“Some people are immune.”
“Not everyone,” Bobby said as glass shattered in the living room.
Manuel said, “But the immune factor has been isolated. Soon there’ll be a vaccine, and a cure for those already infected.”
I thought of the missing children, but I didn’t mention them. “Some people are still becoming,” I said.
“And we’re learning there’s only so much change they’re able to tolerate.”
I strove to resist the flood of hope that might have swept me away. “Only so much? How much?”
“There’s a threshold…. They become acutely aware of the changes taking place in them. Then they’re overcome by fear. An intolerable fear of themselves. Hatred of themselves. The self-hatred escalates until…they psychologically implode.”
“Psychological implosion? What the hell does that mean?” Then I understood. “Suicide?”
“Beyond suicide. Violent…frenzied self-destruction. We’ve seen…a number of cases. You understand what this means?”
I said, “When they self-destruct, they’re no longer carriers of the retrovirus. The plague is self-limiting.”
Judging by the sound, Frank Feeney was smashing a small table or chair against one of the living-room walls. I guessed that the other deputy was sweeping Sasha’s bottles of vitamins and herbs off the shelves in the study. They were dutifully teaching us a lesson—and respect for the law.
“Most of us will get through this all right,” Manuel said.
But who among us will not? I wondered.
“Animals, too,” I said. “They self-destruct.”
He regarded me with suspicion. “We’re seeing indications. What have you seen?”
I thought of the birds. The veve rats, which had been dead a long time. The pack of coyotes no doubt were nearing the threshold of tolerable change.
“Why’re you telling me this?” I asked.
“So you’ll stay the hell out of the way. Let the right people manage this situation. People who know what they’re doing. People with credentials.”
“The usual big brains,” Bobby said.
Manuel poked the club in our direction. “You may think you’re heroes, but you’ll just be getting in the way.”
“I’m no hero,” I assured him.
Bobby said, “Me, hell, I’m just a surf-smacked, sun-fried, beer-whacked boardhead.”
Manuel said, “There’s too much at stake here for us to allow anyone to have an agenda of his own.”
“What about the troop?” I asked. “The monkeys haven’t self-destructed.”
“They’re different. They were engineered in the lab, and they are what they are. They are what they were made to be, what they were born to be. They can still become if they’re vulnerable to the mutated virus, but maybe they aren’t susceptible. After this is all over, once people are vaccinated and this outbreak self-limits, we’ll track them down and wipe them out.”
“Not much luck at that so far,” I reminded him.
“We’ve been distracted by the bigger problem.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said. “Destroying the world is ass-busting work.”
Ignoring him, Manuel said, “Once we get the rest of this cleaned up, then the troop…their days are numbered.”
Lights flared in the adjacent dining room, where Feeney had proceeded from the living room, and I moved away from the brightness that fell through the connecting doorway.
The second deputy appeared at the hallway door, and he was not anyone I had seen before. I thought I knew all the police in town, but perhaps the financiers behind the Wyvern wizards had recently provided the funding for a larger force.
“Found some boxes of ammo,” the new guy said. “No weapons.”
Manuel called to Frank, who appeared in the dining-room doorway and said, “Chief?”
“We’re done here,” Manuel said.
Feeney looked disappointed, but the new man turned away from the kitchen and immediately headed along the hall toward the front of the house.
With startling speed, Manuel lunged toward Bobby, swinging the baton at his head. Equally quick, Bobby ducked. The club carved the air where Bobby had been, and cracked loudly against the side of the refrigerator.
Bobby came up under the baton, right in Manuel’s face, and I thought he was embracing him, which was weird, but then I saw the gleam of the butcher knife, the point against Manuel’s throat.
The new deputy had raced back to the kitchen, and both he and Frank Feeney had drawn their revolvers, holding the weapons in two-hand grips.
“Back off,” Manuel told his deputies.
He backed off, too, easing away from the point of the knife.
For a crazy moment I thought Bobby was going to shove the huge blade into him, though I know Bobby better than that.
Remaining wary, the deputies retreated a step or two, and they relaxed their arms from a ready-fire position, although neither man holstered his weapon.
The spill of light through the dining-room door revealed more of Manuel’s face than I cared to see. It had been torn by anger and then knitted together by more anger, so the stitches were too tight, pulling his features into strange arrangements, both eyes bulging, but the left eye more than the right, nostrils flaring, his mouth a straight slash on the left but curving into a sneer on the right, like a portrait by Picasso in a crappy mood, all chopped into cubes, geometric slabs that didn’t quite fit together. And his skin was no longer a warm brown but the color of a ham that had been left far too long in the smokehouse, muddy red with settled blood and too much hickory smoke, dark and marbled.
Manuel seethed with a hatred so intense that it couldn’t have been engendered solely by Bobby’s smartass remarks. This hatred was aimed at me, too, but Manuel couldn’t bring himself to strike me, not after so many years of friendship, so he wanted to hurt Bobby because that would hurt me. Maybe some of his wrath was directed at himself, because he had flushed away his principles, and maybe we were seeing sixteen years of pent-up anger at God for Carmelita’s dying in child-birth and for Toby’s being born with Down’s syndrome, and I think-feel-know that some of this was fury he could not—would not, dared not—admit feeling toward Toby, dear Toby, whom he loved desperately but who had so severely limited his life. After all, there’s a reason they say that love is a two-edged sword, rather than a two-edged Wiffle bat or a two-edged Fudgsicle, because love is sharp, it pierces, and love is a needle that sews shut the holes in our hearts, that mends our souls, but it can also cut, cut deep, wound, kill.
Manuel was struggling to regain control of himself, aware that we were all watching him, that he was a spectacle; but he was losing the struggle. The side of the refrigerator was scarred where he had hammered the billy club into it, but an assault on an appliance, even a major appliance, didn’t provide the satisfaction he needed, didn’t relieve the pressure still building in him. A couple minutes earlier, I had thought of Bobby as a dry-ice bomb at the critical-evaporation point, but now it was Manuel who exploded, not at Bobby or at me, but at the glass panels in the four doors of a display cabinet, bashing each pane with the baton, and then he tore open one of the doors and, with the stick, swept out the Royal Worcester china, the Evesham set of which my mother had been so fond. Saucers, cups, bread plates, salad plates, a gravy boat, a butter dish, a sugar-and-cream set crashed onto the countertop and from there to the floor, porcelain shrapnel pinging off the dishwasher, singing off chair legs and cabinetry. The microwave oven was next to the display cabinet, and he hammered the club into it, once, twice, three times, four times, but the view window was evidently made of Plexiglas or something, because it didn’t shatter, though the club switched on the oven and programmed the timer, and if we’d had the foresight to put a bag of Orville Redenbacher’s finest in the microwave earlier, we could have enjoyed popcorn by the time Manuel had worked off his rage. He plucked a steel teapot off the stove and pitched it across the room, grabbed the toaster and threw it to the floor even as the teapot was still bouncing around—tonk, tonk, tonk—with the manic energy of a battered icon in a video game. He kicked the toaster, and it tumbled across the floor, squeaking as though it were a terrified little dog, trailing its cord like a tail, and then he was done.
He stood in the center of the kitchen, shoulders slumped, head thrust forward, eyelids as heavy as if he had just woken from a deep sleep, mouth slack, breathing heavily. He looked around as though slightly confused, as though he were a bull wondering where the hell that infuriating red cape had gone.
Throughout Manuel’s destructive frenzy, I expected to see the demonic yellow light shimmer through his eyes, but I never caught a glimpse of it. Now there was smoldering anger in his gaze, and confusion, and a wrenching sadness, but if he was becoming something less than human, he wasn’t far enough devolved to exhibit eyeshine.
The nameless deputy watched cautiously through eyes as dark as the windows in an abandoned house, but Frank Feeney’s eyes were brighter than those of Halloween pumpkins, full of fiery menace. Although this uncanny glimmer was not constant, coming and going and coming again, the savagery that it betokened burned as steady as a watch fire. Feeney was backlit by the dining-room chandelier, and with his face in shadows, his eyes at times glowed as if the light from the next room were passing straight through his skull and radiating from his sockets.
I had been afraid that Manuel’s violence would trigger outbursts in the deputies, that all three men were becoming, and that a rapidly accelerating dementia would seize them, whereupon Bobby and I would be surrounded by the high-biotech equivalent of a pack of werewolves in the grip of bloodlust. Because we had foolishly neglected to acquire necklaces of wolfsbane or silver bullets, we would be forced to defend ourselves with my mother’s tarnished sterling tea service, which would have to be unpacked from a box in the pantry and perhaps even polished with Wright’s silver cream and a soft cloth to be sufficiently lethal.
Now it appeared that Feeney was the only threat, but a werewolf with a loaded revolver is a lycanthrope of a different caliber, and one like him could be as deadly as an entire pack. He was shaking, glistening with sweat, inhaling with a coarse rasp, exhaling with a thin and eager whine of need. In his excitement, he had bitten his lip, and his teeth and chin were red with his own blood. He held the gun with both hands, aiming it at the floor, while his mad eyes seemed to be looking for a target, his attention flicking from Manuel to me, to the second deputy, to Bobby, to me, to Manuel again, and if Feeney decided that we were all targets, he might be able to kill the four of us even as he was cut down by his fellow officers’ return fire.
I realized that Manuel was talking to Feeney and to the other deputy. The pounding of my heart had temporarily deafened me. His voiced faded in: “…we’re done here, we’re finished, finished with these bastards, come on, Frank, Harry, come on, that’s it, come on, these scumbags aren’t worth it, let’s go, back to work, out of here, come on.”
Manuel’s voice seemed to soothe Feeney, like the rhythmic lines of a prayer, a litany in which his responses were recited silently rather than spoken. The balefire continued to pass in and out of his eyes, though it was absent more than not and dimmer than it had been. He broke his two-hand grip on the revolver, holding it in his right hand, and then finally holstered it. Blinking in surprise, he tasted blood, blotted his lips on his hand, and stared uncomprehendingly at the red smear across his palm.
Harry, the second deputy, to whom Manuel had at last given a name, was already to the foyer by the time Frank Feeney stepped out of the kitchen and entered the hall. Manuel followed Feeney, and I found myself following Manuel, though at a distance.
They had lost their Gestapo aura. They looked weak and weary, like three boys who had been playing cops with great exuberance but were now tuckered out, dragging their butts home to have some hot chocolate and take a nap, and then maybe put on new costumes and play pirates. They seemed to be as lost as the kidnapped children.
In the foyer, as Frank Feeney followed Harry X onto the front porch, I said to Manuel, “You see it, don’t you?”
At the door he stopped and turned to face me, but he didn’t respond. He was still angry, but he also looked stricken. By the second, his rage swam deeper, and his eyes were pools of sorrow.
With light entering the foyer from outside, from the study, and from the living room, I felt more vulnerable here than under the gun and the yellow stare of Feeney in the kitchen, but there was something I needed to say to Manuel.
“Feeney,” I said, though Feeney wasn’t the unfinished business between us. “You see that he’s becoming? You aren’t in denial about that, are you?”
“There’s a cure. We’ll have it soon.”
“He’s on the edge. What if you don’t have a cure soon enough?”
“Then we’ll deal with him.” He realized he was still holding the billy club. He slipped it through a loop on his belt. “Frank is one of ours. We’ll give him peace in our own way.”
“He could have killed me. Me, Bobby, you, all of us.”
“Stay out of this, Snow. I won’t tell you again.”
Snow. Not Chris anymore. Trashing a guy’s house is dotting the final i and crossing the final t in finito.
“Maybe this kidnapper is that guy on the news,” I said.
“Snatches kids. Three, four, five little kids. Burns them all at once.”
“That’s not what’s happening here.”
“How can you be sure?”
“This is Moonlight Bay.”
“Not all bad guys are bad just because they’re becoming.”
He glared at me, taking my observation personally.
I got to the unfinished business: “Toby’s a great kid. I love him. I worry about what’s happening. There’s such a terrible risk. But in the end, Manuel, I hope everything turns out with him like you think it will. I really do. More than anything.”
He hesitated, but then said, “Stay out of this. I mean it, Snow.”
For a moment I watched him walk away from my vandalized house into a world that was even more broken than my mother’s china. There were two patrol cars at the curb, and he got into one of them.
“Come back anytime,” I said, as if he could hear me. “I’ve still got drinking glasses you can smash, serving dishes. We’ll have a couple beers, you can bash the hell out of the TV, or take an ax to the better pieces of furniture, pee on the carpet if you want. I’ll make a cheese dip, it’ll be fun, it’ll be festive.”
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