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The nurse didn’t seem charmed by the flattery, but she didn’t chase Mr. Walker away, either. She accepted his pill cup, got up from the swivel stool, and went through a door behind the nurses’ station, into the little pharmacy, to check his prescription and maybe give him the pill he wanted.


As soon as Nurse Makepeace disappeared through the door, Travis looked both ways to be sure Bryce Walker was the only person in the corridor, and then stepped out of his room. Carrying the pillowcase full of his clothes, he headed north, not running but walking fast and quietly.


Bryce Walker glanced at him, nodded, and returned his attention to the open pharmacy door.


At the north end of the main corridor, Travis turned right into the east-west hallway, which was deserted. Mr. Walker said the first room was 231, and Travis saw that number on the door. The old man’s wife, Rennie, had died in that room.


Between 231 and the next regular hospital room were two unmarked doors. Travis opened the second, as he had been instructed, stepped into darkness, and pulled the door shut behind him.


He fumbled for the wall switch. The sudden light revealed a six-foot-square space, a landing from which a set of wooden stairs with rubber treads led upward.


Travis kicked off his slippers and stripped out of his pajamas. Quickly, he dressed in the clothes that he had been wearing when admitted to the hospital, and he put the pajamas and slippers in the pillowcase.


Remembering the angry janitor with the nightstick, Travis expected to be scared during the trip from his room to his current position. Instead, his fear diminished when he was in motion, to make room for the excitement of the adventure.


Now he had to bide his time again.


With the waiting, his fear returned. He wondered what the aliens were like if you could see through their human disguise. He’d read a lot of comic books and seen a lot of movies that fed his imagination. Soon the back of his neck and his palms were damp, and his heart beat faster than it had when he’d made his way swiftly through the halls.


Chapter 46


When Nurse Makepeace returned from the pharmaceutical closet with Bryce’s pill cup, it contained a capsule like the one that he had been given the previous evening.


“You should have brought this to me much earlier,” said Doris Makepeace, “the moment you saw the difference. You’re now hours behind on the medication.”


“I’ll take it at once when I return to my room,” he promised.


“Yes. You must.”


She had been in the pharmaceutical closet long enough to make him suspicious, long enough to have transferred the medication from one capsule to another. This might appear to be Bryce’s original prescription, when it was really a sedative.


In his room, he flushed the capsule down the toilet and dropped the crushed cup in the waste can.


Earlier, he had stripped the bottom sheet off his bed and had arranged the remaining bedclothes to conceal what he had done. In the bathroom, using Travis’s pearl-handled penknife, he cut the sheet into strips and made of them a braided rope with regularly spaced knots that served as gripping points. At a length of over twelve feet, it would come close enough to the ground to convince them that it had facilitated his and the boy’s escape.


Now, Bryce took the blanket off his bed, folded it lengthwise, and rolled it for easy carrying. He wished he had been brought to the hospital in street clothes. His pajamas and thin robe were inadequate for extended exposure to this cool afternoon; with nightfall, he would be chilled to the bone. The blanket was the best he could do.


His roommate, as uncommunicative as ever, had been awake for a short while, reading a Spanish-language magazine. But he was once more sleeping.


At the nearest window, Bryce cranked open the two panes and leaned out. He saw no one in the public parking lot that the three wings of the hospital embraced. He tied one end of the bedsheet rope securely to the center post and dropped it. The farther end dangled over the upper half of a first-floor window. He would just have to hope either that the lower room was unoccupied or that anyone there failed to notice this development.


After snatching up the rolled blanket, he went to the door of the room and scoped the corridor, which was as quiet as it had been for most of the day.


The nurses’ station was to his left, along this same side of the hallway. Because it was recessed a couple of feet from the hall, he could not see Nurse Makepeace on her stool, only the outer edge of the counter at which she sat.


And she could not see him if he stayed close to the wall as he hurried north. All the way to the corner, he expected her or someone else to call out to him, but no one did.


At the unmarked entrance to the roof stairs, Bryce rapped twice, softly, before opening the door, as they had arranged.


Travis sat on the stairs, clutching the pillowcase containing his pajamas and slippers. “We made it,” he whispered.


“This far, anyway,” Bryce said.


Chapter 47


Mr. Lyss came into Mrs. Trudy LaPierre’s kitchen wearing Poor Fred’s shoes and clean clothes. He’d shaved with Poor Fred’s razor. His gray hair was a little damp and curly instead of sticking out stiff every-whichway. His ears were as big and rumpled as before, but now they were clean, more pink than brown.


He was still stooped and bony, his teeth were still gray, and his fingernails were still yellow and cracked, so he didn’t look like a whole new person, but he did look like a new Mr. Lyss.


“Your skin it isn’t so cracked like an old saddle anymore,” Nummy said, meaning that as a compliment.


“Your Poor Fred has several kinds of skin lotions and maybe ten flavors of aftershave. He might be part sissy, I don’t know. But some of the lotion did wonders for the razor burn.”


“So far I don’t have much whiskers,” Nummy said. “I seen this mustache once, I wished I could have one like it, but my lip just stays bare.”


“Count yourself lucky,” Mr. Lyss said. “Shaving is even more trouble than taking a bath and brushing your teeth. People waste their lives being slaves to preposterous grooming standards. Your average fool spends ten minutes brushing his teeth twice a day, five minutes each time, which over a seventy-year life is four thousand two hundred hours brushing his damn teeth. That is one hundred and seventy-seven days. Insanity. You know what I can do with one hundred and seventy-seven days, Peaches?”


“What can you do, sir?”


“What I’ve been doing all along—living!” Mr. Lyss looked past Nummy and for the first time saw the kitchen table. “What craziness have you been up to, boy?”


On opposite sides of the table were two plates, mugs, napkins, and flatware. Between the plates were a dish heaped with scrambled eggs still steaming, a stack of buttered toast, a stack of frozen waffles made crisp in the toaster, a plate of sliced ham, a plate of sliced cheese, a plate of sliced fresh oranges, a container of chocolate milk, butter, apple butter, grape jelly, strawberry jelly, and ketchup.


“We didn’t get no breakfast at the jail,” Nummy said.


“We almost were breakfast. We can’t eat a tenth of this.”


“Well,” said Nummy, “I didn’t know what stuff you like and what you don’t, so I made you choices. Anyways, you was a long time, so I could think it through double and stay out of trouble.”


Mr. Lyss sat at the table and began to heap food on his plate, grabbing stuff with his hands that you needed a fork to get. It was pretty clear that he’d never had a Grandmama in his life.


Hoping Mr. Lyss might not eat so fast—or with so much ugly noise—if they carried on a conversation, Nummy said, “You get to live all those extra days because you don’t brush, but don’t some teeth fall out?”


“A few,” Mr. Lyss said. “It’s a trade-off. Everything in life is a trade-off. You know how much time your average fool spends in the shower? Two hundred sixty-two days over seventy years! That’s an obsession with cleanliness. It’s sick, that’s what it is. You know what I could do with two hundred sixty-two days?”


“What could you do, sir?”


“Anything!” Mr. Lyss shouted, waving a waffle in the air and slinging the butter from it in every direction.


“Wow,” Nummy said. “Anything.”


“You know how much time your average fool spends shaving and sitting in a barber’s chair?”


“How much, sir?”


“You don’t want to know. It’s too insane to contemplate.”


“I do want to know, sir. I really do.”


“Well, I don’t want to hear myself say it. It’ll just depress me to hear myself say it. Life is short, boy. Don’t waste your life.”


“I won’t, sir.”


“You will, though. Everyone does. One way or another. Although being an imbecile, you don’t have much to waste. There’s another way you’re lucky.”


In the time they finished their breakfast-lunch, Mr. Lyss ate a lot more food than Nummy thought he would. Where it went in that bony old body, Nummy couldn’t guess.


“What I figure,” Mr. Lyss said, as he sucked noisily at whatever was stuck between his teeth, “we better not wait till dark to leave. We’ve got stuff to get, and we’ll need it before twilight, when maybe things might get even hairier than they have been so far.”


“What stuff?” Nummy asked.


“For one thing, guns.”


“I don’t like guns.”


“You don’t have to like them. I’ll have the guns, not you. What would be the sense of saving hundreds of days of my life from being wasted in unnecessary grooming—and then hand a shotgun to a nitwit so he can accidentally blow my head off?”


“I don’t know,” Nummy said. “What would be the sense?”


Mr. Lyss’s face started to squinch up like it did when he was about to go into a fit, but then the squinching stopped. Instead, he shook his head and laughed.


“I don’t know what it is about you, Peaches.”


“What what is?”


“I just said I don’t know what it is. It sure isn’t your giant intellect, but you’re not bad company.”


“You’re not bad company either, sir. Especially when you stink better, like now.”


Nummy wanted to wash the dishes and put things away, but Mr. Lyss said he’d beat him to death with a shovel if he tried.


They left by a window, keeping Mrs. Trudy LaPierre’s house between them and Nummy’s house, where the two cops-who-weren’t-just-cops might be doing things to Norman, the dog, that he didn’t dare think about.


The sky was gray and looked hard. The air was colder. Nummy began to have a bad feeling about things.


They left the neighborhood, and in a while they found a spooky house at the end of a narrow lane. Mr. Lyss said it was just the kind of place he was looking for. He wanted to ring the bell, but Nummy didn’t think they should. But Mr. Lyss was the smart one, and smart people always got their way.


Chapter 48


Deucalion would use Erika’s house as his base of operations. After Jocko proudly displayed his most treasured possessions—which included a collection of funny hats with bells on them, four Buster Steelhammer posters, and DVDs of every version of Little Women ever filmed—he offered his room to the tattooed giant. But Deucalion rarely slept and expected to get even less rest than usual in the days immediately ahead. Instead, he opted for the study because its large sofa would accommodate him if he chose to lie down, and because if he needed to do online research, there was a computer linked to the Internet via a satellite dish.


Carson and Michael would find accommodations at one of the motels in town, which at this time of the year—or virtually any other—would not be fully booked. As homicide detectives in New Orleans and as private detectives in San Francisco, they were urban animals who did their best work when immersed in the buzz and bustle of a city.


Rainbow Falls had no more buzz and only slightly more bustle than a cemetery in bee season. But in less than two hours at Erika’s house, the isolation of the place made Carson feel imprisoned. With apparent disquiet, Michael complained that if the world ended, they wouldn’t know about it until they ran out of milk and had to drive to a store in town. A front-row seat at Armageddon was preferable to the humiliation of being the last to get the news.


Before finding a motel room, they cruised the streets, getting oriented—Carson in the pilot’s seat, Michael in his historically established position. With a population of perhaps ten thousand, the town wasn’t merely a wide place in the road. But anyone not a local might be quickly noticed, and Carson didn’t see any vehicle but their own with California license plates.


“I’m not sure it would make sense for us to try a clandestine approach,” she said. “People who’ve been here most or all of their lives—they’ll smell an outsider in a minute, if they can’t actually spot one at a glance. The more we try to blend in, the more obvious we’ll be.”


“Yeah, and I don’t want to wear a cowboy hat.”


“Look around. Not everyone’s wearing a cowboy hat.”


“I don’t want to wear a toboggan hat, either. And I’ll never wear a floppy hat with bells on it.”


“Gee, I thought my Christmas shopping was finished.”


“Besides, Victor must be keeping a low profile. As an outsider, he’d have to. He’s holed up somewhere, even more than Erika. Maybe the best way to smoke him out is if he learns we’re in the county looking for him.”


Before stores closed for the day, and in respect of a weather forecast of snow, they found a sports-clothing outfitter. They tried on and purchased black Gore-Tex/Thermolite storm suits with foldaway hoods, overlay vests with Thermoloft insulation, gloves, ski boots, and—after some deliberation—the despised toboggan caps.


On the way to the Falls Inn to book a room, unload the Cherokee, and gun-up, they passed the offices of the Rainbow Falls Gazette on Beartooth Avenue. This struck them as a serendipitous development, so Carson hung a U-turn in the street and parked in front of the three-story building.


Like many structures in town, it was well over a century old, with a flat and parapeted roof, reminiscent of Western-movie hotels and saloons on which bad men with rifles skulked behind parapets to fire down on the sheriff when he tried to dart from one point of cover to another. Those buildings were usually wood, but this one was brick, in recognition of hard winters.


When Carson and Michael entered the reception area, the stained-oak beadboard wainscoting, the ornate decorative tin ceiling, and the antique brass fixtures—once gaslights but long ago converted for electrical service—seemed like a stage setting.

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