"Bombs?" Meg said disbelievingly. "Hardly."
The man with the mirror moved slowly around the jeep wagon, and his armed companion stayed close at his side. Even in the obscuring snow, Meg could see that their faces were lined with anxiety.
When the pair had circled the jeep, the armed guard waved an all-clear to the other four at the roadblock, and at last one man approached the driver's window. He wore jeans and a bulky, brown leather flight jacket with sheepskin lining, without a Biolomech patch. A dark blue toboggan cap caked with snow was pulled half over his ears.
He leaned down to the open window. "I'm real sorry for the inconvenience, ma'am."
He was handsome, with an appealing—but false—smile. His gray-green eyes were disturbingly direct.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Just a security alert," he said, the words steaming from him in the icy air. "Could I see your driver's license, please?"
He was evidently a Biolomech employee, not a police officer, but Meg saw no reason to decline to cooperate.
As the man was holding her wallet, studying the license, Tommy said, "Spies try to sneak in there tonight?"
That same insincere smile accompanied the man's response: "Most likely just a short circuit in the alarm system, son. Nothing here that spies would be interested in."
Biolomech was involved in recombinant-DNA research and the application of their discoveries to commercial enterprises. Meg knew that in recent years genetic engineering had produced a man-made virus that threw off pure insulin as a waste product, a multitude of wonder drugs, and other blessings. She also knew that the same science could engender biological weapons—new diseases as deadly as nuclear bombs—but she always avoided pondering the frightening possibility that Biolomech, half a mile overland from their house, might be engaged in such dangerous work. In fact, a few years ago rumors had surfaced that Biolomech had landed a major defense contract, but the company had assured the county that it would never perform research related to bacteriological warfare. Yet their fence and security system seemed more formidable than necessary for a commercial facility limited to benign projects.
Blinking snow off his lashes, the man in the sheepskin-lined jacket said, "You live near here, Mrs. Lassiter?"
"Cascade Farm," she said. "About a mile down the road."
He passed her wallet back through the window.
From the backseat, Tommy said, "Mister, do you think terrorists with bombs are maybe gonna drive in there and blow the place up or something?"
"Bombs? Whatever gave you that idea, son?"
"The mirrors on the pole," Tommy said.
"Ah! Well, that's just part of our standard procedure in a security alert. Like I said, it's probably a false alarm. Short circuit, something like that." To Meg he said, "Sorry for the trouble, Mrs. Lassiter."
As the man stepped back from the station wagon, Meg glanced past him at the guards with shotguns and at more distant figures combing the eerily lighted grounds. These men did not believe that they were investigating a false alarm. Their anxiety and tension were visible not only in the faces of those nearby but in the way that all of them stood and moved in the blizzard-shot night.
She rolled up the window and put the car in gear.
As she pulled forward, Tommy said, "You think he was lying?"
"It's none of our business, honey."
"Terrorists or spies," Tommy said with the enthusiasm for a good crisis that only young boys could muster.
They passed the northernmost end of Biolomech's land. The sodium-vapor security lights receded into the gloom behind them, while the night and snow closed in from all sides.
More leafless oaks thrust spiky arms over the lane. Among their thick trunks, the jeep headlights stirred brief-lived, leaping shadows.
Two minutes later, Meg turned left off the county route into their quarter-mile driveway. She was relieved to be home.
Cascade Farm—named after three generations of the Cascade family who once lived there—was a ten-acre spread in semirural Connecticut. It was not a working farm any more. She and Jim had bought the place four years ago, after he had sold his share in the New York ad agency that he'd founded with two partners. The farm was to have been the start of a new life, where he could pursue his dream of being a writer of more than ad copy, and where Meg could enjoy an art studio more spacious and in a more serene environment than anything she could have had in the city.
Before he died, Jim had written two moderately successful suspense novels at Cascade Farm. There also, Meg found new directions for her art: first a brighter tone than she previously had employed; then after Jim's death, a style so brooding and grim that the gallery handling her work in New York had suggested a return to the brighter style if she hoped to continue to sell.
The two-story fieldstone house stood a hundred yards in front of the barn. It had eight rooms plus a spacious kitchen with modern appliances, two baths, two fireplaces, and front and back porches for sitting and rocking on summer evenings.
Even in this stormy darkness, its scalloped eaves bedecked with ice, battered by wind, and lashed by whips of snow, with not a single front window warmed by a lamp's glow, the house looked cozy and welcoming in the headlights.
"Home," she said with relief. "Spaghetti for dinner?"
"Make a lot so I can have cold leftovers for breakfast."
"Cold spaghetti makes a great breakfast."
"You're a demented child." She pulled alongside the house, stopped next to the rear porch, and helped him out of the wagon. "Leave your crutches. Lean on me," she said over the whistling-hooting wind. The crutches would be of no use on snow-covered ground. "I'll bring them in after I put the jeep in the garage."
If the heavy cast had not encased his right leg from toes to above the knee, she might have been able to carry him. Instead he leaned on her and hopped on his good leg.
She had left a light in the kitchen for Doofus, their four-year-old black Labrador. The frost-rimed windows shimmered with that amber glow, and the porch was vaguely illuminated by it.
At the door, Tommy rested against the wall of the house while Meg disengaged the lock. When she stepped into the kitchen, the big dog did not rush at her, wagging his tail with excitement, as she expected. Instead he slunk forward with his tail between his legs, his head down, clearly happy to see her but rolling his eyes warily as if expecting an angry cat to streak at him suddenly from one corner or another.
She pushed the door shut behind them and helped Tommy to a chair at the kitchen table. Then she took off her boots and stood them on a rag rug in the corner by the door.
Doofus was shivering, as though cold. But the oil furnace was on, and the place was warm. The dog made an odd, mewling sound.
"What's the matter, Doofus?" she asked. "What've you been up to? Knock over a lamp? Huh? Chew up a sofa cushion?"
"Ah, he's a good pooch," Tommy said. "If he knocked over a lamp, he'll pay for it. Won't you, Doofus?"
The dog wagged his tail but only tentatively. He glanced nervously at Meg, then looked back toward the dining room—as if someone lurked there, someone he feared too much to confront.
Sudden apprehension clutched Meg.
BEN PARNELL LEFT THE ROADBLOCK NEAR THE MAIN GATE AND DROVE his Chevy Blazer to lab number three, the building deepest in the Biolomech complex. Snow melted off his toboggan cap and trickled under the collar of his sheepskin-lined flight jacket.
All across the grounds, anxious searchers moved cautiously through the sulfur-yellow glow of the security lamps. In deference to the stinging wind, they hunched their shoulders and held their heads low, which made them appear less than human, demonic.
In a strange way he was glad that the crisis had arisen. If he hadn't been there, he would have been at home, alone, pretending to read, or pretending to watch television, but brooding about Melissa, his much-loved daughter, who was gone, lost to cancer. And if he could have avoided brooding about Melissa, he would have brooded instead about Leah, his wife, who had also been lost to ...
Lost to what?
He still did not fully understand why their marriage had ended after the ordeal with Melissa was over. As far as Ben could see, the only thing that had come between him and Leah had been her grief, which had been so great and dark and heavy that she had no longer been capable of harboring any other emotion, not even love for him. Maybe the seeds of divorce had been there for a long time, sprouting only after Melissa succumbed, but he had loved Leah; he still loved her, not passionately any more, but in the melancholy way that a man could love a dream of happiness even knowing that the dream could never come true. That's what Leah had become during the past year: not even a memory, painful or otherwise, but a dream, and not even a dream of what might be but of what could never be.
He parked the Blazer in front of lab three, a windowless single-story structure that resembled a bunker. He went to the steel door, inserted his plastic ID card in the slot, reclaimed the card when the light above the entrance changed from red to green, and stepped past that barrier as it slid open with a hiss.
He was in a vestibule that resembled the air lock of a spaceship. The outer door hissed shut behind him, and he stood before the inner door, stripping off his gloves while he was scanned by a security camera. A foot-square wall panel slid open, revealing a lighted screen painted with the blue outline of a right hand. Ben matched his hand to the outline, and the computer scanned his fingerprints. Seconds later, when his identity was confirmed, the inner door slid open, and he went into the main hall, off which led other halls, labs, and offices.
Minutes ago Dr. John Acuff, head of Project Blackberry, had returned to Biolomech in response to the crisis. Now Ben located Acuff in the east-wing corridor where he was conferring urgently with three researchers, two men and a woman, who were working on Blackberry.
As Ben approached, he saw that Acuff was half sick with fear. The director of the project—stocky, balding, with a salt-and-pepper beard—was neither absentminded nor coldly analytic, in no way a stereotypical man of science, and in fact he possessed a splendid sense of humor. There was usually a merry, positively Clausian twinkle in his eyes. No twinkle tonight, however. And no smile.
"Ben! Have you found our rats?"
"Not a trace. I want to talk to you, get some idea where they might go."
Acuff put one hand against his forehead as if checking for a fever. "We've got to get them, Ben. And quick. If we don't recover them tonight ... Jesus, the possible consequences ... it's the end of everything."
THE DOG TRIED TO GROWL AT WHOEVER WAS IN THE DARKNESS BEYOND the archway, but the growl softened into another whine.
Meg moved reluctantly yet boldly to the dining room, fumbling along the wall for the light switch. Clicked it. The eight chairs were spaced evenly around the Queen Anne table; plates gleamed softly behind the beveled panes of the big china cabinet; nothing was out of place. She had expected to find an intruder.
Doofus remained in the kitchen, trembling. He was not an easily frightened dog, yet something had spooked him. Badly.
"Stay there," she said.
Turning on lamps as she went, Meg searched the living room and the book-lined den. She looked in closets and behind large pieces of furniture. She kept a gun upstairs but didn't want to get it until she was sure that no one was downstairs with Tommy.
Since Jim's death, Meg had been paranoid about Tommy's health and safety. She knew it, admitted it, but could do nothing about her attitude. Every time he got a cold, she was sure it would become pneumonia. When he cut himself, no matter how small the wound, she feared the bleeding, as if the loss of a mere teaspoon of his blood would be the death of him. When, at play, he had fallen out of a tree and broken his leg, she'd nearly fainted at the sight of his twisted limb. If she lost Tommy, whom she loved with all her heart, she would not only be losing her son but the last living part of Jim, as well. More than her own death, Meg Lassiter had learned to fear the deaths of those she loved.
She had been afraid that Tommy would succumb to disease or accident—but, although she'd bought a gun for protection, she had not given much thought to the possibility that her boy might fall victim to foul play. Foul play. That sounded so melodramatic, ridiculous. After all, this was the country, uninfected by the violence that had been such a part of life in New York City.
But something had shaken the usually boisterous Labrador, a breed prized for gameness and courage. If not an intruder—what?
She stepped into the front hall and peered up the dark stairs. She flicked a wall switch, turning on the second-floor lights.
Her own courage was draining away. She had stormed through the first-floor rooms, driven by fear for Tommy's welfare, giving no consideration to her safety. Now she began to wonder what she would do if she actually encountered an intruder.
No sound descended from the second floor. She could hear only the keening and susurrant wind. Yet she was overcome by a prescient feeling that she should not venture into the upper rooms.
Perhaps the wisest course would be to return with Tommy to the station wagon and drive to the nearest neighbors, who lived more than a quarter mile north on Black Oak. From there she could call the sheriff's office and ask them to check out the house from attic to basement.
On the other hand, in a rapidly escalating blizzard, travel could be hazardous even in a four-wheel-drive jeep.
Surely if an intruder was upstairs, Doofus would be barking furiously. The dog was somewhat clumsy, but he was no coward.
Maybe his behavior had not been indicative of fear. Maybe she had misinterpreted his symptoms. His tucked tail, hung head, and trembling flanks could have been signs of illness.
"Don't be such a wimp," she said angrily, and she hurriedly climbed the stairs.
The second-floor hall was deserted.
She went to her room and took the 12-gauge, piston-grip, short-barreled Mossberg shotgun from under the bed. It was an ideal weapon for home protection: compact yet plenty powerful enough to deter an assailant. To use it, she didn't have to be a marksman, for the spread pattern of the pellets guaranteed a hit if only she aimed in the general direction of an attacker. Furthermore, by using lightly loaded shells, she could deter an aggressor without having to destroy him. She didn't want to kill anyone.
In fact, hating guns, she might never have acquired the Mossberg if she'd not had Tommy to worry about.
She checked her son's room. No one there.
The two bedrooms at the back of the house had been connected with a wide archway to make one studio. Her drawing board, easels, and white-enameled art-supply cabinets were as she had left them.