," Eric nodded. "Let's go."
One at a time they hunched through the narrow opening in the barbed wire and continued single file down the street. None of them dared look back.
Book Three: PARADISE
Without hope we live in desire.
Dirk Fallows sat on the edge of the cot tapping his knife against his thigh, a thin smile creasing his face. "You're not going to like what happens next."
Annie and Timmy stood on the other side of the tent holding hands. Cruz blocked the closed flap with his body, his arms crossed over his chest like an Arabian genie.
"We've been painfully courteous to the both of you for the past three days. Gave you water. Food. Bedding. No one's touched either one of you, and believe me there has been some grumbling about that." He continued to tap the knife blade against his thigh in a slow, lazy beat. "But all that's about to change, I'm afraid."
He saw fear wrinkle their faces and was pleased. He stood up and paced in front of them. "I'm forty-four years old. Forty-five next month. Do you think that's old?" When there was no response he smiled and continued. "Well, never mind, I think it's old, or at least getting close. Not that I'm feeling old, mind you. Still as fit as ever." He slapped his stomach a couple times. "Hard as oak. Nothing like Cruz there, but then what human is?" His laugh sounded like a truck grinding gears. Cruz stared ahead without expression. "I'm told by some lady friends that I look a lot like Kirk Douglas but without the dimple. Same rocky facial structure, 'rough hewn' I think they call it. I guess that means my face looks like something a sculptor might have started in an angry mood, then abandoned once he saw what he was doing. Still, it pleases some women."
"And some men, no doubt," Annie snapped.
Fallows laughed. "I am not a homosexual, Ms. Ravensmith. But neither am I homophobic, so I don't become enraged at any insult to my manhood. Still, if I were in your position, I wouldn't take the chance of enraging me. The next few minutes are going to be difficult enough for you."
"What do you mean?" Annie asked. "What are you going to do?"
He put a finger to his lips. "Patience."
"Can't we leave my son out of this? For God's sake, he hasn't done anything."
"Well, technically neither have you. But guilt or innocence is irrelevant here. You are merely surrogates for your husband, whipping boys, if you will," Fallows placed a hand on Timmy's head and playfully mussed his hair. "No, I'm afraid Timmy is an important element of my little drama."
"Drama?" Annie said incredulously. "You killed dozens of people that night. You call that drama?"
"Don't forget, I lost a man myself. But yes, it's drama. High drama. Sometimes melodrama. But always good theatre."
Annie felt an involuntary shiver shake her as she realized how coldly evil this man really was. She had listened to Eric describe him many times, but not until this moment did she truly understand how demonic he was. She closed her eyes and thanked good luck that Jennifer still had been in the hospital when she and Timmy were kidnapped. At least Jennifer was safe and unharmed. She hugged Timmy against her now.
"I'm going to tell you something that I never even told Eric. Nor any of my followers. Not even Cruz, whose appreciation of good irony is legend." He chuckled, but Cruz simply stared ahead like someone watching a boring TV documentary. "You'll be the first to hear The Truth About Dirk Fallows." He raised his eyebrows. "Hmmm, not a bad title. I'm sure Eric has told you what he knows, all of it early MGM. Rich father buys son out of trouble, purchases college degree, and so on. He thought the longer he could keep me in college, the longer I'd stay away from home. And you have to give him credit, it worked. At first I was your typical know-it-all smartass. Got A's in all my classes without once cracking a book. So much for the challenge of education. Once I discovered how simple it was, I lost interest in even attending classes. My grades fell faster than man from grace. I bounced around a couple more universities until I took a course because it was the only one open at that time period and therefore wouldn't interfere with my sleep. It was Introduction to Acting. Yeah, that's right, theatre. Within a month I was playing Iago in Othello."
"How appropriate," Annie sneered.
"A very misunderstood character, Ms. Ravensmith. Nevertheless, it was exhilarating. Even more so as a director, staging my own productions the way a general prepares for battle. That was how I envisioned it, like a battle. But it had one drawback."
Annie nodded. "No real corpses."
"In a way. No real risk. The worst that could happen was an actor blows his line, a costume tears. That's not risk, merely inconvenience. I'd learned the techniques of manipulation, now I wanted the action. I guess it's true that some people are born soldiers, I was lucky enough to discover it in myself. My parents were scandalized when I enlisted. Practically wore black arm bands." He waved a dismissing hand. "No matter. I had what I wanted. And I loved it. I was the best. Still am."
He sat back on the cot, began tapping the knife against his thigh again, the evil smile slicing across his face. "But having picked my lifestyle, I had to abandon certain other things. The possibility of a wife, family."
"Lucky wife," Annie said. "Lucky family."
An angry frown flickered across Fallows' face and Annie knew she'd stabbed a sensitive area.
He forced his smile back in place, but it hung crookedly on his face like a tilted crescent of moon. "Perhaps you're right, Ms. Ravensmith. I was not so fortunate as Eric. He was the best soldier I'd ever had serve under me. Unorthodox, but damn good. I hoped to convince him to stay in the service, but he refused my friendship. That in itself was a declaration of war. We each won a battle, and each of us bears the scars of the conflict. But now it's time to end it, for a winner to emerge. Obviously, that's why you're here. I would put him at no more than a day away from us right now."
Annie's heart pulsed at the thought, both with fear for him and hope for herself and Timmy.
"Dad will tear you to pieces," Timmy said, forcing his voice as low and manly as he could.
"Certainly he'll try, son. But since I know that, I have the advantage. And I have a little drama set up for him that, well, let's keep it a surprise." Fallows threw his knife onto the cot and stood up. "In the meantime, we have a little drama all our own to play out right here. We'll start with you, Ms. Ravensmith. Take off your clothes."
Annie stepped back. "What for?"
"You didn't think I'd be content just with killing Eric, did you? That would leave me without a third act. No, I want something more devilish, more painful than death, though that too will be a part of it. I want to take what's important away from him, strip him of everything precious. Which reminds me, I have some painful news for you."
Somehow Annie knew what he would say and her hands flew to her mouth as if that would prevent her hearing it. "Jenny?"
"Afraid so," he shook his head sadly. "Cruz here slit her throat as neatly as Sweeny Todd. I tried to stop him, but-" he shrugged "-he has a mind of his own."
Annie fell to her knees convulsing with sobs, her stomach heaving vomit onto the ground. "No, you're lying!" she screamed.
"Not at all. Dr. Epson was most cooperative with information. Hospital. Bottom floor of library. Room at the back. She's dead all right, dead as a… What's an appropriate metaphor here, Cruz?"
Cruz stared, licked his lips.
"Sorry, Ms. Ravensmith, but Cruz can't think of one either, We'll have to settle for that old standby, dead as a doornail."
Suddenly Timmy lunged across the room for the knife on the cot. He wrapped his hands around the handle and turned toward Fallows.
'Timmy, no!" Annie warned.
"I'll kill you," Timmy said, choking down his own tears. "I'll kill you, you asshole."
Cruz watched impassively, making no move to interfere.
"Kill me?" Fallows said, looking hurt, then smiling. His pale eyes seemed to gather color for the first time. He didn't budge from where he stood, just waited. The gun on his belt remained snapped into its holster.
"Give me the knife, Timmy," Annie pleaded, holding out her hand.
"He killed Jenny, Mom! He wants to kill Dad!"
"I know. But I don't want you killed too. Give me the knife. Dad will get us out of here. Believe that."
Timmy wavered, his jaw clenched in an expression that Annie recognized from Eric. It both frightened her and comforted her at the same time. Reluctantly, Timmy handed the knife to his mother.
"Ms. Ravensmith?" Fallows said, holding out his hand.
Annie tossed the knife to him, which he caught neatly around the handle.
"You see how military strategy and theatre are so closely related? The knife was merely a prop, and each of you played your part as predictably as if it had been written for you by me. Your mistake, Ms. Ravensmith, though made out of the best of motives, was to not at least let the boy try to kill me. He'll remember that. After awhile he'll blow it up in his mind until he thinks he might actually have had a chance. And then he'll blame you for taking that chance away."
"No, I won't!" Timmy hollered.
Fallows laughed. "Yes, you will. The mind is a very tricky thing, it does what it wants sometimes. And by the time I'm through with both of you, you're going to loathe your mother and blame your father."
"Why?" Annie said hoarsely. "Why?"
Fallows face was icy when he answered. The pale eyes gone white again, the long V of his face accented in the filtered light of the tent. His white hair bristled like snowy brush. "Have you forgotten my earlier soliloquy? No wife, no family. 'Lucky wife,' I believe was your line. Probably true. But every man wants to pass along what he's learned, if for no other reason than to be remembered. Eric was my first choice, a kind of younger brother. He refused. Worse, he had me locked away during the years I might have raised my own family. Now I want my own son. I'm too old to start from scratch. By the time he's old enough to do anything, I'll be near sixty."
"God, no!" Annie gasped. "Please, no."
"I'm impressed. You catch on fast. Sorry, but I'm afraid so. Since it's too late for me to raise my own son, I've decided to raise yours. I'll leach him everything I know, just like I taught Eric. Only this time he's young enough to do what I tell him."
"No, I won't," Timmy said. "I'll kill you the first chance I get. I swear it."
"No, you won't, son. I've brainwashed men into killing their own brothers. After awhile, I can make anybody do anything. By the time I'm through with you, you'll kill anybody who says a word against me. Even your mother and father. You see, it's not enough to just kill Eric, I want to destroy his immortality. Whatever essence a father passes on to his son." He turned to Annie, grinned. "Don't you want to beg for him?"
Annie's gaze was stony, her grief petrified by determination. "No, I won't beg." She looked at Timmy. "Timothy, you're enough like your father to know what kind of man this is. I'm counting on you to be enough like your father to resist, not physically, but inside. No matter what he does to me, no matter what he tells you. Understand?"
"Bravo," Fallows applauded. "Joan of Arc, Act III? Now comes the first scene, Ms. Ravensmith. Humiliation. You see, by physically humiliating you, you lose stature in your son's eyes. You're no longer Mother, Goddess of Love, you're just another human being. Now, take off your clothes. All of them."
"Mom," Timmy said, starting toward Fallows.
"You just stand there, Timothy," Annie said as she began removing her clothing. "We have to do anything to survive, to keep alive until your father comes." She unfastened her bra, shrugged it off, stepped out of her panties.
"Nice," Fallows nodded. "A little skinnier than I like, but you'll do. Won't she, Tim? Ever been laid, Tim? Yeah, I bet you've been diddling the little girls plenty, right? Bet they've got nothing on your mom, though. I mean, that's a woman's body. What do you think?"
Timmy stared at his feet, refusing to look up.
"Modest boy you've got, Ms. Ravensmith." Fallows unsnapped his holster, pulled the Walther P.38 out. He walked over to Annie and stood in front of her, touching the cold barrel to her nipples. The nipples hardened from the cold. Fallows traced her ribs with the barrel, across her stomach, along her hips, into her pubic hair. He stared into her defiant eyes while stirring the gun through her hairs. Annie didn't recoil, didn't budge. She stared back. "You like this don't you? Say yes."
When she didn't respond, he shoved the barrel roughly between her legs.
"Say yes," he repeated. "Say, 'Yes, I love it.' "
"Yes, I love it." Her voice was flat and mechanical.
"Good. Now say, 'Screw me with it.' "
Fallows smiled. "Cruz." Cruz took a couple steps forward. "Break something on the kid. Something small."
Before Annie could protest, Cruz had grabbed Timmy's hand and snapped the little finger back until it made a sickening crack. Timmy howled with pain for a moment, then forced himself to be quiet, blinking away the tears and staring at the floor.
"He's going to remember that it was because of you his finger is broken," Fallows said. "Right now he blames me and maybe even Cruz. But in a day or two, he'll blame you for not speaking up fast enough." He lifted the gun and pointed it in Annie's face. "Suck it," he said.
Annie hesitated, saw Cruz reach for Timmy, and took the barrel in her mouth. She closed her eyes, tried to think of other things, picture Eric coming for her. She saw the look of determination on his face, saw him clawing over rocks and hills. He was calling her name now, shouting it, listening for an answer. She saw his face so clearly, she was surprised he couldn't see her. That tight, grim expression that always made her feel safe.
Fallows pul!ed the hammer back, the threatening click made her open her eyes.
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," he said and pulled the trigger.
The hammer struck the empty chamber with a deafening metallic crack. Annie jerked back at the sound so suddenly the sight on the end of the barrel tore the roof of her mouth. Blood seeped over her lips.
"You son of a bitch," she hissed, shaken.
"You don't know the half of it, Ms. Ravensmith. This was just the first scene. There's much more in store for you. And it gets worse and worse." He glanced over at Cruz. "Get them out of here."
Cruz brushed open the tent flap, snapped his fingers at someone, and young Foxworth came running. When he saw Annie naked, his eyes widened. He licked his lips.
"Take them back," Cruz said.
Annie stooped down to gather her clothes. Fallows stomped his foot on them.
"You won't he needing these."
Immediately, Timmy took off his shirt and handed it to Annie. She smiled at him and slipped it on. The tail barely covered her.
"Move it, Foxworth," Fallows snapped, and the soldier hurriedly ushered Annie and Timmy out of the tent.
When they were gone, Fallows sat back on the cot. "It's going well, eh, Cruz?"
Cruz shrugged. "It's not my game."
"But you've liked your part in it so far, haven't you?"
"Listen, Fallows, you're a fucking military genius. Everybody knows that. Maybe all that theatre shit helped you, I don't know and I don't care. As long as you make the plans and they work, and everybody gets what they want, I'll follow orders. It don't bother me to kill anymore than it bothers you." Cruz crossed the tent in two steps, grabbed Fallows by the arm. The fingers closed around Fallows' flesh like a mechanical claw. Fallows felt the bite against his muscles, but he showed no reaction. "I don't mind playing the stupid ox in your little dramas, Fallows. You can say anything about me you want, I could give a shit." He wagged a warning finger. "Just don't you start believing it." He released Fallows' arm and strolled out of the tent, closing the flap behind him.
Fallows shook his arm and laughed. How predictable everyone was, even Cruz. The poor bastard didn't realize that Fallows could have killed him a hundred times over as he stood there wagging his sausage-sized finger in his face. But that wasn't part of the plan. Every player has his part-Eric, Annie, Timmy, even Cruz. And when the time was right, each would act accordingly, as Fallows knew they must. As he had planned.
But first, Annie. Fallows shook his head happily, imagining Eric's face when he finally found her, what was left of her. He won't know whether to kiss her-or kill her.
'They were here," Eric said, hiking up the steep embankment to join the others. "Camped down there last night."
"Jesus, Eric," Tag whistled with respect, "you must be a hell of a tracker to be able to follow them so easily."
"Only because Fallows is careful to leave plenty of clues."
"I can't see them," Rydell said, studying the ground.
"You aren't supposed to. He doesn't want it to be too easy. Nor does he want every scavenger out here following him. This is between him and me. That's the way he wants it."
"Yeah, that's the way I want it too."
Season collapsed on a large boulder and began fanning herself with her hands. "Damn, it's hot." She took a swig from her canteen, peered into the opening, held it up to her ear and swirled it around. "Getting a little low on liquid refreshment here. Who's going to run down to the liquor store for soft drinks and wine?"
"Yeah," Molly agreed, sitting on the ground with an exhausted sigh. "I think I've sweated off a bra size today alone. And I can't afford the loss."
Eric unfastened the portable shovel from his pack, tossed it to Tag. "Start digging a hole."
Tag looked at the shovel. "You think we're going to dig up water? Just like that?"
"Just dig the hole. Three feet across and two feet deep."
Eric pointed. "Over there, where there is no shade."
Season made a face. "I hope that's not the latrine."
Eric reached into his pack, pulled out a folded sheet of clear plastic. He flipped it through the air to Season. "Roughen one side of this with sand, but be sure you clean it thoroughly when you're done."
"Okay," she agreed, exchanging confused expressions with Tag.
"An evaporation still," Rydell explained. "Right?"
Eric looked at him over his shoulder, surprised and pleased. "Right."
"We learned about it at camp. You dig a hole, place a bucket or container at the bottom of the hole, stretch the plastic over the hole. If you've got it, you run a plastic straw from the bucket out the edge of the cover so as not to disturb the process. Then you place a fist-sized rock in the middle of the tarp so it sags to a point about two inches above the opening of the bucket."
"Sounds clever as hell," Season said. "But what's it do?"
"Well, the sun heats the air and soil to furnace temperatures under there, which causes the water in the soil to evaporate. When the air becomes saturated, droplets form on the plastic sheet because it's cooler than the air. The drops trickle down into the bucket. Presto change. You've got drinking water."
Season frowned skeptically. "Water? Out of the ground, huh? Sounds like a lot of work for a few drops of water. You sweat more than that away digging the damn hole."
"Depends," Rydell continued. "Even a bad site can yield a pint a day, and a good one can give you a quart a day for a month."
"Not bad," she nodded.
"At least we'll all have a sip of water with our beef jerky breakfast in the morning."
"No, you won't," Eric said. "At least not from the still."
"What?" Rydell said. "I don't get it."
"We aren't making this still to use now. That's one of the reasons we're camping here. It's remote. The still probably won't be discovered by anyone else. That way it, and the water, will be here later."
Eric sighed, tipped his canteen to his lips enough to moisten them. "There are only two ways to get my wife and kid away from these people. We either shoot it out or we steal them. Any volunteers for a shoot-out, raise your hands."
No one moved.
"Good. We know they have a couple guns, anyway. And they have more and better-trained troops. Any head-on confrontation will only result in all our deaths. And Annie's and Timmy's as well." He looked around at each of them. In the three days since they'd left camp, Eric's skin had bronzed by several shades, almost like a chameleon taking on protective coloring. The hard, angular muscles blooming from his rolled-up sleeves made him look like he'd been carved from a block of teak. He removed the Australian bush hat he'd taken from the clothes storage at University Camp and wiped the grimy sweat from his forehead. "So we want to try and steal them and then run like hell. Chances are excellent that Fallows will follow us. But if we leave some water holes behind us, we can get the jump on them by not having to search for water."
"But they will," Tag said.
Tag stood up, laid the shovel on his shoulder, and marched toward the spot Eric had pointed out. Season shuffled wearily behind him with the plastic sheet folded across her arm.
"Take your weapons!" Eric snapped.
Tag and Season rushed back, snatched up their weapons, and hurried off with embarrassed expressions.
"What about water now?" Rydell asked, glancing around. "This is desert terrain. We could dig around some of the plants to tap into their water source."
Eric shook his head. "Not worth the energy. I've got a better idea. Get ready for a hike."
"A hike?" Molly moaned. "What do you call what we've been doing all night and most of the morning?"
"Strolling. At least compared with what we're going to do now." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the craggy mountains jutting up half a mile behind them.
Rydell shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked up. "What's up there?"
"Things are dry enough around here without having to swallow that."
Eric permitted himself a smile. Three days traveling with these kids-for indeed they were kids when it came to survival-had reminded him of his fondness for the curious student. And for teaching. Every day he reminded himself that he only told them what they needed to know to survive because he could use them later. They were nothing more than chess pieces to be positioned and, if necessary, sacrificed against Dirk Fallows. But there was something else going on, and though he denied daily, he felt a fondness for each of his companions and their unique personalities. Rydell's intelligence and independence, Molly's endurance and humor, Tag's sensitivity and loyalty, Season's mocking and strength.
And he enjoyed lecturing them on what to eat, what to avoid eating, how to find shelter, trap animals. In this new world under an orange, contaminated sky, the lessons of history often seemed too distant, too ethereal. How to eat, what to wear, where to sleep, who to kill-these were the gospel now. And each was a worthy student and, in different circumstances, might have been a worthy friend.
But this was dangerous ground, forming attachments. It could mean an unwillingness to use them properly when the time came. And that could result in losing Annie and Timmy forever. He had to fight these emotions, avoid reverting back to the old Eric, the civilized Eric who had failed to protect his family. Like the cassette recorder, the wedding ring, and Jennifer's body, friends were a heavy baggage in this savage world. To survive, one had to learn to travel light.
"Mines," he said, the good humor gone from his voice as he stared at Molly's and Rydell's confused faces. "There are some silver mines from the late 1800s and early 1900s."
"Silver mines?" Rydell said. "Never heard of them."
"Not much reason to. They never paid off much. Not like the ones up north. But at the time there was a lot of indication of lead, so they dug around for a couple years hoping to hit paydirt."
"What the hell's lead got to do with anything?"
"That's how silver's made," Molly said. "Silver's just an impurity contained in certain lead ore. Called galaxy or something."
"Galena," Eric corrected.
"How'd you get so damn smart about this?" Rydell asked her, impressed.
"Jeopardy. Remember the game show with Art Fleming? Used to watch it all the time. Picked up a lot of junk. I was in love with Art's politeness."
Eric bent over his pack and started fastening the straps. "Often there are some water pools in these mines. Bring Tag and Season's canteens, we'll fill them up there."
Rydell walked over to Season's pack, rustled through for the canteen. Suddenly he straightened up. "Listen!"
"What?" Molly said.
"Did you hear that? A noise. Like someone moving." He grabbed his bow from the ground, fixed an arrow in the string.
"Relax," Eric said, not even turning around.
"No, I really heard it. There it is again."
"Yeah," Molly whispered breathlessly. "I heard it that time. Maybe I should go warn Tag and Season."
Eric continued fastening straps. "Just calm down. No need to worry." He made no move toward his crossbow.
"Hello," a familiar voice called to them. "Don't shoot, okay?"
She staggered out from behind a giant boulder, her face blistered from the sun, her tongue swollen with thirst. The heavy backpack threatened to tilt her backwards. She was wearing khaki shirt and shorts, torn here and there at embarrassing locations. One knee was bruised and an angry red knob stuck out on her shin.
Eric still didn't turn around.
"Jesus, Tracy!" Molly gasped and ran toward her. Rydell dropped his bow arid joined Molly, each grabbing Tracy under one arm and half-carrying her to the camp.
Tag and Season started to run over.
"Keep digging!" Eric ordered. They hesitated, but returned to their work.
Tracy Ammes nodded thanks as she shook off her backpack and flopped to the ground. "I had a couple of clever entrance lines," she said, "but all I can think of right now is water."
Rydell handed her his canteen. "Go ahead and finish it off. We're on our way to get more."
She swallowed the few ounces greedily, tilting the canteen higher and higher even after the last drop was gone. "Thanks. I tried to ration myself, but I guess I figured it wrong."
Eric was still fussing with his pack, his back to Tracy, "Military studies show that rationing doesn't have any physical benefits. It's just as sound to drink all the water at once."
Tracy looked at Molly and Rydell, raised her eye-brows in question. They both shrugged back and shook their heads.
"How long have you been out there?" Molly asked.
Eric answered for her. "Since we left camp. She started following us right away, been on our tails ever since. Just far enough to stay out of sight, but close enough not to lose us. Right?"
"Right." Her voice was morose, like a child caught stealing.
"That's crazy, Tracy," Rydell said. "Why didn't you just join us at the start?"
"Because she knew I wouldn't take her," Eric said, turning now to face them. "Right again?"
She nodded. "I wanted to come, though I'm not sure why. Maybe I just knew it wouldn't be the same there anymore, not after what happened. It didn't feel as comfortable, not with Annie and the kids gone. And it didn't feel as safe, not with Eric and the rest of you gone. It had a sinking ship feel to it, a lot of people putting on cheerful faces to mask their fear and dread." She shrugged, looked at Eric. "I guess you and Annie and the kids were really my only friends."
"That's not a very logical reason to leave," he said coldly.
"Maybe not. But it was enough for me." Her eyes were red and she blinked rapidly as if flushing tears, but there wasn't enough moisture in her body for tears. She hadn't expected Eric to understand, not Eric who wielded logic like a saber, more so each day since the earthquakes. Annie had often discussed it with her, fearful that Eric's hate for Fallows and fear for his family would consume him.
Tracy had always soothed Annie's fears, careful not to let any of her own jealousy peek through. But Annie had known, Tracy was sure of that. Yet she had never made any accusations, in fact had done everything to make her feel more comfortable. And Tracy had for the most part managed to bury her jealousy, learning to enjoy the Ravensmith family as if it were her own. Tried to look at other men with the same passion Annie looked at Eric. She and Annie were like sisters, and she missed Annie now. As for Eric, those buried feelings had worked their way closer to the surface in the past few days, but guiltily she did everything to force them back down. Annie and Timmy's safety was all that mattered now. And during the past three days and nights of traveling alone, hidden in the shadows from Eric and the others, Tracy had decided she would gladly give her life toward that end.
Across the camp, Eric stared at Tracy. He had known since the first half hour of leaving University Camp that she was following. Had given her a day at most to surrender and finally show herself. He'd been surprised when she hadn't, but had been certain she would by that night, especially considering some of the wretched sights they had passed so far. A pack of dogs fighting over the half-eaten carcass of an old man. Hastily butchered cats chewed to the bone near old campfire sites. But Tracy had not shown herself, had not asked for refuge. For a moment he'd become worried, thought about going back for her. But then he remembered Annie's speech that night, placing Tracy in nomination as her replacement should anything happen. It flooded him with guilt and rage, and he cursed them both. The third day he knew she was still there and was angered at the rush of relief he felt. That was the old Eric.
Finally she'd joined them, holding out until she was certain they couldn't take her back and wouldn't send her on her own.
"Now what?" Tracy asked, withering under his intense stare.
"Now we get water," Eric replied, plucking her empty canteen from her side.
"That's awfully small," Molly said nervously.
"They didn't need it much bigger." Eric ducked through the entrance of the cave. He switched on the flashlight, motioned for Rydell and Molly to follow. Tracy had been left at camp to rest.
"Did I mention my fear of spiders yet?" Molly asked.
Rydell laughed. "You too?"
"Some comfort you are."
"Stay close," Eric warned. The batteries were fresh, taken from the University Camp supplies still wrapped in their Eveready black-and-yellow package, a price tag from Safeway still half-attached. The beam knifed through the thick darkness as Eric checked for loose stones indicating a weak wall. Not that there was any way to be sure.
"Wouldn't it have been safer to just look for a stream somewhere?" Molly whispered, having seen enough TV cave-ins to be aware of the danger of sound. "Maybe we could find one nearby."
"I did find one," Eric said, inching ahead.
"What?" Rydell and Molly chorused.
"Yeah, when I scouted ahead a few hours ago. There's one about a quarter of a mile from camp."
"Then what are we doing here?" Rydell asked. "Did we miss our daily quota of breathing dust?"
"The water wasn't any good. No vegetation around it, some dried animal bones nearby. Bad signs."
Rydell sighed. "Some of these desert pools have dissolved arsenic in them."
"You mean someone poisoned them?" Molly said.
"No, it's natural."
"Like Perrier, huh?"
He swatted her bottom with a canteen and she giggled.
"There," Eric said, holding the flashlight beam steady. A pool of black water, still and silent.
"Christ," Molly complained. "I should've worn a sweater. This place is cold."
"Don't complain," Eric said. "That cold is why we have water now. Works just like our still down there. If we went any deeper we might even find ice."
They kneeled around the pool, staring. Eric handed the flashlight to Rydell. "Keep it steady."
Molly twisted the cap off her canteen and reached toward the pool to fill it. Eric's hand grabbed her wrist with a power that stung. "What's wrong?"
"See that film on top of the water? That's lead. It's poisonous." He ran his finger along the inside of his ear, dipped it in the water. A clear spot appeared on the water's surface. "The wax provides a safe opening." He removed a plastic straw from his pocket. "Now we sip it up through that opening and spit the water into the canteens until they're full. Then I add some iodine just to be safe. It'll taste a little funny, but it'll be safe. However, you can pour it between canteens a few times to improve taste."
"Swell," Molly said without enthusiasm.
"It's better than dying of thirst," Eric said.
"Barely," Molly answered.
Eric took the first watch.
The orange-yellow daylight was slowly being nudged aside by the gray-pink night. The sun itself had only been a bright, hazy glob through the thick Long Beach Halo. Eric couldn't decide whether the Halo acted like an oven and made the desert hotter than ordinary, or whether it acted like branches of a tree and filtered out some of the heat. And if it did filter out heat, would it be filtering certain of the sun's rays? Would they all be breaking out with skin cancer soon? He shook his head. What difference did it make? There wasn't anything they could do about it. The feeling of ignorance and helplessness was overpowering, like a man shoved through time to a past where the language and customs were unfamiliar. But had it ever been any different? Had people ever had any ability to change anything, or were we merely prisoners locked in a room busily rearranging furniture, to give the illusion of control?
He stood up, stretched, checked the bolt in his crossbow. One of these through Dirk Fallows' heart would change the world. Make him dead. That was change enough for Eric.
He gazed at the sleeping faces of the others. How quickly they had formed alliances, relationships. Rydell and Molly, physical opposites linked by what, a sense of humor? They slept next to each other, Rydell's big arm lying across Molly's small chest like a felled redwood. Next to them, less familiar but close, Season and Tag. She, loud and abrasive; he, quiet and thoughtful. Companions by need and default more than anything else. But that had been reason enough for most pioneers.
And there was Tracy. Separated from the others by a few sandy feet of earth-and much more. A loneliness that didn't start with the earthquakes, that went back many years. Annie had hinted at childhood traumas, but had refused to break Tracy's confidences. Annie had been good for Tracy, teaching her self-confidence and maturity, which Annie defined as an ability to laugh at yourself. Together the two of them had often conspired to make Eric laugh more, surprising him with practical jokes, his shoes filled with soil and a plastic tulip they'd dug up somewhere.
Annie had asked him once if he ever had sexual fantasies about Tracy, and when he'd truthfully responded no, she'd shaken her head sadly and said, "That proves you've been worrying too much. You're not normal."
He smiled at that, picturing Annie's face wrinkled in mock concern. Tracy was nice, but no one was like Annie.
A cool wind whipped some sand across Tracy's sleeping body and she frowned in her sleep, turning onto her side.
Eric rubbed his hands together and, for the fourth time in an hour, counted the number of bolts in his quiver. There was no particular reason, but somehow he knew that tomorrow he'd need them.
"No more meat."
The men exchanged disappointed glances, but no one complained. They didn't dare.
"And we're low on water."
A couple frowns, nothing else.
Fallows grinned at that, pleased at the success of his training methods. Most of them were young and raw, and he hadn't had much time with them. Two of the older ones had been with him in Nam, wandered aimlessly after getting back to the States. Part-time jobs, some trouble with the law. Lamar had beaten his girlfriend once too often, breaking her jaw and cracking a couple ribs. She pressed charges and he did a few months on a county farm in New Mexico. Kraus had been driving a taxi in New York City, taking his first drink before work, and making short stops at bars all day. After his fifth accident, they fired him. Rather than go home and tell his pregnant wife, he took off for California to look up his old commander he'd just heard through the veteran's grapevine was getting released.
Some of the rest were also vets of Nam, though they weren't Night Shift. Others were friends or relatives of men who'd served under Fallows, twitchy kids anxious for power and action. A few he'd picked up since the earthquakes, loners used to following orders. An ex-fireman, the former chief of police of a small town that had been totally leveled. With Cruz's help, Fallows had bullied them into submission, trained them to do whatever he said. To fear him more than any enemy. They'd lost a couple men due to the rigors of training, but it had had the desired effect. Fear and obedience.
"The situation is simple," Fallows continued, tapping his bayonet against his thigh as he spoke. This action seemed to mesmerize his troops as they listened to his words and watched the blade flashing orange with each tap. "We're low on water, so I sent Cruz out to scout for more." He gestured with his bayonet at Cruz, who leaned against a nearby boulder. Cruz nodded slightly. "He was unable to find suitable drinking water. Even unsuitable water. That puts a serious strain on our water supply. You know the laws of survival as well as I do: If you have all the water you need, you can eat whatever you want; if you have two to seven pints a day, avoid meat, cheese, and beans which contain proteins. Proteins require water for digestion which, if you don't provide, is drawn from body tissues. And that leads to dehydration. If we only had one pint, well, there'd be no eating at all. So I guess we're lucky, we're in the middle range. That means we can eat food with carbohydrates and fats. Fruits, sweets, biscuits. Got it?"
There was muttered acknowledgment, nodding heads. Fallows eyed them all carefully. He didn't like sharing information, even such basic information as this. He considered every man a potential enemy, a possible assassin, and his edge over others was his knowledge and training. Every time he taught a soldier how to shoot better, hide more effectively, kill more efficiently, he had the uneasy feeling he was giving away precious information that might be used against him, dulling his own edge. Still, they had to know enough to be useful to him, and that was the balance he tried to achieve. Teach them enough to be useful, but not enough to be threatening.
"Which brings me to my current decision. We've been traveling south for the past few days, on our way to do a little trading at Savvytown."
This time the men gave off a series of jubilant whistles and lecherous cheers.
Fallows fixed his sharp face with an understanding smile. "I appreciate your enthusiasm. It's been six weeks since we were there. And this time we've got something worth trading." He pointed his bayonet across camp at the prisoners sitting with legs and hands bound. Annie still wore Timmy's shirt, but the rest of her was naked except for shoes, which they'd permitted her for the walk. She'd had to endure the crude shouts of the men as they'd marched, the pinches, squeezes, rough hands and clumsy fingers. But nothing more had happened yet.
Next to her huddled Cynthia Roth and her twin daughters, Cheryl and Sarah. Cynthia's right eye was half-closed, the skin around it an ugly shade of purple. Her upper lip was swollen and split, a black scab crusted over it. Yesterday she'd kicked a soldier who'd stuck his hand down Sarah's pants, and he'd punched her. She didn't even know why she'd done it, she and her daughters had already been raped by almost every one of them. By now the soldiers seemed almost bored with them. The actual rape itself seemed minor compared with the embarrassment of having her daughters watch, followed by the horror of being forced to watch them. By kicking that animal, she'd attempted to restore some sense of dignity in her own eyes and in her daughters'. She smiled weakly now through her swollen lip. It had been worth it.
Jimmy was kept separate from the women, his hands bound, but otherwise treated like one of the men. He ate with them, full helpings, not the half-rations the women received. Fallows knew this would make him feel wrenching guilt, and that the only way to rid himself of it would be to reject his mother, the source of that guilt. Standard intelligence brainwashing. The Gestapo used it, the KGB, the CIA. Once you destroy the emotional tie to the parents, the child will need to replace it with something else: a uniform, a flag, a country. Or Dirk Fallows.
"But because of our shortages, I've decided to switch course and head us all up north, toward Santa Barbara. Or whatever's there now. More food and water opportunities up there. We might even establish a home base there."
The initial disappointment he saw on their faces was mixed with the excitement of building a base camp of their own. Fallows permitted some excited mumbling among the men. Then he held up his hands, bestowing his huge smile on them. "Now all I need is two volunteers for a decoy mission." His eyes raked the crowd, paused for only a fraction of a second on Foxworth, then on Toomey. For some reason neither understood, both raised their hands to volunteer. "Excellent. Meet me in my tent, men."
He nodded at Cruz, who straightened up, marched to the front of the men, and bellowed, "Dismissed." The men scattered. Cruz escorted Foxworth and Toomey to the only tent in camp, Fallows'.
They stood at parade rest in front of him, a little nervous at being in confined quarters with their commander. There was something about his energy, his intensity. Something none of them discussed, even among themselves, but all of them felt. It's what made them want to run, made them stay.
"You're going to like this mission, men," Fallows grinned.
"Yes, sir," Foxworth replied, a little too loudly. He avoided Fallows' eyes because they were so pale he sometimes thought he could see clear through them right into the brain itself. The idea made his skin clammy.
"Here it is then. I want you both to stay behind, set up an ambush for Ravensmith, and kill him. Any questions?"
They both looked stunned.
"Uh," Toomey started, thinking he should have a question, but not being able to complete one.
"Nothing, sir. Mission understood."
"Excellent. When you've successfully completed your assignment, we'll meet you north, in the Santa Barbara area. Whatever part of it isn't under water."
"Weapons, sir?" Foxworth asked, getting excited now that he thought about it. Ambushing. Killing. Neat!
"Take a couple of the crossbows. That should give you the accuracy and the stealth."
Foxworth hesitated. "No guns, sir?"
"Against one man? What for? Of course, if you want to back out, Foxworth."
"No, sir!" He snapped to attention.
"Fine. Check out your weapons and start backtracking to set up your ambush. We'll meet you up north in a few days. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir," they both said, pivoted, and marched out.
Cruz sauntered over to Fallows' cot and sat down, something he'd never dared do before. "What was that all about?"
"Diversion," Fallows said, not seeming to notice Cruz's liberty. "We give them a couple hours to backtrack, then we head over to the water you found, fill the canteens, and shoot toward Savvytown as planned. South."
Cruz nodded his huge head with appreciation. "You're one smart son of a bitch, Fallows."
Fallows smiled, tapped his bayonet against his thigh.
"I can't remember all that."
"You'd better try. If you want to eat."
"Okay, okay, I'll take a stab at it." Season sighed, I looked up into the sky in concentration, began reciting like a bored schoolchild. "First, dig for the roots of trees and shrubs. Peel off the root bark for soft, edible inner tissue. How's that?"
"Fine," Rydell said. "Molly?"
"Next, try aboveground parts, such as the flowers or shoots. Young tender leaves are better than old ones. The thicker and fleshier the better. And no obscene comments, thank you very much."
Rydell laughed. They were sitting around waiting for Eric to return from scouting. Since they only had another day's food left from what they'd brought from University Camp, they'd soon have to start eating whatever they could find. Eric didn't know how good the hunting would be, and didn't want to spend too much time finding out, so he'd spent the whole night lecturing them while they hiked on what to look for in local plants.
Now, following Eric's instructions before he'd left, Rydell was quizzing them on what they'd learned.
"You know," Tag said, "each time he goes out scouting, I realize just how vulnerable we are without him. He knows so damn much about this survival stuff."
No one replied, but their looks showed strong agreement.
Tag continued. "I used to see him around the library, history books tucked under his arm, students always tugging on his sleeve. He looked like such a typical professor, the elbow patches on the tweed jacket." He shook his head with admiration. "But until the Fallows trial a few months back, I had no idea of all he'd been through before. When I read the papers I was shocked."
"Yeah," Season nodded. "I didn't know him at school, history and I never got along. But I remember reading some of the stuff about that Vietnam massacre. I can still remember some of the nasty things my friends and I said about him, sitting around sipping beers and making fun of the dumb grunt. We were so goddamned, you know, smug."
"And now you thank God he's here, right?" Tracy said.
"Well, I'm not much on God, but I've got a lot of faith in Eric."
"C'mon," Rydell said, "let's finish up the drill before he gets back."
"Teacher's pet," Molly grinned.
Rydell tossed a pebble at her, which she easily ducked. "Okay, Tracy, how do you test plants to see if they're edible?"
"Well, first, make sure it doesn't have milky juice, or-"
A rustle of brush and Eric was standing in front of them. "Lesson is over. Let's move out."
Obediently, everyone jumped to their feet and swung their packs onto their backs
"What'd you find?" Tracy asked.
"I followed their tracks a mile or so. They've got some horses with them, three I'd say by the different imprints. But even without them, they're moving at a pretty brisk pace. Those men are in damn good shape. They can probably run all day and night. We're going to have to pick it up a bit just to keep up."
"Why do I suddenly feel guilty because I'm not a horse?" Molly said.
''This way," Eric waved.
"That's not the way the tracks lead," Rydell said.
"No, this is the way to something we haven't seen in a while."
"What?" Tracy asked.
"I hate to ask the obvious," Molly said, "but as Rocky the flying squirrel always asked Bullwinkle, 'Are they friendly spirits?' "
Eric shrugged. "Let's hope so. I saw them taking water from a well, and that could save us a lot of time and trouble."
"What if they don't want to give us water?" Rydell asked.
Eric turned and started walking. "Let's go."
"All right. Who's got something white."
Everyone thought a moment.
"I do," Molly said, remembering. She rooted through her backpack, pulled out a rolled-up T-shirt, When she tossed it to Eric, it unfurled, revealing a drawing of a very young Ricky Nelson with the logo "The Irrepressible Ricky" printed under it. Molly smiled. "I was wearing it the day of the quake. Until then it had been my good luck shirt."
Eric handed it to Rydell, "They're right through there, beyond the mesquite trees. You can't miss them, half a dozen handmade cabins. Chickens running around."
"Chickens?" Season said, licking her lips.
"A wash line hanging out. They've got two guards that I could see, one of them with a double-barreled shotgun, the other with a homemade bow. That's all."
'That's enough," Rydell said.
"Now, you're going to walk right up to them, waving this white T-shirt. Keep your bow slung over your shoulder. No matter what, don't reach for it."
"Why send me first? Why don't we all go in at once?"
"Because if they kill you, we'll know it's not safe for the rest of us."
"You're serious, aren't you?" Tracy asked.
"Isn't that a little like asking him to walk across a mine field to see where the mines are hidden?"
She shook her head with shock. "What if they kill him?"
"Then we'll kill them. But one way or the other, we're going to get some of their water."
"No," Rydell interrupted. "He's right. Makes perfect strategic sense." He held the T-shirt in front of him, gave Molly a wink. "I hope Ricky will remain irrepressible."
He took a deep breath and started walking.
Eric led the others to a vantage position where they could watch Rydell as he walked cautiously toward the cluster of cabins, waving the T-shirt over his head. When he was within a couple hundred yards of the homes, two men popped up from behind dirt embankments where they'd been hiding. From a distance, the dirt embank-ments had seemed like nothing more than little bumps in the terrain. Fortunately, Eric had investigated earlier.
The two men pointed their weapons at Rydell, gesturing and shouting, though Eric couldn't hear the words. Rydell immediately dropped the T-shirt and clasped his hands on top of his head. Four other men and two women came running out of various cabins, each armed with a weapon of some kind. Axe, spear, revolver, pitchfork. They circled Rydell, their weapons raised.
"They're going to kill him," Molly said frantically, scrambling to her feet. "We've got to help him."
Eric snagged her shirt and yanked her back. "Wait."
Her face was red, the tiny, slivered eyes smaller yet. "Wait for what? First blood?"
"Look," Tag pointed.
Rydell was talking animatedly, his hands churning and pointing toward Eric and the others. As he talked, those surrounding him slowly lowered their weapons, looked in the direction Rydell had pointed. One of them, a rugged-looking man about forty with an axe balanced against his shoulder, was talking to Rydell. Rydell nodded vigorously.
The man scratched his head, spoke to the others. There was a minute of conversation among the group. One of the men stalked off to his cabin, dragging one of the younger women with him, and slammed the door behind him. The man with the axe said something to Rydell. Rydell turned to Eric's direction and waved for them all to come down.
"Do we go?" Season asked.
"Tracy and Molly and I will go. You and Tag keep watch, and I mean careful watch. We'll fill your canteens."
"But what if it's a trap?"
Eric stepped through the brush, fastening Tag and Season's canteens to his belt. "We'll take the chance."
"Water," the man with the axe said, "makes strange bedfellows."
"I thought it was politics that did that," Molly said.
"These days water is politics." Joseph Baldwin hung his axe from the wooden pegs next to the cabin door. "You know how much water each person used to use before the quake? I mean daily."
They all shook their heads.
"Guess." Joseph Baldwin grinned slyly, enjoying this.
"Ten or twenty gallons, I guess," Tracy said.
"No," Molly said. "That's what I use to wash my hair."
"Ha! Not even close. Mr. Grimme?"
"Better, but not close enough. How about you, Mr. Ravensmith?"
"Maybe a hundred gallons a day."
Joseph Baldwin seemed pleased with that answer. "Very close. The average was 110 gallons. Can you imagine? And that was just for personal use. That doesn't count what manufacturers used, or farmers. And remember, Southern California is really desert, so most of the water had to be brought in here via three aqueducts. Colorado River Aqueduct, 242 miles long through the Mojave Desert; California Aqueduct, bringing water 450 miles from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta; and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, spitting water 338 miles from the Sierra Nevada." He shook his head in amazement as he pulled up a chair, sitting at the table between Eric and Tracy and across from Rydell and Molly. He smiled a full set of white teeth. "I probably sound like some old village coot to you, rattling on about water. All that's missing is me chewing tobacco and whittling on a sharp stick. That's what happens when you're isolated like this. Hard to believe I used to be a successful corporate lawyer in San Diego. Important comer in the Democratic party. A Big Brother. My wife and I even sponsored two South American kids through one of those charity organizations. You know the ads, a photograph of some dirty, naked kid with ribs like a xylophone and a caption that reads, 'Juan never has a good day.' " He stared at his hands a while, thick with calluses, as if noticing them for the first time. "You know whose hands these are? My father's. He worked as a farmer all his life in Iowa. Still there. I remember one May, I was about twelve, and he was wrapping Mom's Mother's Day gift. How clumsy those hands were. He could hardly fold the paper at the ends. Finally he asked me to do it because he kept tearing the paper. I'll never forget that. The wrapping paper was left over from Christmas, with little angels all over it." He looked at his hands again, shook his head. "Help yourself to as much water as you need. We've got plenty."
"Thanks," Eric said. "Didn't look like everybody here was as generous as you."
"Oh, you saw Foster stomping off, huh? Don't pay any attention to him. He's afraid someone's going to steal his woman."
"Do you?" Joseph asked, his voice suddenly very bitter. He raked his callused hands through his dusty, black hair. "Jim Foster lost his wife in the quake. Burned or drowned in downtown San Diego, he's not sure which. The woman he's living with is his younger sister, and they've been living as husband and wife ever since."
"My God," Tracy said.
"That shock you, young lady? It shouldn't. She can't have any kids, so we don't have to worry about that problem. They love and care for each other. And they aren't likely to find anybody else, not anymore. So what's the harm? You see how a little shift in the land can suddenly make incest okay?" He laughed. "Hell, my wife and I were planning a divorce when this whole thing happened. Now we're closer than we've ever been. Why is that? Is it because disaster brings out the best in people? No, she and I had been through two miscarriages together. In some ways they were worse disasters than the quakes." He looked around the table at each of them as if he were suddenly very tired. "Maybe you'd better just get your water and be leaving."
Eric stood up, the others followed. "We appreciate your hospitality, Mr. Baldwin."
"Sure," he nodded, distracted. "Sorry I bent your ear. But there's only a handful of us living here and we've heard everything about each other so much, we're a little starved for variety. We don't have much in common, except water. My wife and I were driving back from Vegas when the quake hit. We'd been visiting her father, deals blackjack at the MGM Grand. Our car was flipped a couple times, but we were okay. We wandered a bit until we found this cabin and the well. The old man who'd owned it was dead, heart attack I think. Soon Jim Foster and his sister stumbled in here, and then the others. Like I said, water makes strange bedfellows."
"Anyone else come this way recently?" Eric asked.
"Not for a month. That's when Evans Pierce and his son joined us. He used to be a rich contractor in San Diego, building fancy homes and apartment complexes. For the past month he's been helping us get these cabins right. They don't look like much, made out of scrap metal and wood and whatever else we can haul in here. But it's home." He smiled. "Home is where the water is, right?"
"Don't worry, Mr. Ravensmith, no more trivia about the amazing aqueduct system of California, or should I say former system. Actually, I memorized all that stuff from a magazine I found here in the old man's cabin. One of about a dozen magazines. Everybody here's read them all a couple times each, just for something to do. Too bad he didn't read books."
"Aren't there any other camps around here like yours?" Rydell asked.
"A couple," He pointed toward the east. "A bunch of Vietnamese live about ten miles that way. We trade with them sometimes. Eggs for nails. Milk for water. They're fair enough people, but pretty clannish."
"Have you thought about asking them to join your group?" Molly said,
Joseph shrugged. "Incest is one thing, but some attitudes don't change. Half of the people here are afraid of them, afraid they'll get their throats slit in the night. Gil Clyne lost his son in Vietnam and he's convinced the others not to risk it. So we'll go on like this until we're so bored we'll take the chance."
"Any other settlements?" Eric asked.
"Well, there's one we heard about from a couple men passing through about six weeks ago. Place called Savvytown."
"Savvytown," Tracy laughed.
"Yeah, I know. But that's what they called it."
"What do you know about it?" Eric asked.
"Not much. Just that if you're smart, you'll stay away from it." Abruptly, Joseph pushed his chair back from the table and started toward the door. "Sorry we can't give you any food, but we're a little short there ourselves. Let's get those canteens filled."
Foxworth nudged Toomey. "What do you think?"
"I think there are more of them than there are of us."
Foxworth thought about that. "Yeah. I thought Ravensmith was supposed to be alone."
"Well he isn't," Toomey snapped.
"What's eating you?"
"Nothing. Nothing." But, of course, something was. At thirty-six, Scott Toomey was at least fifteen years older than Foxworth. He was a Vietnam veteran, though he'd never seen any actual combat there, and had always felt a bit ashamed of that fact. When he'd returned from his tour, friends and family were always asking him what it had been like. He'd give them all the same response, a distant look and a mumbled, "I'd rather not talk about it." They would all nod, sympathizing with his tortured memories.
Actually, he had no experiences to tell them, except how many paper cuts he got from filing all day long in Saigon. It was the worst humiliation of Scott Toomey's life, to have gone off to war and yet never seen a single battle. When he'd heard a few months before the quake that Colonel Fallows was recruiting some men, he'd thought it was for some mercenary action somewhere in Africa. Finally, combat! He'd tossed in the apron with Toomey's Hardware stitched in red across the pocket and left his father's store for the last time. He'd never had a moment's regret, especially since the quakes. He'd done his share of killing, raping, looting. And it was everything he always hoped it would be. If he did have any regret it was that now that he finally had some real war stories to tell, all of his friends were back in New Jersey.
Now he was crouching here with some punk kid who smelled of dog all the time. He still didn't know why he'd volunteered, he'd been around long enough to know better. But there was something about the way Fallows had looked at him… Well, it was done. This would be just another story to tell them back in Trenton.
"I make out six of them. Two on guard over there, and four down getting water from that camp."
Foxworth nodded. "Yeah, I get the same."
"Well, what's our plan? There are six of them and two of us."
"Yeah, but they don't know we're here. So we take 'em out one at a time. Hit and run. Starting with those two." He pointed toward Tag and Season.
"Look at them tits, man. If we got the time, can I fuck her?"
"Before or after we kill her?"
Foxworth shrugged. "It don't matter."
"Are we ever going to make it, you think?" Season asked.
"Sure," Tag said. "We'll probably catch up to them in-"
"I don't mean that kind of make it. I mean make it, as in make love. You and me."
"Oh, well, I don't, uh, know. I hadn't really-"
"You hadn't thought about it? Thanks a lot."
"That's not what I meant. Sure, I've thought of it, but… Christ, what brought this up?"
Season slipped her bandanna off her head, wadded it, wiped the sweat from her face and neck, and tied it back on. "Let's be realistic. We're human beings, regardless of how Eric treats us, and we have certain, you know, needs. Companionship, love, sex."
"Right now our needs are limited to food and water."
"Yeah, but we've been okay there. Hell, look at Molly and Rydell. They've been playing a little slap-and-tickle at night. They haven't actually done the dirty deed yet, but first time they've got five minutes alone they will." She smiled. "It's kind of nice. Romantic."
"What's that have to do with us?"
"Well, besides you, the only other available man for me right now, unless Rydell and Molly have a spat, is Eric. And that's not likely. Not that I wouldn't be interested, but he's too possessed right now. Too many demons in his head. Besides, Tracy's got her eye on him. Not that I couldn't give her a run for her money."
Tag shook his head. "Tracy? You're nuts. She hasn't said a thing, done anything to suggest what you're implying."
"Trust me, Tag," she said, patting his arm. "A woman can tell. Not that she'd do anything about it; she's got too much class for that. She's-"
Tag held up his hand for silence. "Hear that?"
Season tightened the grip on her bow, her fingers tugging slightly on the string. She hunched forward, swiveling her head to listen. Tag saw the intensity on her face, was reminded of African tribeswomen smeared with stripes of colored mud as they hunted, spear in hand. He felt a rush of desire flame down his chest, stomach, flickering through his groin.
They stood without moving or breathing for a full minute, eyes darting through the desert brush, noses unconsciously sniffing for the smell of men. Finally, they looked at each other, shrugged, relaxed a hit.
Tag pointed down at Eric and the others filling their canteens. "Looks like they were successful. That's the first oasis I've ever seen outside a movie. Somehow it doesn't look as real as in the movies."
"It's got water. That's real enough."
"I guess it's a good thing we've been traveling mostly at night. Rydell told me that we each need a gallon of water a day to survive in the desert, but that at night we can cover twice as much mileage on that gallon as during the day. Twenty miles as opposed to ten."
"Yeah, I saw Beau Geste too. Only trouble is, so did Fallows, and he's been covering the same ground. More, because his men are in better shape."
Tag nodded, fell silent. He tried to catch a glimpse of Season out of the corner of his eye, see if she was still looking at him. He'd never had much trouble finding girls, but this one overwhelmed him. All the qualities he had to push himself to have-courage, humor, forth-rightness-she displayed easily. "You know, Season, uh, about what you said before-"
"You understand the Dewey Decimal System?"
"All those ridiculous numbers. You understand them?"
"Yeah. It's based on a classification formulated by W.T. Harris for the St. Louis Public Library. Melvil Dewey devised it in 1873 for the Amherst College Library. In it, all knowledge is divided into ten groups, with each group assigned a hundred numbers. Then-"
"Okay, okay. I didn't understand it before and you're not making it any easier. I just figure we should get to know each other a bit better since we're kind of like the last two people at a singles bar. Eventually we're going to go home together, so we might as well enjoy each other's company. Make sense?"
He nodded. "Sure, I guess."
"Great!" she smiled and pecked him on the cheek. "At least now it's out in the open. We don't have to kid each other."
Tag turned to say something to her, he wasn't sure what exactly, just something nice. He hoped the words would, for once, spring naturally and unarmored from his mouth. "I-"
He heard a funny sound. A zipper closing too fast. Where had he heard that sound before? There was a nudge at his chest, the distant sound of screaming. Season's.
"Jesus God, no!"
Lazily he followed her eyes to his chest, saw the green stick of wood, the yellow feathers bunched like a bouquet at one end. The shaft was wedged into his chest. How'd that get there? he wondered, started to reach for it to pluck it out. But his arms wouldn't move. His hand uncurled from the bow, it dropped on his foot. He didn't feel it. Slowly, so slowly, he felt his legs melting under him.
Like a vivid dream, it all seemed to take hours to Tag. But for Season, from the time she saw him hit to the time he dropped to the ground was a matter of a second or two.
She'd screamed from shock, but had recovered quickly, dropping to one knee and firing off an arrow in the direction the crossbow bolt had come from. The arrow rustled through the brush, but didn't hit anything solid. She flipped another arrow from quiver to bow and drew. The bow's system of pulleys allowed her to keep it drawn without arm fatigue as she swept it in a fanning motion from brush to brush.
Another bolt sizzled by her, embedded itself in Tag's exposed back. She pivoted in the direction it had come from, fired her arrow. It too was swallowed by the brush. She reached for another arrow.
The bolt's razor-edged tip punctured her right forearm, slicing through flesh and muscle like a ship's prow through water. Instantly it poked through the back of her forearm dripping blood onto her fine wheat-colored hairs.
Two more bolts flashed toward her, one whooshing over her right shoulder, the other chipping a splinter from her bow before being deflected to the ground.
Unable to either see the enemy or fire her bow with her injured arm, Season dropped the bow and did what her body was trained to do best. She ran.
Eric gave the cap of the canteen an extra twist. "That about does it. Again, thanks for the help."
Joseph Baldwin smiled, shook Eric's hand. "No problem. It's the least I could do after bending all your ears so much. Hope you find whoever you're tracking."
Eric's face hardened.
"No, don't worry, none of you let anything slip. You forget, I was a lawyer. Had a stint as a public defender for a couple years. I know the look." He gave them a grim smile. "But from judging the kind of people you seem to be, I'd say whoever it is has it coming."
'Thanks for the water," Eric said again, nodding to the others to move out,
"Jesus God, no!" Season's scream cracked the air like a gunshot.
Eric led them as they scrambled up the sandy incline. They ran clumsily through the shifting sand, their feet slogging as if buried in mud. Only Eric seemed to move easily, his feet slapping ahead of the others as if he were on pavement. His crossbow was cocked, the bolt snug against the string, waiting for that 150 pounds of tension to snap it through the air.
Season was running toward him now, her legs and arms pumping, fighting the sand's pull as it sucked at her feet. The bloody arrow through her forearm looked like some child's prank, a toy bought at a cheap magic shop to scare her parents. Once it banged against her thigh as she ran. Her howl of pain was sudden, reflexive. Then she gulped it back and ran even harder.
"Drop to the ground!" Eric yelled. "Drop!"
She shook her head as she ran toward him. Another bolt flew out from the clump of brush behind her, whizzed within a few inches of her back before shooting past her.
Eric flopped to his stomach, lifted the crossbow to his shoulder, and calculated the backward trajectory of the bolt that had just missed Season. It was like playing the film of the arrow's flight in reverse. Then he freeze-framed the film on the exact spot where the bolt had emerged from the brush, aimed the crossbow, and squeezed the trigger.
The short arrow spat from the bow like an angry torpedo headed for an enemy U-boat.
A surprised grunt of sudden unendurable agony burst from the brush, followed by a body in combat fatigues pitching forward, grasping madly at the bolt blooming like a deadly flower from his stomach. But the shaft was too slippery with blood for him to get a firm grasp. His fingers slid helplessly off the arrow. Then he died.
Twelve yards to the left, young Foxworth swallowed a bubble of panic as he watched Toomey's eyes stare unblinking into the orange sky. Tiny grains of sand coated Toomey's bloody fingers like breading and Foxworth suddenly thought of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the one thing he missed most since the quakes. He wanted to laugh, to cry, to vomit, to piss his pants. All at once.
Through the crisp skeletal twigs of the brush, he could see Ravensmith and the others crawling cautiously toward him. He calculated his chances of running away.
Slim to none. Ravensmith would put an arrow in his back before he got ten yards away. He squirmed, wringing his sweaty hands around the crossbow. Damn thing. Why hadn't Colonel Fallows given them guns. Then he remembered the feeling he'd got when he'd fired into that guy's body. Sure, Toomey had already brought him down, but Foxworth had put another arrow into him anyway. To see how it felt. It felt good. The way the body twitched and jerked as the bolt thumped into it. It was, well, satisfying. Almost as good as fucking those twins and their mother, though he was the last in line and by then they'd all been so abused they were hardly conscious enough to notice him doing anything. He did it anyway.
Foxworth cocked his crossbow, slid a bolt into the groove, took aim on Ravensmith. Maybe if I dropped him…
Eric inched along the ground, the sand's heat seeping through his clothes. Sweat dripped into his eyes and he blinked it away. He scanned the horizon at the top of the incline, trying to decide how many were out there. Not many, he decided, or they would have attacked when they were all together. Probably thought they could pick Season and Tag off, then do the same to the rest later.
One thing was certain, Fallows wasn't one of them. If he had been, they'd all be dead by now. He'd never have tried such a lame ploy as this. He was too smart, no one realized just how smart.
"Rydell," Eric called over his shoulder. Rydell bellied over the sand next to Eric. "How's Season?"
"Tracy's got the arrow out. Don't know how good that arm's going to be, but she'll live."
Molly edged closer. "What about those guys in the cabins? Are they going to help us?"
Eric looked back to the cabins behind them. Everyone had gone inside. "Don't count on it."
"Maybe they'll lend us that shotgun," Rydell said.
"I wouldn't. It's not their fight."
"What about Tag? Maybe I should make a run for him. See how he's doing."
Eric shook his head. "He's dead."
"How do you know? Maybe he's just unconscious."
Eric gave him a look, turned back to study the terrain ahead. A few mesquite trees to the left, their pods a bright lemon yellow, ready to eat. A clump of stinging nettle bushes to the right, their green shoots used as flavoring for soups. All that information stored up in his brain along with song lyrics to "When I'm Sixty-four" and Magic Johnson's free throw percentages for the last three seasons. "There's only a couple places up there with enough cover to hide. If we pepper them with a few arrows, we should get a reaction. Ready?"
The movement was so slight, Eric couldn't be sure it was real. Maybe it was just a chuckwalla lizard. When frightened they blow themselves up like balloons and wedge themselves into crevices of rocks. Whatever it was, Eric flipped his crossbow toward it without hesitation and squeezed the trigger.
The bolt punched through the saltbush, severing a few dull green flowers before whistling by Foxworth's dirty ear. The shock of having Ravensmith fire at him just as he was aiming at Ravensmith, jolted Foxworth off balance.
Fucking spooky. He tipped backwards, tumbling into the sand, his finger tightening reflexively around the trigger. The bow twanged and hurled its bolt harmlessly into the orange sky.
'There!" he heard Ravensmith shout, saw him pointing toward Foxworth,
Foxworth knew he was only seconds from a volley of arrows aimed in his direction. He thought of the excruciating pain, the sharp point of an arrow clefting skin, tissue, slicing muscle, puncturing organs. Or, God no, his face! The shaft burrowing into his brain, gnawing through the soft jelly of his eye. He felt warm urine soaking his pants leg. Suddenly he leaped to his feet, tossed the heavy crossbow over the top of the saltbush, threw his hands into the air. "Enough! Enough!"
Eric smiled. "Are you scared?"
"M-Maybe. A little."
"Sure, a little. That's good."
"What do you mean?"
"Respect for pain is a good thing. Especially now."
"I don't get you."
"I'm about to fill you with a lot of respect."
Foxworth swallowed. "Whataya gonna do?"
Eric ran his finger lightly along his scar.
"Shit, man, no need for any of that. I'll tell you what you wanna know. Just fucking ask, okay? Just ask?"
"But how will we know it's the truth? You might be lying. No, I'm afraid that won't do. You see, the Hopis have a saying. A tongue in pain always speaks the truth."
"I swear, Mr. Ravensmith. Honest to God, I'll tell you the truth. Tell you first time. Really. Ask me. Go ahead."
Rydell trudged wearily up the hill. Joseph Baldwin was beside him. Both carried shovels.
"We buried them both," Rydell said. "I hated to put them both in the same hole."
"Won't matter to either of them," Joseph Baldwin said, clapping Rydell on the shoulder. "Couple weeks and they'll both be grown over with a patch of Mormon tea."
Season adjusted the red bandanna Tracy had taken from her head and wrapped around the wound. She winced slightly from the pain, but made no sound. No tears.
Molly and Tracy stood on either side of Eric, each with a crossbow aimed at Foxworth, who sat trembling on the ground. His legs were folded under him and he kept wiping the sweat from his palms onto the thighs of his pants.
"What's your name again?" Eric asked, cupping his hand to his ear.
"What's your first name?"
Foxworth hesitated. He hated his first name as much as he hated tall niggers or raw fish. He looked down, mumbled.
"Ariel. My old lady's idea." He didn't add that the rest of the guys used to call him Airedale because he skinned the dogs and usually smelled like one.
"Well, Ariel. You can stand up and take off all your clothes."
"Yes, sir," he said, jumping to his feet and unbuttoning and removing his shirt. He stripped off his pants, leaving on his boots and underpants.
"You can leave the boots, but not the pants."
"Jeez, Mr. Ravensmith. Can't you just ask me what you want to know, man to man. Do they have to be here?" He nodded at the women.
"You've got something against women, Ariel?"
"Well, shit, all this isn't gonna change my answers any. I swear."
Foxworth squared his shoulders, summoning some defiance. "At least send her away," he said, pointing at Molly. "I don't want no goddamn gook staring at my naked ass."
Rydell crossed the space between them in two steps, his face glowering with rage, then swung the shovel into Foxworth's jaw. The jaw shifted like a slammed drawer and Foxworth fell moaning to the ground, clutching his face. Rydell raised the shovel over his head as if to hit him again, but Tracy's hand at his arm stopped him.
"You damn fool," Eric snapped. "If you had to hit him, why not in the kneecap so he couldn't walk. Not the jaw which he needs to talk."
Rydell held the shovel in both hands like an axe, stared down at Foxworth as if noticing him for the first time. He looked over his shoulder at Eric. "Sorry, I… Sorry."
"Actually," Molly said. "I kind of preferred the jaw."
"Help him up," Eric nodded to Molly.
Molly shifted the bow to one hand, wedged a hand behind Foxworth's back, and pushed him to a sitting position. "Don't mind us gooks."
Foxworth's jaw hung at an odd angle, obviously broken. He cradled it gently between his hands like a baby bird fallen from its nest.
"Now, Foxworth," Eric said, his smile gone, his eyes narrowing. "Maybe now you're ready to tell the truth."
Foxworth nodded enthusiastically.
"Does Fallows have my wife and son?"
"Yes." Speech made him wince.
"Has he hurt them at all?"
Foxworth shook his head.
Eric leaned over, his face inches away. "Hasn't touched them or abused them?"
Eric grabbed Foxworth by the shattered jaw and yanked it back and forth twice. Foxworth howled and cried. "Again. They haven't been abused or touched?"
"Just the colonel. He's… been… with her. In his tent. No one else was allowed. The kid hasn't been touched. I swear to God."
"Where's Fallows heading now?"
"North, Me and Toomey were supposed to meet up with him near Santa Barbara. Depending."
"Depending on what?"
"On where the new coastline is."
Eric stepped back, his face slightly ashen. His fingers tapped along the scar on his cheek, as if they were playing a tune. "North, huh?" he mused, staring off in that direction.
"Yes, sir. Santa Barbara."
Eric nodded slowly, turned to the others. "Let's get the gear together. We're moving out in a few minutes."
"Maybe we should wait a little longer," Tracy said. "Give Season a chance to rest. Recover from her wound."
"If she wants to rest she can stay here. Try to catch up with us later."
Tracy glared at him. "Christ, Eric. Why are you acting so damn hard-core?"
"No, really," Season said, "I'm fine. Fine. Besides, I haven't been to Santa Barbara in years. Since Daddy filmed that spy flick there."
"We're not going to Santa Barbara," Eric said, swinging his pack onto his shoulders. "We're going south."
"What?" Rydell said.
Tracy pointed at Foxworth. "But he just said-"
"I know what he said. But it's not the truth."
Foxworth twitched nervously, panic twisting up his throat like a fat snake. "It's the truth. I ain't lying. I swear. North. That's what he told us. Santa Barbara."
"That's what he told you, Ariel. But that's not where he's going. You see, you weren't meant to join them later. In fact, you weren't even meant to kill me."
Molly sat on the ground. "I need a drink."
"I'd settle for an explanation," Tracy said.
"It's simple, really, if you know Fallows. He sent these two clowns to be caught."
"Why?" Rydell asked.
"To tell us he was going north. In the meantime, he heads south."
"I don't know. That's quite a stretch to make in logic."
"Not really. If Fallows had wanted me dead, he would have sent a couple guys with more experience. He's got them. And he would have given them guns. He's got them too. Instead he sent a couple amateurs who he knew I'd kill, or capture and torture. You have to know one thing about Fallows, he wants to kill me himself."
"Jesus," Tracy said. "All this just to shake you off his trail."
Eric shook his head. "That's the clever part. He knows I wouldn't fall for this. We used the same device in Nam a couple times. Rattles the nerves. He just doesn't want it to be too easy for me."
Joseph Baldwin cleared his throat, leaned on his shovel. "I don't know who this Fallows is, but he sounds damn dangerous. And smart as the devil."
"Maybe smarter," Eric said. "Okay, everybody, grab your gear and let's go."
"What about him?" Rydell nodded at Foxworth.
"No, Mr. Ravensmith," Foxworth pleaded. "I told you what I knew. It's not my fault Colonel Fallows didn't tell me the truth. I told the truth."
Eric ignored him, spoke to Rydell. "We don't want him warning Fallows, and we don't want him following us. So kill him. Use a knife or your bow."
"Please! I won't follow you. And I swear I won't warn the colonel. Why should I? The son of a bitch hung me out here to die."
Rydell stared at Foxworth. "I-I don't think I can. Not like this."
"Why not?" Eric said angrily. "He killed your friend. He murdered Tag Hallahan, remember him? He's the guy you were joking with about his red hair a few hours ago. The same guy you just buried a few minutes ago. The one with two arrows sticking in his body. This guy fired one or both of them."
"No! No, I missed," Foxworth said. "I couldn't shoot him like that. I missed on purpose. I swear to you."
"I know, Eric," Rydell said. "And I want to do it, I want to kill him. I thought I could. But I guess I can't. Not in cold blood."
"He's not like you yet," Tracy said, her eyes blazing at Eric. "He's still too human."
"Unfortunately that's not a valuable quality against Fallows. Not if we want to get Annie and Timmy back." He cocked his crossbow, snatched a barbed hunting bolt from his quiver, and nestled it in the groove. Then he aimed it at Foxworth's heart. "One of your own arrows, Ariel."
"Jesus, mister. Jesus." Foxworth blubbered through the tears, his broken jaw slack and quivering. "Please, I…" But his sobbing prevented his continuing.
When Tracy spoke to Eric, her voice was quiet, yet with a stainless steel edge. "What makes you think Annie will want you the way you are now? You aren't the man she married. You're Dirk Fallows. In that way he's already killed you."
Eric glared at her a minute. Then he spun back to face Foxworth, lifted the crossbow to his shoulder, aimed down the sight, released the safety, and pulled the trigger.
Foxworth began screaming even before the trigger was pulled, and he continued screaming once the arrow drilled through his right kneecap, boring out the back of the leg and embedding itself in the back of the calf that had been folded under him.
"I can't move it! Help me!" Foxworth whined, trying to unfold his leg, but unable to because of the barbs dug into his flesh.
Eric turned his back on all of them and marched off toward the south.
"Come on," Tracy gestured, and they all scrambled after him.
Joseph Baldwin looked at Foxworth writhing on the ground, then at Eric and the others as they trekked grimly through the mesquite trees. He shook his head. "That's one hard man," he said, balancing the shovel on his shoulder as he walked back down to the cabins, whistling.
"It's my fault, I know. Sorry."
"It's nobody's fault," Eric said. "Forget it."
Season sighed. "It's this damn wound. I know it slowed us down for the past few days. Now they're even farther ahead, aren't they?"
"A couple days. Three at most." Eric leaned back into the shade using his pack as a pillow, "We'll catch up." They sat around resting from their night's march. Molly was already asleep, for once not even bothering to complain about her blisters. Rydell lay next to her, his head propped on his hand while he read a sun-faded copy of Newsweek they'd found the day before in an abandoned VW bug.
Tracy was fussing over Season's wound. Two days ago Season had gotten a sudden fever, chills, nausea, and they had lost half a day's travel. Eric hadn't complained or acted sullen. He'd merely made camp and treated her symptoms, even joked with her a little. Everyone noticed the change in him. Sure, he was just as determined as ever to rescue his family, to kill Fallows. But he was also kinder, compassionate, more the way he used to be before Jennifer's murder and the kidnapping.
Eric tilted his Australian bush hat over his eyes, felt the stares of the others as they tried to figure him out. He knew he was acting differently toward them and he knew why. Tracy had been right. He had become Dirk Fallows, and in that way Fallows had already killed him. Had already won. Eric couldn't allow that. There had to be a greater purpose to survival than just… existing. Essence precedes existence. That's what Annie would tell him now, had told him several times in the past few months. "Our survival has to stand for something, Eric," she'd say. "Something more than a testament to our ruthlessness and cleverness. Bugs can claim that." They'd argued good-naturedly about it, mostly for the fun of it, he'd thought then. But now he could see how important it really was to Annie. He couldn't even remember his arguments now, or if he could, they seemed silly, cynical. Tracy had been right, he couldn't go to her now as just another version of Fallows. If he did, he didn't deserve her. That's what Big Bill Tenderwolf would have said.
He heard Tracy's voice. "Rydell, would you cover guard duty for me while I search for the ladies' room?"
"Sure thing, Trace."
"Take your bow," Eric reminded her without opening his eyes.
"Got it, Coach."
Eric dozed, his mind drifting like a curl of smoke among giant photographs. Annie in the bathtub. Timmy concentrating on a chess move. Jennifer wobbling on her skates. Then he turned a corner and the photos were more sinister. Annie screaming for help. Timmy crying.
Jennifer, her throat red and grinning, a mockery of her lifeless lips, Philip and Tag, their bodies covered with hundreds of arrows like porcupines. Fallows, floating above it all on a magic carpet, a silk turban on his head, laughing. There was one other photograph, turned at an angle away from the light. Eric strained to make out the face, but couldn't. He knew only that it was Cruz, the man who'd murdered Jenny, who'd cut her throat. He edged closer. Closer. Turned the corner.
"Eric! Come quick!"
Tracy's cries, like a sharp slap, brought him swiftly to consciousness. He was on his feet and running, the loaded crossbow in his hand, before she'd finished calling. Behind him he heard the others following. He didn't wait.
Eric's feet kicked up puffs of sand as he ran, nimbly dodging brush and rocks as he sprinted ahead. He was still twenty feet away when he saw Tracy dragging something out from behind a clump of mesquite trees. He stopped, gaped with shock.
"Holy shit," Season said, running up behind him.
"It's like Twilight Zone," Molly said.
"I was just about to drop my drawers and relieve a nagging bladder," Tracy explained, "when I spotted this hiding nearby." She gave another yank.
They had never seen anything like it.
The girl lay on the ground, struggling to pull her arm free from Tracy's grasp. Her free hand clawed at the dirt for leverage, her bare feet dug in for resistance. When that didn't work she just made her body limp, heavy.
"I could use a hand," Tracy said, but everyone just stood there and stared.
The girl wore a magnificent flowing gown, red satin that draped in swirling folds. It plunged daringly down between her small teenage breasts, revealing bruises and teeth marks across her chest. Her face was caked with heavy makeup, clumsily applied lipstick and rouge, smeared eyeshadow and mascara. But most shocking of all was her hair. She didn't have any. Her head was shaved bald.
"Who are you?" Eric asked.
"I already asked her that," Tracy said. "She won't talk."
"Poor kid," Rydell said.
"Poor kid, nothing," Tracy said. "She jumped me and tried to take the crossbow."
"N-n-no," the girl rasped.
"Let her be," Eric said, motioning for Tracy to step back. "Give her room. Season, run back and get a canteen."
Eric turned to the girl. "Want some water?"
The girl looked at each of them suspiciously, the cornered rabbit preparing to fight its way to freedom or death. Her eyes were hateful, surrounded with dark circles. There were sores on her face and arms, torn blisters on her feet, a long scab on top of her head where the razor had slipped. Bones poked at sharp angles through the damaged skin. Her face, thin from lack of food, looked like a Halloween skull.
Season nudged Eric with the canteen. "Here."
Eric walked slowly toward the frightened girl, the canteen held at arm's length. "Water. Help yourself."
She stared steadily at him, not moving. He set the canteen on the ground ten feet in front of her, then backed away. When he had returned to the others, she climbed to her feet and raced for the canteen, limping as she ran. Eric noticed the recent cut on the back of her leg above the foot. Smooth and clean, as if made with a knife.
The girl grabbed the canteen with both hands, fumbling the cap off and guzzling it down with such desperation, much of it spilled down her neck soaking her clothes.
"That's a two or three hundred dollar gown," Tracy said. "Six months ago I'd have done almost anything to own it."
"Where'd she get it?" Molly asked. "She can't be more than sixteen, seventeen tops."
Rydell nodded. "What's important is what's she doing out here wearing it? And what happened to her hair?"
"And who cut the Achilles' tendon in her leg to cripple her?" Eric added.
"Jesus," Season frowned.
The girl finished drinking, wiped her mouth with her wrist, and hungrily clutched the canteen to her chest. Her eyes remained distrustful as she hobbled backwards a step or two.
Eric walked toward her.
"N-n-no!" she screamed, shaking her head wildly. Her shrill shrieks pierced the hot air like stabbing icicles. She stumbled backwards, screaming and shaking her head.
The sudden thunder of galloping horses drowned out her cries as three riders stormed into sight. They were still a couple hundred yards away when Eric spotted them.
"Weapons," Eric snapped, and everyone lifted their bows, armed and ready, toward the approaching riders.
The girl saw them coming too and her screams became even louder, more hysterical. She dropped to the ground again, arms flailing, legs churning like a beetle on its back struggling to flip itself over.
The three horsemen rode into camp enshrouded by clouds of yellow dust. There was nothing friendly about their appearance.
The lead rider rode clumsily, his back erect like a parody of an English foxhunter. He was short, though thick chested, and the stirrups hung a couple inches too low for him, causing his feet to slip out. But there was nothing comical about him. His face was mean, the mouth a lipless gash behind a dusty, black beard. Under his left eye, a tattoo of three tears dripped down his cheek.
"I'd lower those weapons, Jack," he warned Eric. "Unless you're looking for trouble."
"We're not looking for trouble," Eric said, keeping his weapon aimed at the man's chest.
The man squinted angrily at Eric. He wore a battered cowboy hat, fancy snakeskin boots, jeans, a big silver buckle, and a denim vest over his bare chest. The thick, curly, black hair on his chest and arms was matted with sweat. Strapped to his hip was a Western-style holster with a 9mm Smith amp; Wesson Model 59 jammed awkwardly into it. His hands rested on the saddle pommel, only inches from the gun.
Eric noticed that the other two riders carried an assortment of knives, but no guns. Not that they needed any. The S amp;W packed a fourteen-shot staggered column clip and could fire semi-automatic. Enough to kill everybody here, even with an arrow or two in him.
"Hell of a situation, Slim," the rider said, a nasty grin stretching his face. "I imagine you don't want to fuck with us and we don't want to fuck with you. That about sum it up?"
"Good. 'Cause I dig this Western shit and all, but I ain't much in the mood to be sucking a bunch of arrows." He stood up in the stirrups, rubbed his buttocks. "I once rode a thousand miles at one sitting on a Barley, man, but ten miles on one of these fucking animals an' my ass feels like I've been dragged butt-end down 101."
"What's your name?" Eric asked.
"What can we do for you, Flex?"
"Looks like you folks found something belongs to us."
"Like that." He pointed at the girl, scurrying frantically like a crab gone mad in the sun. "It belongs to us."
"You bastards," Tracy spat. "She's a human being, not animals like you."
Flex laughed huskily, his barrel chest shaking. "That broad's got a mouth, huh, Slim?" His two companions also laughed.
Eric smiled, studying the men like a biologist examining a new bacteria never before classified. The leader shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, a nervous tic starting to tug at his tattooed eye. The other two wore identical denim vests with "DEVIL'S DANCERS" stitched across the back over the picture of a grinning skeleton playing a fiddle and sitting astride a motorcycle. However, they didn't share Flex's fascination with Western outfits, remaining true to the plain black motorcycle boots. But from the arrogant looks in their eyes, they did share his taste for violence.
By looking at them, Eric was sure of this: Flex had already made up his mind that he was either going to ride out of here with the girl, or he was going to die trying. And he didn't really care which, Eric was tempted to oblige him, but that gun made the odds bad. Oh, they'd lose all right, but chances were good that they'd take two of Eric's people with them. And he couldn't risk that.
"So what's it gonna be, Slim? Do we have a problem?"
"No," Eric said. "Take her and get going."
"N-no-no!" the girl stuttered, her voice hoarse from screaming.
"We can't let them take her, Eric!" Tracy said, stepping protectively in front of the girl. "For God's sake, look what they've done to her."
"Hey, bitch," one of the other riders sneered.
"Hey, what, asshole?" Tracy said, swinging her crossbow toward his face. The man glared but said nothing.
"She's right, Eric," Rydell said. Molly and Season mumbled agreement. "It isn't right to hand her over."
"Well, pardner?" Flex sighed, looking bored. "We gonna mix it up over this cue ball or what?"
"Take her," Eric repeated.
Flex grinned. "Smart man. No need to shit our guts out in this sandbox for nothing." He nodded at one of his riders, who jumped down from his horse, jerked the girl off the ground, and threw her roughly over the saddle face down. "See how easy it is. Slim. No harm, no foul." He leered at the three women and winked. "Happy trails, pard." With a yank on the reins, he jerked the horse around and the three of them rode off laughing.
Eric turned his back. Didn't see Sarah Roth's pleading eyes as she looked back…
The next ten miles were covered in almost complete silence. No one complained when Eric moved them out immediately after Flex's departure without any rest. They were all anxious to work off the feelings churning inside.
For awhile, Eric walked ahead alone, shunned by the rest of them. Then Tracy joined him, walking silently at his side. He never acknowledged her presence, but she could tell he appreciated the gesture.
The orange sky was leaking into gray-pink as night claimed its few hours. For the past few miles they'd been muttering among themselves, though no one spoke directly to Eric.
They followed a dirt road for a while as Eric bent to the dirt and examined tracks and signs. He didn't tell them what the signs meant. He just walked and they followed.
"Look," Tracy said to him. "A sign up there."
"Where?" Rydell asked.
"There," she pointed. "By the side of the road." She turned to Eric. "Can you read it?"
"We're almost there," Eric said.
Within a couple minutes they were gathered around the base of the metal sign. The background was green, the lettering white. Except where someone had made some changes.
"WELCOME TO COTTONWOOD. POPULATION 219."
Only Cottonwood had a red X spray-painted over it, with "SAVVYTOWN" sloppily painted above. And 219 was also X-ed out, replaced with "VARIABLE."
"Welcome to Savvytown," Tracy read aloud. "Population variable. What do you think that means?"
'That we have to be careful. Fallows and his men came through here. But then so did Flex and his friends."
Season had wandered ahead and climbed a small hill. "Look. Jesus, look at that." She was jumping up and down pointing.
The others climbed up after her and followed her waving hand.
"Lights, for God's sake. Electricity!"
It was true. Another two or three miles down the road was a cluster of homes and trailers, all glowing with the bright steady gleam of electrical lights.
"I didn't think I'd ever see a real bulb again," Molly sighed. "This must be Paradise."
"Let's find out," Eric said, starting down the hill.
"Wait a second," Rydell said, his voice tense, his tone deliberate. "I want to say something first. Something important."
"Let it go," Molly suggested.
"I can't. We haven't talked about it, but it's been on all our minds. I mean, what happened back there with that girl." He hesitated, took a deep breath as if each word cost him an exorbitant amount of energy. "Anyway, Eric. I don't know about the others, but up until now, I've followed you because I respected you. Admired your courage and know-how. Sure, I wanted to help you get your family back. But even if we hadn't been going after them, I'd probably have followed you. No questions asked." He looked Eric in the eyes, forced himself to keep them there, though it was like looking straight into the sun. "But I can't understand what you did back there. Giving them the girl that way."
"C'mon, Rydell," Tracy said. "He explained that. You saw the gun. Fourteen semi-automatic shots could have wiped us out."
"Maybe. I'm no hero. I want to live as much as any of you. But all I know now is that I feel dirty. As much a part of what happened to her as the men actually doing it."
"Make your point," Eric said quietly.
"Okay. From here on I follow you for only one reason. To rescue Annie and your son. I go for their sake now, not yours. Is that clear?"
Eric's smile was thin and hard. "That's all I ever wanted. Now, let's go check this Savvytown out."
It was nothing but a couple dozen shabby houses and rusty trailers forming two intersecting streets. But the aura of bright lights glowing from each window and the rock 'n' roll music being broadcast over a public address system and the rare sounds of people laughing made them approach Savvytown with awe, like children on their first visit to Disneyland.
"Music, for Christ's sake," Molly said. "It's been so long since I've heard a stereo I wouldn't care if they played Donny and Marie Sing Porgy and Bess."
Fifty feet down the road at the entrance to town, two armed men stood on either side of the road. The one on the right wore his long, black hair in two braids with a leather headband around his forehead. He wore the familiar denim vest of the Devil's Dancers along with a few crow feathers in his headband. Eric studied him for a moment and frowned; he was no more an Indian than Flex was a cowboy. He was leaning against a telephone pole from which no wires were strung, lazily twirling his homemade spear like a baton. One end of the spear had a long serrated knife lashed to it; the other end boasted a huge two-pronged stainless steel carving fork,
Across the street stood one of the riders who'd been with Flex earlier. His hair was chopped short, but his beard was thick and full. Ten feet in front of him he hada mouse tied on a twine leash attached to a stake in the ground. The mouse darted in frantic circles around the stake while he flipped his knife into the dirt, trying to come as close to the mouse as possible without killing it. His last throw had been a little too close and one of the mouse's feet was severed. The mouse squealed, hopped away.
When Eric and the others were within twenty feet, the knifeman called over his shoulder. "Hey, Flex. Your boyfriend's back."
The man with the spear laughed and sang, "Your boyfriend's back and there's gonna be touble, hey na, hey na, your boyfriend's back."
Flex stepped out of the shadows, his gun in one hand and an open bottle in the other. As Eric got closer he could smell the tangy scent of homemade liquor. This was stronger than most. Flex took a long swig, clenching his eyes tight against the taste, afterwards smacking his lips repeatedly. "What'd you come for, Slim? No, no, don't tell me. Um, the girl, right? If I don't hand her over, you and your gang of desperados is gonna take her. Am I close?"
"We don't want the girl and we don't want trouble."
Flex smiled, but his eyes grew colder. "That's good, Slim. You're a smart man. A little low on guts maybe, but smart. And it's the smart ones that die of old age. Right, Lido?"
"Yeah," the man with the spear said.
Flex bolstered his gun. "So, what do you and your tough gang want here?"
"Information!" he roared, stepping in front of Eric. He was six inches shorter, but the breadth of his chest and thickness of his legs put him about fifteen pounds heavier. "Shit, man, we got the greatest fucking town since Sodom and Gomorrah. We got whores of both sexes who'll let you fuck 'em any way you want. We got booze so strong we use it to strip paint. We got a goddamn stereo system that Hugh Hefner would envy. And we got gambling. Blackjack, poker, three card monte. You name it."
"Just some information."
"Information, huh?" Flex scratched his beard, glanced at Tracy, Rydell, Molly, and Season. "Guess you don't need no pussy, considering how much you're packing. Even got yourself a young stud for variety, huh. Slim?"
"It's the spice of life," Eric said.
"Variety. It's the spice of life."
"Spice of life? Hmm, that's pretty good. Never heard that before."
"Oh, brother," Molly groaned.
Flex gave her a sharp look. "A fucking smartass nip, huh?"
"Chink," Molly said. "A fucking smartass chink."
He grinned, looking her up and down, "I like you, smartass."
"That makes one of us."
"You got balls, girlie, maybe more than your old leader here. You know, I fucked a lot of girls, but I don't think I've ever fucked a chink before. Have I, Lido?"
Lido thought it over. "There was that dumpy broad in Bakersfield. No, she was French."
Rydell stepped toward Flex. "I think we've heard enough of your mouth, buddy."
Flex laughed, looked at Eric. "Whoa, Slim. You've got yourself a handful here. No wonder you're so easy going. But between you and me," he leaned his head toward Eric, his breath staggering, "I'd keep a muzzle on your friends, or I'm gonna yank their lungs out and piss in the hole in their chest."