Within two minutes the hound caught the scent in a clump of winter-dried brush. Straining at his leash, he pulled Hockner into the woods. Ben and his men followed.
MEG LET DOOFUS OUT OF THE STATION WAGON, AND THE THREE OF THEM headed toward the big open door of the barn, past which the storm wind drove whirling columns of snow like ghosts late for a haunting. The blizzard had accelerated, raising a noisy clatter on the roof as it tore off a few shingles and spun them away in the night. The rafters creaked, and the loft door chattered on loose hinges.
"Tommy, you'll stay out on the porch, and I'll go into the kitchen as far as the phone. If it's out of order ... we'll walk the driveway to the county road and flag down a car."
"No one's going to be out in this storm."
"Someone will be. A county snowplow or a cinder truck."
He halted at the threshold of the open barn door. "Mom, it's three quarters of a mile to Black Oak Road. I'm not sure I can walk that far with this cast, in this storm, not even with you helping. I'm already tired, and my good leg keeps buckling. Even if I can do it, it'll take a long, long time."
"We'll make it," she said, "and it doesn't matter how long we take. I'm sure they won't pursue us outside. We're safe in the storm—safe from them, at least." Then she remembered the sled. "I can pull you to the county road!"
"What? Pull me?"
She risked leaving Tommy with Doofus long enough to run back into the barn, to the north wall, where the boy's sled—Midnight Flyer was the legend in script across the seat—hung on the wall beside a shovel, a hoe, and a leaf rake. Without putting down the Mossberg, she quickly unhooked the sled and carried it in one hand to the open door where Tommy waited.
"But, Mom, I'm too heavy to pull."
"Haven't I pulled you back and forth over this farm on at least a hundred snowy days?"
"Yeah, but that was years ago, when I was little."
"You're not so huge now, buckaroo. Come on."
She was pleased that she had remembered the sled. She had one great advantage over this high-tech Hamlin plague: She was a mother with a child to protect, and that made her a force with which even Biolomech's nightmares would find it hard to reckon.
She took the sled outside and helped him onto it.
He sat with his shoe-clad left foot braced against the guide bar. His right foot was covered with the cast except for his toes, and both his toes and the lower part of the cast were sheathed in a thick woolen sock that was now wet and half frozen; nevertheless, he managed to wedge even that foot into the space in front of the guide bar. When he held on to the sides of the sled with both hands, he was in no danger of falling off.
Doofus circled them anxiously as they got Tommy settled on the sled. Several times he barked at the barn behind them, but each time that Meg looked back, she saw nothing.
Picking up the sturdy nylon towrope, Meg prayed that when they got to the house the phone would work, that she would be able to call for help. She dragged Tommy across the long backyard. In some places the runners cut through the thin layer of snow, digging into frozen ground beneath, and the going was tough. In other places, however, where the snow was deeper or the ground icy, the sled glided smoothly enough to give her hope that, if they had to, they would be able to reach the county road before the relentless gales hammered her to her knees in exhaustion.
THE BRUSH ON THE FOREST FLOOR WAS NOT TOO DENSE, AND THE RATS evidently took advantage of deer trails to make greater speed, for the bloodhound plunged relentlessly forward, leading the searchers where the creatures had gone. Fortunately the interlaced evergreens kept most of the snow from sifting under the trees, which made their job easier and was a boon to the stumpy-legged dog. Ben expected Max to bay, for he had seen all the old jailbreak movies in which Cagney or Bogart had been pursued by baying hounds, but Max made a lot of chuffing and snuffling sounds, barked once, and did not bay at all.
They had gone a quarter of a mile from the Biolomech fence, stumbling on the uneven ground, frequently spooked by the bizarre shadows stirred by the bobbling beams of the flashlights, when Ben realized that the rats had not burrowed into the forest floor. If that had been their intention, they could have tunneled into the ground shortly after entering the cover of the trees. But they had raced on, searching for something better than a wild home, which made sense because they were not wild, far from it. They had been bred from generations of tame lab rats and lived all their lives in a cage, with food and water constantly available. They would be at a loss in the woods, even as smart as they were, so they would try to press ahead in hope of finding a human habitation to share, travel as far as possible before exhaustion and the deepening cold stopped them.
Ben remembered the attractive woman in the jeep wagon: chestnut hair, almond-brown eyes, an appealing spatter of freckles. The boy in the backseat, his leg in a cast, had been nine or ten and had reminded Ben of his own daughter, Melissa, who had been nine when she had lost her hard-fought war with cancer. The boy had that look of innocence and vulnerability that Melissa had possessed and that had made it so hard for Ben to watch her decline. Peering at mother and son through the open car window, Ben had envied them the normal life he imagined they led, the love and sharing of a family unscathed by the whims of fate.
Now, crashing through the woods behind Deputy Hockner and the dog, Ben was seized by the horrible certainty that the rats—having escaped from Biolomech hours before the snow began to fall—had made it to Cascade Farm, the nearest human habitat, and that the family he had envied was in mortal danger. Lassiter. That was their name. With a surety almost psychic in intensity, Ben knew that the rats had taken up residence with the Lassiters.
Hostile, Acuff had said. Exceedingly hostile. Mindlessly, unrelentingly, demonically hostile.
"Hold up! Wait! Hold up!" he shouted.
Deputy Hockner reined in Max, and the search party came to a halt in a clearing encircled by wind-shaken pines. Explosive clouds of crystallized breath plumed from the nostrils and mouths of the men, and they all turned to look questioningly at Ben.
He said, "Steve, go back to the main gate. Load up a truck with men and get down to Cascade Farm. You know it?"
"Yeah, it's the next place along Black Oak Road."
"God help those people, but I'm sure the rats have gone there. It's the only warm place near enough. If they didn't stumble on Cascade Farm and take refuge there, then they'll die in this storm—and I don't think we're lucky enough to count on the weather having done them in."
"I'm on my way," Steve said, turning back.
To Deputy Hockner, Ben said, "All right, let's go. And let's hope to God I'm wrong."
Hockner relaxed the tension on Max's leash. This time the hound bayed once, long and low, when he caught the rats' scent.
BY THE TIME MEG DREW THE SLED ACROSS THE LONG YARD TO THE FOOT of the porch steps, her heart was thudding almost painfully, and her throat was raw from the frigid air. She was far less sanguine than she first had been about her ability to haul Tommy all the way out to the county road. The task might have been relatively easy after the storm had passed; however, now she was not just fighting the boy's weight but the vicious wind as well. Furthermore, the sled's runners had not been sanded, oil polished, and soaped in preparation for the season, so the rust on them created friction.
Doofus stayed close to the sled, but he was beginning to suffer from the effects of the blizzard. He shuddered uncontrollably. His coat was matted with snow. In the vague amber light that radiated from the kitchen windows to the yard at the bottom of the porch steps, Meg could see tiny glistening icicles hanging from the ruff on the Labrador's throat.
Tommy was in better shape than the dog. He had pulled up the hood on his coat and had bent forward, keeping his face out of the punishing wind. But neither he nor Meg wore insulated underwear, and they were both dressed in jeans rather than heavy outdoor pants. On the longer trek from the house to Black Oak Road, the wind would leach a lot of heat from them.
Again she prayed that the telephone would work.
Looking up at her, Tommy was bleak faced within the cowl of his coat. All but shouting against the cacophonous babble of the storm, she told him to wait there (as if he could do anything else), told him that she would be back in a minute (although they both knew that something terrible could happen to her in the house).
Carrying the 12-gauge Mossberg, she went up the porch steps and cautiously opened the back door. The kitchen was a mess. Packages of food had been dragged out of the cabinets, torn open, and the contents scattered across the floor. Several kinds of cereal, sugar, flour, cornstarch, cornmeal, crackers, cookies, macaroni, and spaghetti were mixed with the shattered glass and wet contents of a score of broken jars of spaghetti sauce, applesauce, cherries, olives, and pickles.
The destruction was unnerving because it was so unmistakably an expression of mindless rage. The rats had not torn these packages to obtain food. The creatures seemed so inimical to humankind that they destroyed people's property for the joy of it, reveling in the ruin and waste in much the way that gremlins of age-old myth were supposed to delight in the trouble that they caused.
These monsters, of course, were man-made. What kind of world had it become when men created their own goblins? Or had that always been the case?
She could see no signs of the rats that had caused the ruin in the kitchen, no furtive movement in the shadowy cupboards, no sinuous forms slinking along the walls or through the rubble. Cautiously she stepped across the threshold into the house.
The icy wind came with her, exploding through the door, as if it were water under high pressure. White clouds of flour and sparkling miniature tornadoes of sugar granules were spun across the room, and some of the heavier debris—Cheerios and broken bits of spaghetti took flight as well.
Garbage and shattered glass crunched underfoot as she edged warily to the telephone, which hung on the wall on the far side of the room, near the refrigerator.
Three times she saw movement from the corner of her eye and was sure it was purposeful—the rats—and she swung the muzzle of the shotgun to bear on it. But it was always just an empty raisin box or the torn wrapper from a package of cookies stirring in the invasive wind.
She reached the phone and lifted the handset. No dial tone. The line was dead, either because of the storm or the rats.
As Meg regretfully returned the handset to its cradle, the wind subsided. In the suddenly still air, she smelled fumes. Natural gas. No, not natural gas. Something else. More like ... gasoline.
All her internal alarm bells began to clang.
Now that cold wind was no longer sweeping through the room, Meg realized that the house reeked of heating-oil fumes, which must be rising from the basement where the lines between the big oil tank and the furnace had been breached. She had walked into a trap. These ratlike gremlins were so hostile, so demonic, that they were willing to destroy the house that provided them with shelter if, in leveling it, they could kill one human being.
She stepped away from the telephone, toward the door.
Through the ventilation duct she heard the soft, hollow, echoey, familiar thump-click-whoosh of the electronic pilot light on the basement furnace: the sparking of an electric arc to ignite the heating coils.
A fraction of a second later, before she could even take a second step, the house exploded.
FOLLOWING THE BLOODHOUND AND DEPUTY HOCKNER, FOLLOWED IN turn by three of his own men, Ben Parnell reached the northern perimeter of the woods and saw the faint lights of the house at Cascade Farm, dimly visible through the heavily falling snow, perhaps two hundred yards away across a sloping field.
"I knew it," he said. "That's where they've gone."
He thought of the woman and the boy in the station wagon, and he was overcome by a powerful sense of responsibility for them that went beyond his duties at Biolomech. For two years he'd felt that he had failed his own child, Melissa, by not saving her from cancer, which was irrational, of course, because he was not a doctor and did not have the knowledge to cure her. But his profound feeling of failure couldn't be assuaged. He'd always had an unusually strong sense of responsibility to and for others, a virtue that sometimes could be a curse. Now, as he looked down on Cascade Farm, he was gripped by a powerful and urgent need to ensure the safety of that woman, her boy, and whatever other members of their family shared the farmhouse.
"Let's move," he said to his men.
Deputy Hockner was unfolding a lightweight blanket made from one of those space-age materials with high insulation. "You go ahead," he said, dropping to his knees and wrapping Max in the blanket. "My dog has to warm up. He isn't built for prolonged exposure to this kind of weather. Soon as he's thawed out a bit, we'll follow you."
Ben nodded, turned, and took only two steps when, out on the lowlands, the farmhouse exploded. A yellow-orange flash of light was followed by a shock wave, a low and ominous wham that was felt as much as heard. Flames leaped from the shattered windows and raced up the walls.
THE FLOOR BUCKED, THROWING MEG OFF HER FEET; THEN IT FELL INTO place, and she fell with it, facedown in the torn packages, scattered food, and glass. The breath was knocked out of her, and she was temporarily deafened by the blast. But she was not so disoriented that she was unaware of the fire, which licked up the walls and spread across the floor with frightening speed, as though it were alive and intent upon cutting her off from the door.
As she pushed onto her knees, she saw that blood slicked her hand. She had been cut by the broken glass. It wasn't life-threatening, just a gash across the meaty part of her left palm, but deep enough to hurt. She felt no pain, probably because she was in a state of shock.
Still holding the shotgun tightly in her right hand, she rose to her feet. Her legs were shaky, but she stumbled toward the door as fire seethed over all four walls, across the ceiling.
She made it through the door just as the kitchen floor began to crack apart behind her. The porch was badly damaged by the blast, and the roof sagged toward the middle. When she moved off the bottom step into the yard, one of the corner posts snapped from the strain of dislocation. The porch collapsed in her wake, as if her passage had been sufficient to disturb its delicate balance, and her temporary deafness ended with that crash.
Tommy had been thrown off the sled by the shock wave of the explosion, and he had either rolled or crawled about twenty feet farther from the burning house. He was sprawled in the snow, and the Labrador was attending him solicitously. Meg raced to him, certain that he had been hurt, though nothing had fallen on him, and though he was beyond the reach of the fire. He was all right—frightened, crying, but all right.