Now the dog was alert, balanced on its three good legs. “What is that?” Ellie asked. She’d tired some miles back, but Tom had insisted they go on. When she refused to budge, he’d swept her into his arms and labored up the nearly vertical corkscrew of a trail without complaint. Now Ellie squirmed out of his arms, and her face broke into a smile that stretched from ear to ear. “It’s a machine. Tom, it’s an engine!”
“Shh.” Tom cocked his head, listening hard. “I think …”
“She’s right,” Alex said. Her breath thinned. She stood stock-still, every nerve quivering like a hound on point, and her fatigue—these last six miles had been all uphill—vanished. “Oh my God, that sounds like a generator. Tom, maybe they fixed things somehow, not just here but everywhere.”
“See, see?” Ellie beamed in triumph. “You’re wrong.”
“I don’t like it.” Tom did not smile. “First off, not every generator uses a computer, which means that someone had to throw the transfer switch manually. But it’s been too long: eight days since the Zap.”
“So what?” asked Ellie.
“So that means the generator’s been running for a really long time, and most generators can’t, not without refueling about every four hours.”
“Maybe they’re really prepared and have lots of fuel. Or maybe the generator wasn’t started until only a couple days ago, or they’ve run it only once in a while. Who cares?” asked Alex.
“There’s still plenty of daylight,” Tom said. “Why run a generator if you don’t need to?”
She couldn’t come up with a good answer. “Look, whoever’s there has power. That’s—” She saw the sudden, intent expression on Tom’s face. “What?”
“Don’t you hear it?”
Ellie frowned. “Hear what?”
“Listen hard, behind the engine sound.” Tom closed his eyes. “There it is again.”
Alex shut her eyes and concentrated, and then she caught it: something low and hollow and rhythmic. Not mechanical, but—
“A song.” Ellie gasped. “It’s music.”
Okay, Alex had to admit, that was very strange. Limited resources, four hours of power at a pop, and you waste it playing records? If Tom’s EMP theory was right, it would have to be a record, too; a CD player wouldn’t work, but an old turntable would. Would a tape deck?
But Tom might be wrong, or maybe they grounded the players somehow.
“If they can play music,” Ellie said, “that means you’re wrong, Tom.”
“I hope I am, Ellie,” Tom said patiently. “I really do. But here’s what’s bothering me, honey. You’re in the middle of the woods. As far as you know, there’s no power—and you advertise that you’ve got it? You waste power playing music?”
“Tom,” Alex said, “they’re rangers. Maybe they’re trying to attract attention. You know, tell people that they’re open for business.”
“But what if they’re not?” asked Tom. “What if whoever’s there is trying to attract attention for the wrong reasons?”
They all stared at one another. Then Ellie said, “You mean, like a trap?” at the same time that Alex said, “That’s ridiculous.” But Alex was thinking: If Jim could remember his training, would a ranger remember how to work a record player? A tape deck? A generator?
Tom said nothing.
All of them, Mina included, listened to the putta-putta of the generator and, in the silences between, that unrecognizable line of music. Ellie fidgeted, then said, “Aren’t we going?”
“Yeah,” Tom said finally. He thumbed the carrying strap of his Winchester, shrugging from a cross-carry to his right shoulder where he could get at the weapon in a hurry. “You’ll have to walk the rest of the way, okay? I know you’re tired and it’s all uphill, so we’ll go slow. But I need my hands free.”
“It’ll be fine,” Alex said to Ellie as they followed. She made the girl get between them with the dog, though, and when Ellie wasn’t looking, she draped the Mossberg over her right shoulder and rechecked the safety. Just in case.
Hours later, Alex inched closer to Tom and said, “Now what?”
Tom only shook his head. The night had slammed down, a hazy galaxy of stars like sequins in black velvet. The moon would not rise for several more hours—a good thing, because that uneasy green color was like an old bruise and it really freaked her out. No moon also meant that they could be fairly certain of near invisibility, although they crouched not sixty yards from the hulking skeleton of a fire lookout tower to their right. The tower was dark.
The station was not. Set upon a rocky plateau, the station shone, each and every window of the low rectangle fired with light. Elongated buttery-yellow rectangles spilled over the ground, and Alex could see the corner of an armchair butted against one window and a tower of books on a low coffee table. Music seeped through the open windows, and they had listened as Mick Jagger vented over his lack of satisfaction only to give way to Robert Plant’s screaming about eyes shining bright red. There was so much light, the panes of a nearby structure to the far right sparkled. A garage, probably: Alex picked out a twist of gravel.
“Look at the dog,” Tom said into her ear.
She did. Mina was staring at the station with what seemed like curiosity but not alarm. Not like the reaction those wild dogs showed when they smelled Jim, Alex thought. Then, feeling a little stupid—hoping that Tom wouldn’t notice—Alex took a cautious, experimental sniff. The only aroma she detected was wood smoke mixed with creosote. Fireplace, or maybe an outdoor fire pit, but that was all. No dead smell, which might not mean a thing. What, she’d turned into a bloodhound?
“If the dog’s not worried, then it’s probably okay,” Tom said. “Let me just check it out.”
“Wait.” Alex put a restraining hand on his arm. “I should go with you.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve done plenty of recon.”
“Don’t you always have someone watching your back? If I stay up here, I’m too far away to hit anything with the Mossberg.”
“Believe me, if you have to go shooting at people, I’m just as happy to keep you as far away from me as possible.”
She bristled. “Hey, don’t diss me. It’s not like I’ve never handled a gun before.”
“I’m only saying the odds are against there being anything to shoot at.”
“If the odds are so against that, why are we having this discussion?”
“Are you always this difficult?”
Ellie piped up. “Yes, she is.”
“Hey,” said Alex.
Tom said, “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m just checking things out. Besides, someone needs to stay with Ellie.”
“Well, at least take the dog.”
Ellie: “Alex is right, Tom. Mina searched for bombs.”
“You guys watch too many movies. There won’t be any bombs,” Tom grumbled. But he took the dog.
They watched as the darkness swallowed up first Mina and then Tom. Robert Plant had finished screaming about his dreams only for the music to segue into a bluesy guitar and something about a boss man. Alex didn’t know the song. She was straining so hard to pick up any sign of movement—outside, in the house—that her eyes felt as if they were going to pop right out of their sockets.
She kept her eyes trained on Tom as he darted right, well away from the tidal wave of yellow light washing over the rock, and headed for the garage. “What?”
“For saying you’re a pain. I mean, you are a pain sometimes.”
“Look who’s calling the kettle black.”
“Never mind.” She twisted around to flash the girl a grin she probably couldn’t see in the gloom. “It’s okay.”
“I just didn’t want to be alone … Oh, look, there he is, there he is!”
Tom peeled out of the darkness to their left. He was crouched very low, his head well below window level. Mina was only a dark slink, briefly visible as the two cut beneath the far left window, and then were gone. Alex watched as Tom eased his head up for a peek and then ducked down again before duckwalking to the front door. Alex saw him dart quickly from left to right, and she tensed, waiting for the boom of a shotgun. None came. A moment later, Tom and the dog wheeled into the house. She could see him clearly now, passing into the room on his left, stopping for a moment to stare at the books. He reached for something, and a second later, Billy Joel cut out, and then there was nothing but the sputter of the generator. After another minute—it felt like twenty—Tom and Mina reappeared as dark silhouettes in the doorway. Tom waved an arm.
“Let’s go,” she said to Ellie, then grabbed at the girl’s waist as she started to spurt forward. “Me first.”
Alex could hear the eye-roll, but she didn’t smile. “Because I’m a pain, and in case Tom missed anything, they can’t get to you unless they go through me.”
The station was deserted and frigid. “Whoever was here left in a hurry,” Tom said. He pointed to the coffee table. Alongside the books were two plates crusted with petrified spaghetti and three mugs still half-full of scummy coffee. A red wooden clothes tree with two sheepskin jackets—one men’s medium, one woman’s small—and a khaki ranger’s hat was snugged into one corner. A braided rug lay in front of a stone fireplace, the charred remnants of several logs resting in gray ash.
“Boy, they were messy,” Ellie said.
“Where would they go? Why? I don’t get this,” Alex said. She was uneasy, her skin prickling with anxiety. The cabin was a jumble of odors: rotting food, gray ash, dish soap, the metallic sting of tracked-in dirt, even a spike of peppermint chewing gum probably squirreled in one of those jackets. But no roadkill, none of that dead-meat stink, so that was good. Still, the setup was freaky. Her eyes flitted over a bookcase filled with paperbacks and, beside that, a vintage-looking cassette-and-speaker system balanced on a rickety pine table strewn with tapes. Probably mixes, she thought, judging from the cassette still lodged in the now-silenced player. After so many days with nothing more than a few flashlights and firelight, the artificial light was too bright, more like an assault, and hurt her eyes. The sound of the generator had receded to a muted stutter. “This food is old, but the generator’s still going. Other than the lights, what’s the generator powering?”
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