Page 42


Kincaid bobbed his head. “The Reverend always has the final say when it comes to the Ban.”


“Ban?” The fingers of a chill walked her spine. “Like, banishment?”


“Something like that.” Kincaid put a hand on her shoulder. “Look, that’s not your worry right now, okay? Best thing you can do is concentrate on putting your best foot forward, and don’t lie. The Rev will know if you do.”


Okay, that was interesting. “If you lie, do they, uh, ban you?”


“Not as a first choice, no. But some kids can’t adapt. They don’t settle down.”


“Like Lena?”


“She’s a handful, that’s for sure.”


“So why not let her leave?”


“We’re, ah … we try to hang on to the Spared. Safer, all the way around.”


“But isn’t that her choice?” Isn’t it mine? “What about free will?”


“Free will’s okay,” said Kincaid. “Only look where it got Adam.”


One of the courtroom doors opened, and a rickety old guy, who looked to be about a hundred and ninety, stuck his head out. “Rev’ll see you now,” he said mushily.


“Just as I was getting comfortable,” Kincaid grumbled, then grimaced as he stood and his knees crackled. “I shoulda got these replaced when I had the chance.”


“Don’t talk to me about your damn knees,” said the rickety guy. He worked his jaws, and Alex heard the clack of dentures. “What I want to know is who we gonna get to fix my damned teeth?”


48


The courtroom looked like something out of Judge Judy: wood-paneled and small, with a three-row gallery for spectators, a rail—the bar—with a swinging gate, and two rectangular tables, one to either side of the gate. A jury box was snugged along the right-hand wall. The judge’s bench was front and center, and behind the bench sat five men, all in black robes, all with stolid faces seamed by wrinkles. Two, who bracketed the rest on either side like matching bookends, were ancient, so withered a strong breeze might knock them over. She couldn’t guess the ages of the other three. Old was … old.


She knew which one was Yeager, though. Kincaid had said that the Reverend always sat dead center, and she studied him now. He was completely bald, with a nose like a squashed tomato and wattles hanging from his neck that wobbled when he moved, like those of a turkey vulture. His dark eyes were alive and bird-bright, and they fixed on her now with a coldly speculative look, the way a crow eyed roadkill to decide if it was worth the effort.


“So, you’re Alexandra.” Yeager’s voice was surprisingly even and deep, almost booming, perfect for belting out a sermon. “Come on in. Don’t be shy. Just walk through the bar there.”


She threw a quick, furtive glance at the other four men, but they were silent and expressionless. What was their job? To observe? Ask questions? Their skin exhaled the mingled funk she’d come to associate with the old: peppermint and papery skin, dirty socks and old farts, and a general fusty decrepitude. Nothing menacing, at least.


Yeager was different. He smelled opaque and chilly, like cloudy glass or fog. A little like Jess, she decided: a blank. She couldn’t sense his intent at all, or what he felt.


“Well.” Yeager peered down from the bench. From that angle, he looked more like a vulture than before. “Finally, we meet. My grandson’s told me about you.”


What had Chris said? “Yes, sir.”


“I like to meet all the Spared. You are our future, and I want to feel that when the time comes, we’ve chosen well. Come here. I’d like to see you eye to eye.” Yeager beckoned her closer, and now Alex saw a small step stool set up before the bench. As she mounted the steps, her eyes brushed over narrow brass nameplates, one squared before each of the old men. The first two, starting from her left, read BORN and ERNST. Front and center was YEAGER, and then came STIEMKE and, finally, to her far right, PRIGGE..


Now, she also saw something else she hadn’t before: a sixth chair, set off by itself, beyond Prigge. There was no nameplate, nothing to indicate to whom the chair belonged. It might be simply a spare, but she didn’t think so. She eyed the bench and, for the first time, noticed that the way the Council was arranged seemed … unbalanced. Like there was someone missing.


Six chairs, but only five men and it’s the Council of Five … unless it hasn’t always been that way.


Yeager extended his hands, palms up. “If I may.”


She hesitated, flustered, then remembered Kincaid’s quip: He’s very hands-on. She slid her palms onto his, her skin jumping at the contact. Yeager’s hands were gnarled, the knuckles swollen, the skin dry as old parchment and spotted with age, but his grip was strong.


“Warm hands,” said Yeager.


“Yes, sir.” She expected him to let go then, but he didn’t. She wanted to tear her hands from his grasp, but forced herself to remain still. She felt the eyes of the others, but didn’t dare look away.


“One thing I would like to understand, Alex,” said Yeager. “I’m not clear how it is that you ended up in the Waucamaw. Tell me about that.”


“I … um … I cut school.” Really, she figured it didn’t much matter now. But she decided to keep her answers short and to the point.


Now the man to her right rumbled, “Was that a habit of yours?”


Caught off guard, she cut a look his way: stiemke. “No,” she said.


Yeager said nothing, only rubbed his horny thumbs over her palms. Stiemke continued: “So why then?”


“I wanted to think some things through.” When Stiemke only stared, she added, “College, things like that.”


“Ah,” Yeager said. “The future, what you were going to do with your life?”


Close enough. “Yes.”


To the far left, one of the withered guys—Born—piped up in a reedy quaver, “What did you decide?”


“I didn’t have a chance, sir,” she said. It helped that this was true—but then, feeling the Reverend’s grip shift, she had a sudden flash of intuition. What had Kincaid said?


Don’t lie. The Rev will know if you do.


And hands-on … My God, was Yeager like her? She’d never considered that other people might have changed as she had. Larry, who’d seen more survivors than she or Tom, hadn’t said anything about it. Maybe because that kind of change wasn’t common, or the people who had developed a super-sense kept it a secret. She had, even from Tom; then again, she had a lot of secrets. Given how paranoid everyone was now, not telling about a super-sense might be smart.


So, could Yeager sense whether she was telling the truth—not by smell but through touch? Like a human lie detector?


How would that work? She knew that people flushed when they were nervous, so there were temperature changes. A person’s skin also carried an electrical charge; that was how a computer touch pad worked, by sensing the electrical gradient. That was why a fingertip worked but a pencil, which carried no charge, wouldn’t.


Yeager might’ve had a natural-born knack to begin with. He was a pastor, after all. She remembered the sign for Harvest Church: TRUST IN THE HEALING HAND OF GOD. Maybe not far from the truth: Yeager might not heal, but perhaps he could feel—an innate ability augmented by the Zap. But why Yeager and not all the other people who’d survived, some of whom were very old indeed?


Why her?


“A penny for your thoughts,” Yeager said. He smiled his vulture’s grin, but his grip did not change.


“My father always said they weren’t worth that much.” It was all right to mention her father, she decided; all parents were dead, pretty much, so that made her no different from anyone else. And if she could steer the conversation …


To Yeager’s immediate right, Ernst—Peter’s grandfather? Great-grandfather?—said, “What did your father do?”


“He was a cop.”


“Ah.” This seemed to please Prigge, the other bookend. He actually rubbed the knobbed twigs of his hands together. “A man who knew good from evil.”


She had never heard her father refer to any of the drunks or wife-beaters or scammers as evil, but she said, “Yes, sir. I guess so.”


“Well, that is also what we do here. Tell me”—Yeager cocked his head—“why do the dogs favor you? Why do they … recognize you?”


“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I’m not a dog.”


“But you must have an idea,” Ernst said.


She nodded. “Probably the same way I recognize them.” But not Reverend Yeager or Jess—and why is that?


“And that is?” Yeager asked.


She decided to chance it. “I guess the same way you’re able to tell things.”


She heard Ernst’s sudden, involuntary inhale. Yeager’s vulture-eyes slitted. “Meaning?” Yeager asked.


She’d guessed right; she had him, and there was just the smallest crack in his blankness, that cloudy glass: something very wet and a little metallic, an odor that reminded her of the day the dogs had nearly killed her and Ellie.


Water? A river? No, that’s not quite it. More like … rain.


Rain? She remembered the day this had all begun, and those storm clouds to the southwest and the gray slashes that looked like rain.


Is that why he smells like wet glass? Because he was by a window, watching the rain when it happened?


“Meaning?” Yeager repeated.


She felt the intensity of the other men’s gazes burning holes into her brain, but she did not allow her eyes to wander. “Meaning you can tell if what I’m saying is true because you feel it, literally, through your hands.”


A beat. No one spoke. Yeager’s eyes raked her face and then he abruptly let go of her hands. His gaze clicked to a point over her shoulder. “Matt, wait outside a moment, will you?”


She’d completely forgotten Kincaid was there. “Uh,” Kincaid said, clearly surprised. “Okay.”

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***