Page 23


Before leaving the clinic, she had loaded the photographs from the memory stick into her office computer and then had copied them onto three diskettes. Two of the diskettes were well-hidden at the clinic, and the third was tucked under the cargo-hold mat in her Explorer.


If Homeland Security claimed permanent possession of Puzzle and Riddle and eventually took them away, the photos were going to be blown all over the Internet with Grady’s and Cammy’s testimony. They would mount as strong a campaign as they could to free the creatures, risking prosecution under the National Security Secrets Act.


Puzzle and Riddle were not engineered animals. No scientist on the planet possessed the knowledge or the technology to create them. They were mysterious, and if their origin was ever known, it would not be a cliché like recombinant DNA or extraterrestrial visitation, but something unexpected. No reasonable person could arrive at any sane scenario in which they were a threat to a single human being, let alone to the entire nation.


If Eleanor Fortney and Sidney Shinseki hadn’t reported Cammy to the feds, and if Homeland Security hadn’t moved so quickly, she might have tried to run Puzzle and Riddle out of the immediate area and find a place to keep them for a while, crazy as it might be to go on the lam with two creatures that seemed to be a cross between furry cherubim and Looney Tunes characters. But the authorities were already inbound, they knew her vehicle, and they had the forces to seal off the entire state. To go on the run successfully, she would have needed to leave the previous evening.


As if reading her mind, Grady said, “Maybe there’s still time to turn them loose in the woods.”


Stroking Puzzle, Cammy said, “They’d come right back. I know they would. They’re socialized. They relate to people. Essentially, we’re now a pack. And if they didn’t come back … I’m not so sure how they’d fare in the wild.”


“That’s where I found them.”


“But they hadn’t been there long. Remember—no ticks, no fleas, their fur so clean.”


Merlin issued a low, protracted growl as Cammy had never heard from him before.


Getting to her feet, she said, “Why does this have to happen?”


Body tensed, ears pricked, Merlin growled again and looked at the ceiling.


Puzzle and Riddle were on all fours, poised to sprint, heads cocked, listening.


After a moment, Cammy heard a familiar but not yet identifiable sound in the distance. Then she knew it: the hard, low clatter of helicopters.


“From the east, out of the sun, low and fast,” Grady said, and hurried toward the front of the house.


Merlin, Puzzle, Riddle moved in the same instant, not in a play mood this time, but with urgency.


As Cammy reached the living room, Grady threw open the front door and stepped outside.


She caught up with him on the porch. Puzzle and Riddle sat on the steps in their prairie-dog mode. Merlin stood in the yard.


To the east, where Cracker’s Drive met the state road, a large helicopter descended.


At an altitude of less than a hundred feet, another chopper continued uphill, following the county road. As it approached, Cammy realized the aircraft was even bigger than she first thought, the largest helicopter she had ever seen close up.


The rotors were loud, but they also slammed concussion waves across the slope, and Cammy’s heart began to slam, too, harder and faster as the helicopter drew nearer.


Suddenly she decided that Puzzle and Riddle should not be out here, not in the open where they could be snatched up in an instant. They needed to be inside, behind closed doors, so the federal agents would need to go inside to get them.


To go inside, the feds needed a search warrant, didn’t they? They probably had one. They probably had a court order to blow up the house if they were in the mood for pyrotechnics.


Nevertheless, a closed door was at least some kind of barrier, a way to delay surrendering custody of the animals, however briefly.


Cammy moved onto the steps, between Puzzle and Riddle, pulled at them, tried to herd them onto the porch and inside, but they were transfixed by the incoming chopper.


Above the thunder of the immense rotors, she shouted, “Merlin!”


The wolfhound heard her, he looked back, he understood that she wanted him, and he loped across the lawn to the steps.


“Let’s go!” She shouted, “House!” which was one of his commands.


He bounded up the steps ahead of her. Although Puzzle and Riddle had not been interested in following her, they at once followed the dog, as she had hoped they would. The three scrambled into the house.


Cammy pulled the front door shut and returned to Grady’s side.


East of the house, the helicopter touched down in the meadow, just past the end of the deep front yard.


The rotor-slashed air shook the big paper birch at the northeast corner of the house. Cascades of golden leaves fluttered down upon the porch, the yard.


At the back of the enormous chopper’s main body, a bay door dropped, forming a ramp. Heavily armed, uniformed men hurried down the ramp, under the tail section. So many of them.


PART TWO


Death in Life


Fifty-one


Standing on the front porch with Cammy, watching the crisis team arrive, Grady knew something must be wrong. The response seemed out of proportion to the threat, if indeed any threat existed.


The chopper looked like a new generation—or a modified version—of the Huey with which he was familiar. The dark-green fuselage did not bear any numbers or insignia, and there was no legend identifying the military service or federal agency to which it belonged. The craft sported only a two-by-three-foot painting of the United States flag aft of the pilot’s-cabin windows and before the side-entry sliding door.


The armed men who came down the tail ramp were dressed in black, like members of a SWAT team. Each had a sidearm in a swivel holster hung from his utility belt, and each carried what appeared from a distance to be a fully automatic carbine with an extended magazine. Some of them surely had been military at one time. None of them were military now; they were paramilitary agents of Homeland Security or of one bureau or another under its control.


Grady counted eleven. Ten of them tramped out of the meadow, heading down-slope and east on the county road, Cracker’s Drive, and the eleventh proceeded to the point where the road terminated and Grady’s driveway began.


If the chopper at the farther end of the road had been carrying as many, and if three were stationed at that intersection, eighteen were left to visit the other nine houses on Cracker’s Drive, coming in from both directions, to tell those residents what was happening and/or to confine them to their homes.


Immediately after the first eleven debarked, four more appeared, also dressed in black but without carbines. They worked in pairs, between them guiding large wheeled crates, about six feet by four by four, down the ramp and onto the meadow.


Rotor speed dropped precipitously on touchdown, and now the pilot cut the turbines. When the rotors stopped cycling, the quiet, though imperfect, seemed like a hush.


“I’m sick,” Cammy said.


He knew she didn’t mean physically ill. She meant heartsick.


If they had entertained any hope that, when all this had blown over, Puzzle and Riddle might remain in their care, that hope was swept away by the amount of manpower committed to this investigation.


“It’s not just about those two animals,” Grady said. “There’s something more we don’t know.”


“I had the same thought driving here earlier. Puzzle and Riddle are part of something bigger.”


The sound of powerful truck engines rose along the county road, and soon what appeared to be a customized Greyhound bus rolled into view. The unpainted, matte-finish stainless-steel exterior appeared satiny in the sun. It might have been a motor home, except that it lacked windows along its flank and its engine sounded far more powerful than that of the average private or commercial conveyance of similar size. The wraparound windshield was so heavily tinted that the driver could not be seen.


As the armed agent stationed at the end of the road began to direct the vehicle into Grady’s driveway, a second appeared behind it. As the first entered the driveway, which leveled out from the county route, and rolled past the house toward the garage and the workshop, a third appeared behind the second.


Eventually, the convoy consisted of four identical stainless-steel behemoths. They parked one behind the other, with a few feet between, nearly filling the driveway from end to end.


Referring to the vehicles as their engines were shut off one after the other, Cammy said, “Do they try to make them look ominous?”


“It’s probably just form following function,” Grady said.


“And what’s their function?”


“Damn if I know.”


The four men who had brought wheeled crates out of the transport helicopter were unrolling bales of flexible plastic gridwork across the yard. This material, when in place and locked, would form a solid base on soft ground.


Out of the east, fast and at a low altitude, shrieked a four-man helicopter. It banked to circle the property. Through the Plexiglas bubble, Grady saw the pilot and another man as they checked out the progress of the operation.


After two complete circuits, the chopper set down on the county road. One passenger, apparently the only one, got out of the craft. Pants billowing and suit coat flapping in the rotors’ downdraft, he hurried toward the house as the pilot at once took the helicopter up and arced toward the east, from which he had come.


The newcomer, his sandy hair in disarray, proceeded directly to the foot of the front-porch steps. His handsome but rubbery face was reminiscent of the face of any hero’s wisecracking best buddy in hundreds of movies, selling likability with every freckle, with ears slightly too large, with a minimal but endearing overbite, with blue eyes that were wide and clear and direct and twinkling more than a ballroom chandelier.


“Ah, Dr. Rivers,” he said to Cammy. “What a marvelous thing to be a veterinarian. When I was a kid, my family had a cocker spaniel named Pete, I loved him more than anything, he got ill, almost died, and would have if our vet hadn’t been so dedicated, so brilliant. Dr. Lowry was the vet’s name. He was a god to me after that.”


Before Cammy could reply, the newcomer looked at Grady and said, “Mr. Adams, I’ve seen your furniture, and it’s wonderful. I’ve only seen photos, of course, on your website, but pictures never do that kind of thing justice, so it must be even more splendid, I hope you might show me what’s currently under way in your workshop sometime before we wrap this and get out of your hair.”


Grady instantly disliked the man. “Who’re you?”


“I believe,” Cammy said, “this is Mr. Jardine.”


“I’m so sorry,” the deputy director said. “I’ve seen photographs of you both, but of course you haven’t seen any of me. Paul Jardine with Homeland Security. Pleased to meet you. And I do regret you’re being inconvenienced like this. I’m grateful for your cooperation, your patriotism.”


Jardine ventured onto the steps, expecting them to admit him to the porch, but by mutual unspoken agreement, they stood their ground, looking down on him.


“What are those stainless-steel vehicles?” Grady asked.


“Three of them are mobile laboratories. The fourth contains two Cray supercomputers capable of separate or tandem operation, immense analytic capability. We’ll be drawing power from the utility-company lines to run the operation, but on the street side of your meter, so don’t worry about being billed. Though we will need to tap your well, as there aren’t public water mains out here.”


Grady said, “I didn’t know Homeland Security maintained its own paramilitary force.”


“Oh, we don’t, Mr. Adams. Setting up a training academy would be quite a long project and expensive. We contract them from a private company with excellent screening procedures to be sure we’re getting only agents devoted to America and to the safety of the American people.”


“Maybe we should get our politicians from the same company,” Grady said.


“That’s good,” said Paul Jardine. “I’ll remember that one, I’ll make good use of it.”


The armed agent who had directed the mobile laboratories into the driveway now joined Jardine, and the deputy director said, “Dr. Rivers, where are the two animals? I’m very excited to be able to see them, they appear incredible in your photos, we must get to work on our little mystery.”


“They’re in the house,” Cammy said. “Do you have a warrant?”


“Yes, thank you so much for reminding me,” Jardine said.


From one inside coat pocket he withdrew two folded documents. He examined them for a moment, then handed one to Grady.


“This is a facsimile of a warrant signed by a federal judge with jurisdiction in this district. The original will be here by courier shortly. You are herewith instructed by the court to give us full and immediate access to every building on the property as well as to the grounds in their entirety.”


He handed the second document to Grady, as well. “The original warrant also gives us the right to impound any property we find that might be related to the commission of a crime or to a threat to the security of the American people. The second document I’ve just given you is a further and specific instruction from the court requiring you to relinquish custody of the two animals to us upon request, a request that I am at this time making. Mr. Adams, Dr. Rivers, will you please show me to these amazing creatures?”


Fifty-two


Cammy half hoped that Puzzle and Riddle had slipped out the back door and hightailed it into the mountains, regardless of their chances of survival in the wilds.


They were, however, in the kitchen. They weren’t chowing down again, but were instead going through drawers in search of gadgets and other items that struck them as curious and appealing. Puzzle was standing on a chair positioned to allow her to look down into a drawer, holding out each discovery for Riddle’s evaluation. When they found one they liked the looks of—an egg timer, a wine-bottle cork extractor of elaborate design, a packet of bright yellow cocktail napkins, ceramic-penguin salt and pepper shakers—they added it to an eclectic collection they were building on the floor in front of the dishwasher.


Perhaps anticipating trouble akin to the jalapeño episode, Merlin had retreated under the kitchen table. He lay there, peering out warily at his new friends as they ransacked the drawers.


When Jardine saw the wolfhound, he said, “Mr. Adams, please collar your dog.”


“He’s harmless,” Grady assured the deputy director.

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