Out of the darkness, the visitors returned, not directly but obliquely, angling east toward the front of the house.
Dropping to the floor, beyond the rays of the moonlamp, Merlin became a disembodied presence, a canine poltergeist, knocking across the floorboards, rapping the furniture and the doorjamb with an ectoplasmic tail, abandoning the study for a different haunt.
With the windows at his back, Grady was a blind man all the way across the room, reaching with both hands for the doorway. In the hall, he slid one palm along a wall until he reached the living room.
Already Merlin had materialized at a front window to the right of the door, paws on the sill.
Making his way toward the window to the left of the door, Grady bumped an end table. He heard a lamp wobbling, found it, steadied it.
Earlier, when he opened all the draperies and shades, he hadn’t imagined chasing around the house in pursuit of circling visitors. He merely wanted to have immediate access to any window that gave a view of an area where a noise might arise or entry might be attempted.
By the time he reached the window, he began to suspect that these mysterious animals were as curious about him as he was about them, that they were intent on satisfying that curiosity.
Beyond the porch, east of the house, lay the front yard, part of it overlaid with a faint tracery of moonshadows cast by the intricate branches of the huge birch tree.
The visitors were not on the yard or on that portion of the county lane—Cracker’s Drive—visible from this vantage point.
Nothing else traveled the night, either. No deer were present, though they frequently came to graze upon the lawn. Often coyotes whidded through the lunar glade, all legs and haunches and sharp shoulders, but on this occasion, they were hunting elsewhere.
As though aware of their audience and timing their entrance for maximum drama, the creatures sprang as one over the railing at the north side of the porch, seemed to cross the deck as fast as two pulses of light, and vanished over the railing at the south end.
The speed with which they moved and the darkness of the porch prevented Grady from learning anything more significant about their appearance than he had perceived from a distance in the meadow. He confirmed their size and their nimbleness, and thought he had seen lushly plumed tails, but their faces remained unrevealed.
They ran on all fours, though it seemed that they reared up as they approached the south end of the porch, that they took the last few steps on their hind feet before vaulting over the railing. Their movement wasn’t what he expected of any four-legged mammal in these mountains, though he couldn’t precisely identify the difference.
The instant the creatures leaped out of sight, Merlin abandoned his post and hurried unerringly through the dark living room to the hallway. Most likely, the wolfhound intended to track the animals from one of the library windows at the south side of the house.
Grady was so sure these visitors were intrigued by him and intent upon him that he saw no reason to scramble after them through the gloom, at the risk of falling and breaking a bone. They weren’t going to retreat into the mountains and leave him forever wondering about their nature. They had initiated a process of discovery, and they were not likely to relent from it.
This was an extraordinary expectation. Wild animals were by their nature wary. Even confident predators like mountain lions generally slunk away into the brush at the sight of a human being.
In this wooded vastness, only bears were fearless. An eight-hundred-pound brown bear was as ready to charge a man as to ignore him.
Grady felt his way cautiously through the living room, from sofa to armchair to armchair, and as he reached the hallway, he heard a thin cry of doggy excitement.
The moth danced with the false flame of the ceiling light, and its shadow swelled and shrank across the pages of the books through which Cammy Rivers searched for answers.
The horses and other animals at High Meadows Farm had seemed no worse for the time they spent in a trance, if indeed it was a trance. But such behavior surely must be symptomatic of a physical disorder.
In her apartment kitchen, above the veterinary clinic, the table was stacked with reference volumes that had thus far failed her. The Internet had failed her, as well, so she put aside one book and opened another to its index.
Absence seizures, in epileptics, weren’t accompanied by abnormal movements. The subject appeared conscious but wasn’t, and the seizure could be mistaken for daydreaming or inattentiveness.
The longest absence seizure, however, lasted less than a minute. The Thoroughbreds and their pets at High Meadows reportedly had been in a trance for more than fifteen minutes.
Besides, none of the animals at the farm had been previously diagnosed as epileptic. And it offended reason to suppose that they would all simultaneously manifest a condition that affected on average one in three hundred individuals.
In addition to congenital cases, other incidences of epilepsy could be attributed to birth trauma and blows to the head, as well as to previous cases of meningitis, encephalitis, and bacterial infections of the brain. Symptoms of those preconditional diseases, however, would have been impossible to overlook. None of the animals at High Meadows—let alone all of them—suffered any such illnesses.
After ruling out epilepsy, Cammy moved on to systemic fungal diseases. She had a dim recollection that certain exotic funguses—not more common varieties like coccidioides—could have brain effects that included absence seizures and hallucinations.
Funguses tended to be regional. But she didn’t limit her inquiry to Rocky Mountain or even Western varieties.
Rare indeed were the funguses that could cause such symptoms. Rarer still were those that conceivably could take hold in four different species—horses, goats, cats, and dogs.
She wasn’t going to consider the duck. She had never treated a duck. She didn’t know how ducks thought or if they thought much at all. The duck was at best a distraction. To hell with the duck.
The problem with pinning the event on a fungus was that none of the animals had exhibited any of the more common symptoms of fungal diseases: diarrhea, fever, chronic cough, difficulty breathing, weight loss, lethargy. …
Before leaving High Meadows Farm, Cammy had taken blood samples from seven horses, three goats, and three dogs. In the morning, she would FedEx them to the lab in Colorado Springs.
Considering that none of the animals was suffering and that none had shown any disturbing symptoms other than the communal trance, she would fulfill her responsibilities merely by waiting for the report from the laboratory. But from funguses, she moved on to several thick volumes concerning rare and exotic protozoan diseases.
She had quite literally given her life to healing animals and relieving their suffering. She lived for nothing else. Her patients were her family, her children, her passion, her mission, her only path to peace.
No animal had ever betrayed her. No animal had ever robbed her of her dignity. No animal had ever oppressed and debased her. No animal had ever tortured her.
The shadow of silent wings swelled and shrank across the stacks of books, across the white pages of the open volume, across her badly scarred hands.
Off the south side of the downstairs hall lay the dining room, which Grady had lined with shelves to store the book collection that spilled over from his study. He didn’t need a dining room. He always ate at the two-chair table in the kitchen, and on the rare occasions when he had company for an evening, he invited only one guest.
Following the wolfhound’s cry of excitement, Grady crossed the threshold of the library.
In silhouette, Merlin stood with his paws on the windowsill, as he had in previous rooms.
Grady took three steps before he froze at the sight of what lay beyond the window, unable to make sense of it.
In relation to the house, the moon was farther to the east than to the west, farther north than south. No porch roof overhung this side of the residence, but moonlight was no more able to reach these southern panes than those in the living room.
Suspended as if weightless in the darkness beyond the glass, slightly higher than the dog’s burly head, were four luminous golden spheres, each approximately three inches in diameter, as bright as candlelight but constant in their radiance, without any throb or flicker. Two were side by side on a horizontal plane, and two floated at an angle.
Bubbles, he thought, not only because they seemed to levitate but also because their color was less constant than their brightness. They revealed a subtle iridescence. Shades of gold played through them, and quivers of copper, and streams of silver, much the way that a more complete spectrum of colors manifested across the surface of a soap bubble.
As easy as it was to think of the floating objects as bubbles, he intuited that they were not that ephemeral. They possessed more substance than a first impression suggested.
Although full of light, the spheres seemed to emit none. The panes took no shine from them, and neither did the wolfhound on this side of the glass. The tarnished-silver cedar frame of the window remained uniformly dark. These globes weren’t truly radiant, weren’t luminous in the sense that they shared their light and color, but somehow contained them.
Grady moved toward the window, and as he drew close to Merlin, the iridescence of the objects increased. In two, sapphire washed through the gold, and then many shades of blue at once, and the gold repeatedly bloomed through the other hues, like the base-weave color in a rippling garment of lustrous silk. The third and fourth spheres changed entirely from gold to blues and greens.
The wolfhound continuously expressed excitement and eagerness in a voice pinched so thin that he sounded like a much smaller dog.
As beautiful as the spheres were, their most affecting quality was strangeness. A perpetual aurora borealis in gem-bright colors, captured in weightless globes the size of tennis balls, hovering to no apparent purpose … They seemed to be so far beyond anything in Grady’s experience, so mysterious, so resistant to explanation, so dazzling, that the longer he contemplated them, the more disoriented he became.
He began to feel light-headed and curiously weightless, as though he might suddenly break the bonds of gravity and rise off the floor, float in the darkness on this side of the glass as the four spheres floated in the outer dark.
Then one of the pair blinked, and the other blinked, blinked, and this suggestion of function gave Grady a fresh perspective that resolved the mystery. Eyes. A darkness at the center of each, the irises open wide. Impossibly huge, luminous, color-changing eyes.
The creatures were crowded onto the windowsill. One held its head upright, and the other cocked its head: two eyes aligned on a horizontal plane, two at an angle.
For a minute, the iridescent orbs had so captivated Grady, so riveted his attention, that he was all but mesmerized by them. Now he was able to register the totality of the window, everything that it framed. Dimly, he saw their pale forms, the faintest suggestion of faces, perhaps a forepaw clinging to the casing.
The pair dropped away from the glass.
Constrained to stalk from behind windows but nonetheless full of enthusiasm for the hunt, with a rough growl to express confidence in his prowess, Merlin abandoned his post.
Grady pressed past the dog to the panes that were still partly feathered with the fog of canine breath.
Bearing their lantern eyes, the animals fled into the night.
Merlin galloped out of the library and thundered toward the kitchen.
Grady stood as if concussed, shocked into immobility, not by a physical blow but by a mental one. Having at last seen the pair from the meadow more clearly, he should have understood them better, but he was more mystified than ever.
Merlin rarely barked. He barked now.
Henry Rouvroy picked up shotgun-shattered fragments of his face from the bathroom floor and dropped the pieces of broken mirror into a heavy-duty plastic trash bag.
He paused repeatedly to study reflections of his stare in the silvery shards before throwing them away. He saw nothing in his eyes, certainly nothing like guilt. No such thing as guilt existed, except in the weak minds of those who believed in the false gods of various authorities. He saw the same nothing he had seen in the eyes of Nora Carlyle’s corpse, the universal nothing of the human gaze.
The eyes were not the windows of the soul, and what could be seen beyond them was only a thousand hungers, needs, desires, and one thing more—fear. Henry knew his hungers and did not need to discover them in his eyes. His needs and desires were insatiable, and he would feed them, feed them as no glutton ever born had ever fed. The first woman in the potato cellar would not be the last, and if he lived long enough, the fields of his brother’s farm would be a six-acre cemetery without headstones.
Henry challenged himself to acknowledge the fear in his eyes, and he saw it clearly. He was not afraid of any variety of authority. He feared only others like himself, monsters in the making or already made. He knew that legions of them stalked the world. He knew of what they were capable, because he knew of what he was capable: anything.
He saw nothing exalted about the human animal, nothing elevated or dignified, or exceptional. Only two roles existed for any human being: prey or predator. Rule or be ruled. Act or be acted upon.
Somewhere nearby, a predator intended to prevent Henry from establishing a survivalist retreat on this property. The unknown adversary could have but one motivation: to seize the property for himself and live there to ride out the coming storm.
If that was the case—and it had to be the case—then he must be someone who knew the storm was coming, someone who traveled the same Washington circles in which Henry had once moved. He must have discovered that Henry had stolen a fortune from the operation, and he must have put Henry under observation to discover what further intentions he might have.
Those circles were infested with people who possessed limitless resources for investigating and tracking a subject of interest. Henry had taken great care to conceal his theft and to cover his trail when he came west, but evidently he had not been careful enough.
He didn’t for a moment believe that his brother, Jim, might be stalking him. Jim was dead. Shot three times. The third time in the face. Even if Jim survived—which he had not—he would be blind and brain-damaged.
After picking up the last of the broken mirror, Henry carried the bag to the kitchen and put it in the trash can. He took the shotgun with him.
At the cellar door, the chair remained wedged securely under the knob.
Putting one ear to the space between door and jamb, he held his breath and listened. No sound rose from below.
Perhaps some people would have been superstitious enough to wonder if Jim might have returned from the dead for revenge. Henry didn’t believe in life after death of either the spiritual or the zombie-movie kind.
The missing bodies, the bloody handprint, and the smear on the bedspread were just theater. Somebody out there had an adolescent sense of humor. He wanted to torment Henry.