She had kept the box of shells on the closet floor, and the rats had found it. They had chewed open the cardboard carton and stolen the shells one at a time, carrying them away through the hole in the wall.
Only four rounds were left. She scooped them up and stuffed them into the pockets of her jeans.
If the rats had succeeded in making off with all the shells, would they then have tried subsequently to find a way to remove the last
five rounds from the shotgun's magazine as well, leaving her defenseless? Just how smart were they?
Tommy was calling her, and Doofus was barking angrily.
Meg left the bedroom at a run. She descended the steps so fast that she risked twisting an ankle.
The Labrador was in the first-floor hall, his sturdy legs planted wide, his blocky head lowered, his ears flattened against his skull. He was staring intently toward the kitchen, no longer barking but growling menacingly, even though he was also trembling with fear.
Meg found Tommy in the living room, standing with the aid of his crutches, and she let out a wordless cry of relief when she saw that no rats were swarming over him.
"Mom, what is it? What's wrong?"
"The rats ... I think ... I know they're from Biolomech. That's what the roadblock was all about. That's what those men were looking for with their spotlights, with the angled mirrors they poked under the car." She swept the room with her gaze, looking for furtive movement along the walls and beside the furniture.
"How do you know?" the boy asked.
"I've seen them. You'll know it too, if you see them."
Doofus remained in the hall, but Meg took small comfort from the warning growl he directed toward the kitchen. She realized the dog was no match for these rats. They'd trick or overpower him without difficulty, as soon as they were ready to attack.
They were going to attack. Besides being genetically altered, with large skulls and brains, they behaved differently from other rats. By nature rats were scavengers, not hunters, and they thrived because they skulked through shadows, living secretively in walls and sewers; they never dared to assault a human being unless he was helpless—an unconscious wino, a baby in a crib. But the Biolomech were bold and hostile, hunters as well as scavengers. Their scheme to steal her shotgun shells and disarm her was clear preparation for an attack.
His voice shaky, Tommy said, "But if they aren't like ordinary rats, what are they like?"
She remembered the hideously enlarged skull, the scarlet eyes informed with malevolent intelligence, the pale and plump and somehow obscene white body. She said, "I'll tell you later. Come on, honey, we're getting out of here."
They could have gone out the front door, around the house, and across the rear yard to the barn in which the jeep was parked, but that was a long way through driving snow for a boy on crutches. Meg decided they would have to go through the kitchen and out the back. Besides, their coats were drying on the rack by the rear door, and her car keys were in her coat.
Doofus bravely led them along the hall to the kitchen, though he was not happy about it.
Meg stayed close to Tommy, holding the pistol-grip, pump-action 12-gauge ready in both hands. Five shells in the gun, four in her pockets. Was that enough? How many rats had escaped Biolomech? Six? Ten? Twenty? She would have to avoid shooting them one at a time, save her ammunition until she could take them out in twos or threes. Yes, but what if they didn't attack in a pack? What if they rushed at her singly, from several different directions, forcing her to swivel left and right and left again, blasting at them one at a time until her ammunition was all gone? She had to stop them before they reached her or Tommy, even if they came singly, because once they were on her or climbing the boy, the shotgun would be useless; then she and Tommy would have to defend themselves with bare hands against sharp teeth and claws. They'd be no match for even half a dozen large, fearless—and smart—rats intent on tearing out their throats.
But for the wind outside and the tick of granular snow striking the windows, the kitchen was silent. The cupboard stood open, as she had left it, but no rats crouched on the shelves.
This was crazy! For two years she had worried about raising Tommy without Jim's help. She'd been concerned about instilling in him the right values and principles. His injuries and illnesses had scared her. She had worried about how she would handle unexpected crises if they arose, but she had never contemplated anything as unexpected as this. Sometimes she had taken comfort in the thought that she and Tommy lived in the country, where crime was not a concern, because if they had still lived in the city, she would have had even more to worry about; but now bucolic Cascade Farm, at the hayseed end of Black Oak Road, had proved to be as dangerous as any crime-riddled metropolis.
"Put on your coat," she told Tommy.
Doofus's ears pricked. He sniffed the air. He turned his head side to side, surveying the base of the cupboards, the refrigerator, the unlit open cabinet under the sink.
Holding the Mossberg in her right hand, Meg speared her own coat off the rack with her left, struggled until she got her arm into it, took the shotgun in her left hand, shrugged her right arm into the second sleeve. She used just one hand to pull on her boots, refusing to put down the weapon.
Tommy was staring at the rat trap that she had left on the counter, the one that she had taken from under the sink. The stick that the rats had used to trip the mechanism was still wedged between the anvil and the hammer bar. Tommy frowned at it.
Before he could ask questions or have more time to think, Meg said, "You can do without a boot on your good foot. And leave your crutches here. They're no good outside. You'll have to lean on me."
Doofus twitched and went rigid.
Meg brought up the gun and scanned the kitchen.
The Labrador growled deep in his throat, but there was no sign of the rats.
Meg pulled open the back door, letting in the frigid wind. "Let's move, let's go, now."
Tommy lurched outside, holding on to the door frame, then balancing against the porch wall. The dog slipped out after him. Meg followed, closing the door behind them.
Holding the Mossberg in her right hand, using her left arm to support Tommy, she helped the boy across the porch, down the snow-covered steps, and into the yard. With the windchill factor, the temperature must have been below zero. Her eyes teared, and her face went numb. She hadn't paused to put on gloves, and the cold sliced through to the bones of her hands. Still, she felt better outside than in the house, safer. She didn't think that the rats would come after them, for the storm was a far greater obstacle to those small creatures than it was to her and Tommy.
Conversation was impossible because the wind keened across the open land, whistled under the eaves of the house, and clattered the bare branches of the maples against one another. She and Tommy progressed silently, and Doofus stayed at their side.
Though they slipped several times and almost fell, they reached the barn quicker than she had expected, and she hit the switch to put up the electric door. They ducked under the rising barrier before it was entirely out of their way. In the weak light of the lone bulb, they went directly to the station wagon.
She fished her keys out of her coat pocket, opened the door on the passenger side, slid the seat back all the way on its tracks, and helped Tommy into the front of the car because she wanted him beside her now, close, not in the backseat, even if he would have been more comfortable there. When she looked around for the dog, she saw that he was standing outside the barn, at the threshold, unwilling to follow them inside.
"Doofus, here, quick now," she said.
The Labrador whined. Surveying the shadows in the barn, he let the whine deepen into a growl.
Remembering the feeling of being watched when she had parked the jeep in the barn earlier, Meg also scanned the murky corners and the tenebrous reaches of the loft, but she saw neither pale, slinking figures nor the telltale red glimmer of rodent eyes.
The Labrador was probably excessively cautious. His condition was understandable, but they had to get moving. More forcefully, Meg said, "Doofus, get in here, right now."
He entered the barn hesitantly, sniffing the air and floor, came to her with a sudden urgency, and jumped into the backseat of the station wagon.
She closed the door, went around to the other side, and got in behind the wheel. "We'll drive back to Biolomech," she said. "We'll tell them we've found what they're looking for."
"What's wrong with Doofus?"
In the backseat, the dog was moving from one side window to the other, peering out at the barn, making thin, anxious sounds.
"He's just being Doofus," Meg said.
Huddled in his seat, angled awkwardly to accommodate his cast, Tommy appeared to be younger than ten, so frightened and vulnerable.
"It's okay," Meg said. "We're out of here."
She thrust the key in the ignition, turned it. Nothing. She tried again. The jeep would not start.
AT THE HIGH FENCE ALONG THE NORTHEAST FLANK OF THE BIOLOMECH property, Ben Parnell crouched to examine the rat-size tunnel in the half-frozen earth. Several of his men gathered around him, and one directed the beam of a powerful flashlight on the patch of ground in question. Luckily the hole was in a place where the wind scoured most of the snow away instead of piling it in drifts, but the searchers had still not spotted it until they'd made a second circuit of the perimeter.
Steve Harding raised his voice to compete with the wind: "Think they're in there, curled up in a burrow?"
"No," Ben said, his breath smoking in the arctic air. If he'd thought that the rats were in a burrow at the end of this entrance tunnel, he would not have been crouched in front of the hole, where one of them might fly out at him, straight at his face.
Hostile, John Acuff had said. Exceedingly hostile.
Ben said, "No, they weren't digging a permanent burrow. They came up somewhere on the other side of this fence, and they're long gone now.'
A tall, lanky young man in a county sheriff's department coat joined the group. "One of you named Parnell?"
"That's me," Ben said.
"I'm Joe Hockner." He was half shouting to be heard above the skirling wind. "Sheriff's office. I brought the bloodhound you asked for."
"What's happenin' here?"
"In a minute," Ben said, returning his attention to the tunnel that went under the fence.
"How do we know it was them that dug here?" asked George Yancy, another of Ben's men. "Could've been some other animal."
"Bring that light closer," Ben said.
Steve Harding shone the beam directly into the five-inch-diameter tunnel.
Squinting, leaning closer, Ben saw what appeared to be snippets of white thread adhering to the moist earth just far enough inside the hole to be undisturbed by the wind. He took off his right glove, reached carefully into the mouth of the tunnel, and plucked up two of the threads. White hairs.
TOMMY AND THE DOG STAYED IN THE STATION WAGON WHILE MEG GOT out with the shotgun—and with a flashlight from the glove compartment—to open the hood. The light revealed a mess of torn and tangled wires inside the engine compartment; all the lines from the spark plugs to the distributor cap were severed. Holes had been gnawed in the hoses; oil and coolants dripped onto the barn floor under the jeep.
She was no longer just scared. She was flat-out terrified. Yet she had to conceal her fear to avoid panicking Tommy.
She closed the hood, went around to the passenger's side, and opened the door. "I don't know what's wrong, but it's dead."
"It was all right a while ago, when we came home."
"Yes, well, but it's dead now. Come on, let's go."
He allowed her to help him out of the car, and when they were face to face, he said, "The rats got to it, didn't they?"
"Rats? The rats are in the house, yes, and they're ugly things, like I said, but—"
Interrupting her before she could lie to him, the boy said, "You're trying not to show it, but you're afraid of them, really afraid, which must mean they're not just a little different from ordinary rats but a whole lot different, because you don't scare easy, not you. You were scared when Dad died, I know you were, but not for long, you took charge real quick, you made me feel safe, and if Dad's dying couldn't make you fall to pieces, then I guess pretty much nothing can. But these rats from Biolomech, whatever they are, they scare you more than anything ever has."
She hugged him tight, loving him so hard that it almost hurt—though she did not let go of the shotgun.
He said, "Mom, I saw the trap with the stick in it, and I saw the cereal in the sink all mixed up with the poison pellets, and I've been thinking. I guess one thing about these rats is ... they're awful smart, maybe because of something that was done to them at the lab, smarter than rats should ever be, and now they somehow zapped the jeep."'
"They're not smart enough. Not smart enough for us, skipper."
"What're we going to do?" he whispered.
She also whispered, though she had seen no rats in the barn and was not sure that they had remained after disabling the station wagon. Even if they were nearby, watching, she was certain that they could not understand English. Surely there were limits to what the people at Biolomech had done to these creatures. But she whispered anyway, "We'll go back to the house—"
"But maybe that's what they want us to do."
"Maybe. But I've got to try to use the telephone.
"They'll have thought of the phone," he said.
"Maybe but probably not. I mean how smart can they be?"
"Smart enough to think of the jeep."
BEYOND THE FENCE WAS A MEADOW APPROXIMATELY A HUNDRED YARDS across, and at the end of the meadow were woods.
The chance of finding the rats now was slim. The men fanned out across the field in teams of two and three, not sure what signs of their quarry could have survived the storm. Even in good weather, on a dry and sunny day, it would be virtually impossible to track animals as small as rats across open ground.
Ben Parnell took four men directly to the far side of the meadow, where they began searching the perimeter of the forest with the aid of the bloodhound. The dog's name was Max. He was built low and broad, with huge ears and a comical face, but there was nothing funny about his approach to the case at hand: He was eager, serious. Max's handler, Deputy Joe Hockner, had given the dog a whiff of the rats' spoor from a jarful of grass and droppings that had been taken from their cage, and the hound hadn't liked what he smelled. But the scent was apparently so intense and unusual that it was easy to follow, and Max was a game tracker, willing to give his best in spite of wind and snow.