Nathan glanced at me again. “Sal? What’s wrong?”
I took a deep breath. “Something happened with Beverly this morning,” I said before I began, haltingly, to explain the events that had started with Beverly standing stiff-legged and growling in the backyard. It took longer than I expected. Even with me refusing to leave anything out, Nathan kept asking me questions, making me back up, and finding the things I wasn’t saying. By the time I finished, I was trembling all over, a deep, bone-weary shake that seemed to start somewhere deep inside my chest and radiate from there. I stopped talking. I couldn’t find anything else inside myself to say.
Nathan said it for me. “You did the right thing,” he said. “I don’t know that I would have had the presence of mind to call SymboGen, but after what happened last night with Devi… I wouldn’t want to involve the police with three of them when they were in their mobile state.”
There was no question as to who he meant by “them.” I shuddered, the memory of the woman on the back porch rising, uninvited, behind my eyes. “It was freaky. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Like I said, you did the right thing. SymboGen is more equipped to deal with this sort of situation than anybody else. I just wish I knew what made them surround your house like that. I haven’t heard anything about that behavior. It makes me a little nervous, to be honest. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I don’t want me to get hurt either, so I think we’re in agreement.” I placed a hand on his arm. “It’s going to be okay. This lady will have the answers that we’re looking for, and then you’ll know how to start treating the sick people, and all of this will go away.” I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. We might find out what SymboGen was hiding about the sleeping sickness; we might even find a way to treat the people who were afflicted. But no answers were going to bring Devi back. My own example notwithstanding, the dead were beyond the reach of modern medical science.
Nathan nodded grimly. “Let’s hope you’re right,” he said, and kept driving.
The GPS led us off the freeway and into a rundown section of a city called Concord. From there, we drove through increasingly worn-looking streets toward our final destination. This was the heart of the Bay Area’s extended suburban sprawl, communities that grew up around San Francisco and the ports during the state’s big boom period—a period that once seemed like it was going to last forever, according to a documentary I once watched on California’s history. California had the natural resources, it had the space, and it had the drive to keep its population growing until they ran out of room. I guess they never expected to run out of cheap gas and good weather while they still had space to cram in another housing development.
Most of California’s suburban areas had gone one of two ways: they had returned to their agrarian roots, or they had begun dying a slow death through attrition and neglect. Most of the farmland around Clayton was still owned by the United States military, and so they’d gone for option number two. We drove almost three miles and didn’t pass more than a dozen cars. One old man pushed a shopping cart full of his worldly possessions along the sidewalk in front of a deserted Kmart with big yellow CLOSED banners in the windows. Everything else was still.
“We’re almost there,” said Nathan. He turned off the main road into a small shopping center where a thrift store clung to life next to a feed store as closed as the Kmart. He drove past them both, gritting his teeth as the broken pavement of the parking lot caused the car to shudder and bounce.
An abandoned bowling alley filled the back third of the lot. Nathan circled around behind it, parking out of sight of the street. I blinked at him. He shrugged and turned off the engine.
“I don’t think we necessarily want to attract more attention than we will just by being here, do you?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted. Unfastening my belt, I slung my bag back over my shoulder and got out of the car.
The air was hotter and drier in Clayton than it had been in San Francisco. I glanced at my piece of paper and then at the address painted on the back door of the old bowling alley, reassuring myself that we were really in the right place. We were. Nathan walked next to me as we approached the building, which gave no signs of being occupied. Leaves on the nearby, half-dead trees rustled in the wind. Everything else was still. We stopped just short of the bowling alley door.
“Should we knock?” I asked.
“I don’t see how else we’re going to get inside,” he said.
I swallowed hard, nodding. Then I stepped forward and rapped my knuckles lightly against the wood. I stepped back again, and we waited for someone to come to the door. And waited. And waited.
When almost ten minutes had gone by, Nathan stepped forward. He knocked much more authoritatively, almost pounding on the door. Still, no one came to answer it. When another ten minutes had gone by, he turned to me, frowning. “I think someone’s playing with us.”
“I think you may be right,” I admitted. “We should get going.”
“Agreed,” he said. Both of us turned then, to face the car, and stopped when we saw the woman sitting on the hood.
She was tiny enough that for a moment I thought she was a kid, but her figure and the casual straightness of her posture gave lie to that. Her hair was short, blonde, and streaked with strawberry pink. She was wearing denim overalls, combat boots, and nothing else, unless you wanted to count the knots of ribbons she had clipped in her hair. She was beaming at the two of us like we’d won a prize.