“Well, let’s see what we can do about that,” he said.
The village center wasn’t much. A large white church and rectory stood on the northwest corner. To the west was a sprawling, two-story village hall with high, arched windows and a clock tower made of old-fashioned brownstone. Due south, the square was lined by an ancient five-and-ten, a bakery next door to a small grocery called Murphy’s, Martha’s Diner—breakfast 24/7—and, at the end of the block, a combination Christian bookstore/ coffeehouse: Higher Grounds. Directly across the square from the coffeehouse was a shuttered bar, which from the looks of the vintage ads for Blatz and Ballantine beer festooning the brick face, hadn’t done business since the dinosaurs. Guards patrolled the sidewalk in front of the grocery, five-and-ten, and coffeehouse. Martha’s was also open, judging from the lacy scent of brewing coffee, maple syrup, and pancakes. Men in camo gear hunched over tables ranged along a steamy front window. Spying Alex, their dogs scrambled to their feet.
Definitely getting worse. She saw more dogs butting their noses against the diner’s plate glass, and she smelled how much rounder and more fecund their scents grew when they spotted her. Mina wasn’t nearly this bad, and it’s only been, what, a week? Ten days?
She felt eyes on her and turned to see Kincaid studying her. She didn’t know him, but she didn’t sense anything bad rolling off him either. He smelled like a comfortable leather coat, something her dad might have worn, edged with a hint of something lightly floral. Powder? She said, “Do you know why they’re doing that? I’ve heard that the dogs don’t like people who are going to … you know. But me …”
“But you, they love.” Kincaid’s shoulders moved in a small shrug. “Dunno yet. Let me think on it.”
The church’s front door opened, and a gaggle of children spilled out. They were all young—none were older than ten or eleven—and they tumbled over one another, racing for a playground just off the rectory. Seeing the children, listening to their shrieks and laughter, hearing the joyous barking of the dogs—all this brought an unexpected crush of grief to her chest, and she had to look away.
Belatedly, she realized that she’d pulled back on the reins and now Honey stood, her breath smoking, patiently waiting for Alex to make up her mind. Kincaid had also pulled up and was watching her. When their eyes met, Kincaid said, “Still gets to me.”
“It seems so normal,” she said.
“That’s because it is. We try to make things as normal as we can.”
Yeah, right, normal little things like gunfire and guards. She’d heard no other shots since awakening, but she wondered who they were shooting—and where. And why.
“We don’t want them to grow up dumb either,” Kincaid said. “School’s one thing they all have in common. Gives them a routine. We got a guy used to be principal over at Merton Elementary. You’ll meet him when you start class tomorrow.”
“I’m going to school?”
“Oh yeah. Just because it’s the end of the world doesn’t mean you get to cut.”
“That is so not fair.”
“Cheer up. We got some good teachers that have come out of retirement. Kind of ironic, you think about it. We do our time and get put out to pasture and now we’re the ones left picking up the pieces.”
Put out to pasture? She opened her mouth, but then turned at the rapid clop of horse hooves. A hay wagon bounced down a snaky cut that jagged through the woods. This time, Peter was driving; Jet was perched on the driver’s seat alongside Peter, and Chris trotted behind on a muscular blood bay. Instead of hay, the wagon was crammed with people—all blindfolded. More refugees who might be just valuable enough to keep, she figured. When Jet caught her scent, the black shepherd barked a greeting, and Chris turned, spied them, and lifted a hand before continuing on. She watched as the wagon rolled to a halt in front of the village hall.
“What goes on in there?” she asked.
“That, young lady,” said Kincaid, “is what you are about to find out.”
The village hall’s main corridor was lined with offices, some open, others shut tight. Fear curdled the air. A clog of guards and more dogs kept watch over a long line of bedraggled, elderly refugees. Alex fixed her eyes on Kincaid’s back, but she heard the resentful whispers as they passed. Then one man said, quite distinctly, “Leave me alone with her, I’ll show you how it’s done.”
A burst of mean, raucous laughter. The dogs whined anxiously. Alex half-expected Kincaid to say something, but he kept walking.
Behind came the clatter of dishes, and Alex turned to see two women pushing a metal food cart, like the kind they used in hospitals to bring patients their meals. No need for spidey-sense either: bacon was bacon.
Someone in line groaned at the aroma. All the refugees watched, hollow-eyed, as the women trundled up to a thick wooden door with a push bar and reinforced glass. One woman knocked, and a few seconds later, the door was pushed open from the inside. Alex saw the back of yet another guard, and as the women disappeared, she caught the thinnest finger of a scent coming from beyond the door. Not the dead-meat stink. She thought she would’ve caught that as soon as she entered, anyway. This was different. It was familiar, a scent she’d picked up before: tobacco and rotted teeth and old whiskey.
I know this. Who—
A loud, piercing scream came from the end of the corridor, and Alex gasped, her thoughts instantly derailed. The refugees fell silent, but the dogs in the hall began to whimper, and a few barked. The scream came again, and then two guards rounded the corner, dragging a sobbing, struggling old man between them.
“No, no, you can’t!” the man wailed. He was very old, almost withered, with arms like twigs and a knot of twine around his waist to keep his pants from falling down. With a sudden burst of strength, the old man spurted free of the guards and scurried for an office door. At that, the dogs strained at their leashes, yapping and pawing at the air. The old man grabbed the knob and yanked, but the door was locked. A look of utter despair broke over his weathered face, and as the two guards approached, the old man began to weep. He crumpled to his knees, his gnarled fingers still wrapped around unyielding metal.
“You can’t send me back out there! I got no one; I got nowhere to go!” he pleaded as the guards tried to pull him free. The old man hung on with the grim tenacity of a leech; terror had lent him a furious strength, and the wasted muscles of his arms went as taut as rubber bands. “I can still work; I’m still good for something—please, don’t!”
Amid a chorus of excited barks from the dogs, another guard hurried to help. Between the three, they pried the old man’s hands free and then carried him, still thrashing and screaming, down that long corridor and finally, mercifully, out of sight.
“Jesus,” said the man who wouldn’t have minded showing the others how things were done with her. He flashed Alex a hostile glare. To Kincaid, he snarled, “You ought to be ashamed. He’s one of us, and you’re saving them. What the hell makes her so special?”
“Well, for one,” Kincaid said mildly, “she knows how to keep her mouth shut.”
At the end of the T corridor, they hung a right. The windows here faced south, and the hall was much brighter. There were more guards—she was starting to get used to seeing old men in camouflage with rifles—and then Kincaid led her to a set of closed double doors on the right. A plaque to the left of the doors said courtroom.
“We’ll wait out here a few minutes,” said Kincaid. He dropped into a straight-back chair with a little sigh.
She remained standing. Her mouth was dry, but her palms were wet. “Why is it so important that I see this Council and the Reverend? I mean, they can’t decide where everyone goes. There are too many people.”
“Five hundred, give or take, yeah. And no, they don’t eyeball everyone. Wardens—men who’ve been given the keys—do that.”
“Keys? You mean, like, to unlock doors?”
“Not physical ones, no. It’s, ah, a biblical reference. Matthew: And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Same concept as the Mormon priesthood, although we’re not Mormons. What it boils down to is that the Council awards certain men the authority to make decisions in certain areas: the farms, the armory, supplies, sanitation, for example. Peter, he’s an Ernst, and they’re one of the Five Families, so he’s warden of the militia. He decides which missions get carried out, how many men’ll be needed, things like that. He’ll see newcomers, too; decide if they’re suitable for guard duty or good in a fight.”
“So the people in the hall are waiting to see the wardens?”
“Or their representatives and lieutenants—people like Chris—yeah.”
Her eyebrows drew together in a frown. “But Chris is the Reverend’s grandson, right? So why doesn’t he have a key? How come he’s not a warden?”
Kincaid’s lips screwed to a rosebud. “Well,” he said carefully, “there’s the fact that Chris isn’t pure Rule, born and bred. He’s got some of the bloodline, but his parents weren’t, uh, of the village. They left, and their history is a little … murky. Peter is Rule-bred, older, has more experience with these matters. There are other reasons, but those are good as any.”
Rule-bred? Bloodlines? Rule sounded a lot more closed and regimented than she’d originally thought. “So who does the Council see?”
“The Spared—kids like you—and the borderline cases: people who might do well here, but the wardens aren’t quite sure. So they send them on to the Council for final judgment. The Council also sees people who might not be, well, adjusting very well.”
She recalled Jess’s threat. “Is that what Jess meant when she said she’d ask the Reverend to reconsider?”
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