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Breath returned to me in a rush, and with it came a dangerously fierce hope, one of those seizures of hope so intense it can break your heart if it goes unfulfilled, a hope that was really a mad and unreasonable conviction, which I had no right to indulge here at the end of the world: We would find Jimmy Wing, and we would find Orson, untouched and alive, and those who had meant to harm them would rot in Hell.


16


Through the wooden gate, along the narrow brick walkway, into the backyard where the aroma of jasmine was as thick as incense, I worried about how I was going to convey to Lilly Wing even a small measure of my newfound faith that her son would be discovered alive and unharmed. I had little to tell her that would support such an optimistic conclusion. In fact, if I recounted a fraction of what Bobby and I had seen in Fort Wyvern, Lilly would lose hope altogether.


Bright lights were on toward the front of the Cape Cod bungalow. In expectation of my return, only faint candlelight flickered beyond the kitchen windows at the rear.


Sasha was waiting for us at the top of the back-porch steps. She must have been in the kitchen when she heard the Jeep pulling behind the garage.


The mental image of Sasha that I carry with me is idealized—yet each time I see her, after an absence, she is lovelier than my most flattering recollection. Although my vision had adapted to the dark, the light was so poor that I could not see the arrestingly clear gray of her eyes, the mahogany shade of her hair, or the faintly freckled glow of her skin. Nevertheless, she shone.


We embraced, and she whispered, “Hey, Snowman.”


“Hey.”


“Jimmy?”


“Not yet,” I said, matching her whisper. “Now Orson’s missing.”


Her embrace tightened. “In Wyvern?”


“Yeah.”


She kissed my cheek. “He’s not just all heart and wagging tail. He’s tough. He can take care of himself.”


“We’re going back for them.”


“Damn right, and me with you.”


Sasha’s beauty is not just—or even primarily—physical. In her face, I also see her wisdom, her compassion, her courage, her eternal glory. This other beauty, this spiritual beauty—which is the deepest truth of her—sustains me in times of fear and despair, as other truths might sustain a priest enduring martyrdom under the hand of a tyrant. I see nothing blasphemous in equating Sasha’s grace with the mercy of God, for the one is a reflection of the other. The selfless love that we give to others, to the point of being willing to sacrifice our lives for them—as Sasha would give hers for me, as I would give mine for her—is all the proof I need that human beings are not mere animals of self-interest; we carry within us a divine spark, and if we choose to recognize it, our lives have dignity, meaning, hope. In Sasha, this spark is bright, a light that heals rather than wounds me.


When she hugged Bobby, who was carrying the shotgun, Sasha whispered, “Better leave that out here. Lilly’s shaky.”


“Me too,” Bobby murmured.


He put the shotgun on the porch swing. The Smith & Wesson revolver was tucked under his belt, concealed by his Hawaiian shirt.


Sasha was wearing blue jeans, a sweater, and a roomy denim jacket. When we embraced, I’d felt the concealed handgun in her shoulder holster.


I had the 9-millimeter Glock.


If my mother’s gene-swapping retrovirus had been vulnerable to gunfire, it would have met its match in us, the end of the world would have been canceled, and we would have been at a beach party.


“Cops?” I asked Sasha.


“They were here. Gone now.”


“Manuel?” I asked, meaning Manuel Ramirez, the acting chief of police, who had been my friend before he had been co-opted by the Wyvern crowd.


“Yeah. When he saw me walk through the door, he looked like he was passing a kidney stone.”


Sasha led us into the kitchen, where such a hush prevailed that our soft footsteps were, comparatively, as loud and as rude as clog dancing in a chapel. Lilly’s anguish cast a shroud over this humble house, no less tangible than a velvet pall on a casket, as though Jimmy had already been found dead.


Out of respect for my condition, the only light came from the digital clock on the oven, from the blue gas flame under the teakettle on one of the cooktop burners, and from a pair of fat, yellow candles. The candles, which were set in white saucers on the dinette table, emitted a vanilla fragrance that was inappropriately festive for this dark place and these solemn circumstances.


One side of the table was adjacent to a window, allowing space for three chairs. In the same jeans and flannel shirt she’d been wearing earlier, Lilly sat in the chair facing me.


Bobby remained by the door, watching the backyard, and Sasha went to the stove to check the teakettle.


I pulled out a chair and sat directly across the table from Lilly. The candles in the saucers were between us, and I pushed them to one side.


Lilly was sitting forward on her chair, her arms on the pine table.


“Badger,” I said.


Brow furrowed, eyes narrowed, lips pressed tightly together, she gazed at her clasped hands with such fierce attention that she seemed to be trying to read the fate of her child in the sharp points of her knuckles, in the patterns of bones and veins and freckles, as if her hands were tarot cards or I Ching sticks.


“I’ll never stop,” I promised her.


From the subdued nature of my entrance, she already knew that I hadn’t found her son, and she didn’t acknowledge me.


Recklessly, I promised her: “We’re going to regroup, get more help, go back out there and find him.”


At last she raised her head and met my eyes. The night had aged her mercilessly. Even by the flattering light of candles, she looked gaunt, worn, as if she’d been beaten by many cruel years rather than by a few dark hours. Through a trick of light, her blond hair seemed white. Her blue eyes, once so radiant and lively, were dark now with sorrow, fear, and rage.


“My phone doesn’t work,” Lilly said in an emotionless and quiet voice, her calm demeanor belied by the powerful emotions in her eyes.


“Your phone?” At first I assumed that her mind had broken under the weight of her fear.


“After the cops were gone, I called my mom. She remarried after Dad died. Three years after. Lives in San Diego. My call couldn’t be completed. An operator broke in. Said longdistance service was disrupted. Temporarily. Equipment failure. She was lying.”


I was struck by the odd and utterly uncharacteristic patterns of her speech: the clipped sentences, staccato cadences. She seemed to be able to speak only by concentrating on small groups of words, succinct bits of information, as if afraid that while delivering a longer sentence, her voice would break and, in breaking, would set loose her pent-up feelings, reducing her to uncontrollable tears and incoherence.


“How do you know the operator was lying?” I prodded when Lilly fell silent.


“Wasn’t even a real operator. You could tell. Didn’t have the lingo right. Didn’t have the voice. Tone of voice. Didn’t have the attitude. They sound alike. They’re trained. This one was jive.”


The movement of her eyes matched the rhythms of her speech. She looked at me repeatedly but each time quickly looked away; laden with guilt and a sense of inadequacy, I assumed that she couldn’t bear the sight of me because I’d failed her. Once she’d shifted her attention from her clasped hands, she was unable to focus on anything for more than a second or two, perhaps because every object and surface in the kitchen summoned memories of Jimmy, memories that would shatter her self-control if she dared to dwell on them.


“So I tried a local call. To Ben’s mother. My late husband’s mother. Jimmy’s grandma. She lives across town. Couldn’t get a dial tone. Now the phone is dead. No phone at all.”


From the far end of the kitchen came the clink of china, then the rattle of spoons as Sasha searched through the flatware in a drawer.


Lilly said, “The cops weren’t cops, either. Looked like cops. Uniforms. Badges. Guns. Men I’ve known all my life. Manuel. He looks like Manuel. Doesn’t act like Manuel anymore.”


“What was different?”


“They asked a few questions. Scribbled some notes. Made a plaster impression of the footprint. Outside Jimmy’s window. Dusted for fingerprints, but not everywhere they should have. It wasn’t real. Wasn’t thorough at all. They didn’t even find the crow.”


“Crow?”


“They didn’t…care somehow,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard my question, was struggling to understand their indifference. “Lou, my father-in-law, used to be a cop. He was thorough. And he cared. What’s he have to do with this, anyway? He was a good cop. A kind man. You always knew he cared. Not like…them.”


I turned to Sasha for some illumination about the crow and Louis Wing. She nodded, which I took to mean that she understood and would clue me in later if Lilly, in her distress, didn’t make the connections for me.


Playing devil’s advocate, I said to Lilly, “The police have to be detached, impersonal, to do their job right.”


“It wasn’t that. They’ll look for Jimmy. They’ll investigate. They’ll try. I think they will. But they were also…managing me.”


“Managing?”


“They said not to talk. Not to anyone. For twenty-four hours. Talking jeopardizes the investigation. Child abductions scare the public, see? Cause panic. Police phones ring off the hook. They spend all their time calming people. Can’t put full resources into finding Jimmy. Bullshit. I’m not stupid. I’m coming apart here, coming apart…but not stupid.” She almost lost her composure, took a deep breath, and finished in the same controlled, flat voice: “They just want to shut me up. Shut me up for twenty-four hours. And I don’t know why.”


I understood Manuel’s motivation for seeking her silence. He needed to buy time until he could determine whether this was a conventional crime or one connected to events at Wyvern, because he was diligent about concealing the latter. Right now he was hoping that the kidnapper was a common variety of sociopath, a pedophile or satanic cultist, or someone with a grudge against Lilly. But the perpetrator might be one of those who were becoming, a man whose DNA was so disturbed by an aggressive infection of the retrovirus that his psychology was deteriorating, his sense of humanity dissolving in an acid of utterly alien urges and needs, compulsions darker and stranger than even the worst of bestial desires. Or maybe there was another connection to Wyvern, because these days so much that went wrong in Moonlight Bay could be traced to those haunted grounds beyond the chain-link and razor wire.


If Jimmy’s kidnapper was one of the becoming, he’d never stand trial. If captured, he would be taken to the deeply hidden genetics labs in Fort Wyvern if they were, as we suspected, still operating, or he would be transported to a similar and equally secret facility elsewhere, to be studied and tested, as part of the desperate search for a cure. In that event, Lilly would be pressured to accept an officially concocted story of what had happened to her son. If she couldn’t be persuaded, if she couldn’t be threatened, then she would be killed or railroaded into the psychiatric ward at Mercy Hospital, in the name of national security and the public welfare, though in truth she would be sacrificed for no reason other than to protect the political eminences who had brought us to this brink.


Sasha came to the table with a cup of tea, which she placed in front of Lilly. On the saucer was a wedge of lemon. Beside the cup, she put a cream-and-sugar set on a matching china tray, with a small silver spoon for the sugar.


Instead of grounding us in reality, these domestic details gave a dreamlike quality to the proceedings. If Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter had joined us at the table, I would not have been surprised.


Apparently, Lilly had asked for tea, but now she seemed barely aware that it had been put before her. The power of her repressed emotions was growing so visible that she wouldn’t be able to maintain her composure much longer, yet for the moment she continued to speak in an uninflected drone: “Phone’s dead. Okay. What if I drive to my mother-in-law’s? To tell her about Jimmy. Will I be stopped? Stopped on the way? Advised to be silent? For Jimmy’s sake? And if I won’t stop? If I won’t be silent?”


“How much has Sasha told you?” I asked.


Lilly’s eyes fixed on mine, then moved at once away. “Something happened at Wyvern. Something strange. Bad. In some way it affects us. Everyone in Moonlight Bay. They’re trying to keep it quiet. It might explain Jimmy’s disappearance. Somehow.”


I turned to look at Sasha, who had retreated to the farther side of the kitchen. “That’s all?”


“Isn’t she in greater danger if she knows more?” Sasha asked.


“Definitely,” Bobby said from his watch position at the rear door.


Considering the depth of Lilly’s distress, I agreed that it was not wise to tell her every detail of what we knew. If she understood the apocalyptic threat looming over us, over all humanity, she might lose her last desperate faith that she would see her little boy alive again. I would never be the one who robbed her of that remaining hope.


Besides, I detected a dusting of gray in the night beyond the kitchen windows, a precursor of dawn so subtle that anyone without my heightened appreciation for shades of darkness was not likely to notice. We were running out of time. Soon I would have to hide from the sun, which I preferred to do in the well-prepared sanctuary of my own home.


Lilly said, “I deserve to know. To know everything.”


“Yes,” I agreed.


“Everything.”


“But there’s not enough time now. We—”


“I’m scared,” she whispered.


I pushed aside her cup of tea and reached across the table with both hands. “You aren’t alone.”


She looked at my hands but didn’t take them, perhaps because she was afraid that by putting her hands in mine, she would lose her grip on her emotions.


Keeping my hands on the table, palms up, I said, “Knowing more now won’t help you. Later, I’ll tell you everything. Everything. But now…If whoever took Jimmy has nothing to do with…the mess at Wyvern, Manuel will try hard to bring him back to you. I know he will. But if it is related to Wyvern, then none of the police, Manuel included, can be trusted. Then it’s up to us. And we’ve got to assume it will be up to us.”


“This is so wrong.”


“Yes.”


“Crazy.”


“Yes.”

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