Nummy was pleased that Mr. Lyss had begun to understand. He said, “You want to tithe? Grandmama she always tithed to St. John’s over on Bear Claw Lane, so if you want to tithe where she did, then that would be good.”
Mr. Lyss just stared at Nummy while the piano got even sadder. Then he threw his hands in the air as if shouting hallelujah and tossing away all his cares. “I give up. How can I expect you to learn some street smarts when you don’t have any other smarts of any damn kind? Can a donkey waltz? Can a monkey sing opera? Can a cow jump over the freaking moon?”
Nummy didn’t know what to say because he didn’t understand any of those questions. They didn’t make sense to him.
Fortunately, Mr. Lyss didn’t try to shake answers out of Nummy, like he sometimes did. Instead, the old man climbed into the open roofless trailer with the snowmobile and began examining the controls, all the while muttering to himself.
Nummy shuffled around the garage, looking at the tools hanging on the walls, the workbench with all its little drawers, several gasoline-company signs the Boze collected, and the spiderwebs here and there in corners. He didn’t like spiders at all. Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web was okay, she was nice, but she wasn’t a real spider, she was a story spider with a good heart. He hoped it was too cold for spiders now because real ones didn’t have good hearts.
Once, more years back than he could count, he came upon a web where a fly was stuck and a spider was eating it alive. Nummy felt awful for the fly because it didn’t know webs were sticky, it just didn’t know, it made one mistake, and now it was being eaten. The fly was hardly alive. Nummy was too late to save it. He turned away but couldn’t stop feeling awful for the fly. He felt awful all that day, way back when. And later that evening, he realized why he was upset about the fly’s suffering. The little fly was dumb, and the spider was smart, making its sticky web, and so the dumb fly never had a chance. When he figured that out, Nummy told Grandmama about the fly, and he cried while he told her.
Grandmama listened to every word, she never cut him short, and then she said the fly wouldn’t want Nummy to cry for it. She said the fly led a happy life, just as free as any bird, exploring all day and always delighted by what it saw in the world, playing fly games, no need to work because it ate crumbs and other things that were free, and it didn’t have to have a house with all the upkeep that required. Meanwhile, the spider was always spinning webs, scheming, either working or lying in wait, which was just another kind of work. The spider couldn’t fly. It crouched in corners while flies flew. The spider could only watch flying things and envy them. The spider lived in shadows, darkness, but the fly’s life was full of light. Because it only ate flies and such, never a cookie crumb or a dropped bit of a candy bar, the spider never tasted anything sweet. The spider was proud about how smart it was, but when you really thought about the situation, the fly had all the fun. And even though the fly came to a terrible end, it didn’t know that such a thing could happen to it, and therefore it lived without worry. Because the spider knew what it did to flies, it also knew that some other creature might do the same to it, some toad or frog or bird. So the fly lived without worry and free and flying, while the ever-working spider lived in fear and shadows, crouched and wary or scuttling for cover.
After circling Officer Bozeman’s garage, Nummy saw no spiders in the webs or out of them, but he found the keys to the three vehicles on a Peg-Board by the open door to the kitchen. He knew which one was for the snowmobile because he’d seen the Boze use it. He took the key to Mr. Lyss, who was just climbing over the railing of the open trailer.
Accepting the key, pointing at the snowmobile, the old man said, “I think I’ve got this bugger figured out. But before we go scooting off into the storm of the damn century, let’s find some gloves and get your feet properly protected.”
Mr. Lyss led the way back into the house and into the sad piano music. Nummy reluctantly followed because he didn’t want to find a spider when he was alone in the garage.
Searching the bedroom closet, the old man found waterproof boots. Mr. Lyss was already wearing good boots, but Nummy had only shoes. Mr Lyss stuffed some of Officer Bozeman’s socks in the toes of the boots, and then they fit Nummy’s feet well enough.
“I won’t take these here boots,” Nummy said. “I’ll only borrow them.”
There were a few pairs of gloves. For both of them, Mr. Lyss chose two pairs with what he called wrist and gauntlet straps. He could pull the straps to make the gloves fit nice and tight.
“I’ll only borrow these, too,” Nummy said.
“Me too,” Mr. Lyss said. “I’ll just borrow these gloves for the rest of my life, and when I’m dead like Bozeman, I’ll give them back to him.”
Because the Boze had only one snowmobiler helmet, which Mr. Lyss would need because he was driving, Nummy had to settle for a toboggan cap. He could pull it down over his ears once they were moving fast and making cold wind.
“But don’t you go thinking that cap is yours now,” Mr. Lyss said. “It’s only yours on loan.”
“I know,” Nummy assured him.
Mr. Lyss found a red-and-gray wool scarf for Nummy to wrap around his face later, when they were speeding through the snow. “You understand this is only on loan, too?”
“You lose it, I’ll make you pay for it, even if you have to work the rest of your life to earn the money.”
“I won’t lose it,” Nummy said.
From the Boze’s bedroom, Mr. Lyss went to stand in the living-room archway. He watched the Xerox Boze playing the piano.
At last the old man said, “I don’t know why it doesn’t feel right, but it doesn’t. I just can’t kill him.”
“Maybe you’re not a killer.”
“Oh, I’m a killer sure enough. I’ve killed more men than you’ve ever met in your whole life. I’d as soon kill most people as look at them. I’ve killed some people just because they smiled and said hello to me.”
Nummy shook his head. “I’m not sure you really did.”
“You better not be calling me a liar. Somebody calls me a liar, I cut him open, rearrange his innards, sew him up, and for the rest of his life he has to pee out of his left ear.”
“What you said before is you cut out his tongue and fried it with onions for breakfast.”
“That’s right. I do that sometimes, and sometimes I make him pee out of his ear. Depends on my mood. So you better not be calling me a liar.”
“I’m not. That wouldn’t be nice. People they should always be nice to each other.”
In the garage again, the old man pushed a button to put up the big door. A little wind had come up, and snow blew in from the night.
Putting his long gun on the workbench, he said, “I can’t see any way to take this. It won’t fit in the saddlebags. We’ll have to hope the pistols are enough.”
The smaller guns were in the deep pockets of his long coat, and there were lots of bullets in other pockets, all borrowed from the preacher’s house that they burned down.
Nummy had been with Mr. Lyss not even a day yet, but it seemed like a life’s worth of stuff had happened. You didn’t have time to be bored around Mr. Lyss.
“We’ll pull the trailer into the driveway and drop the ramp in the snow,” the old man said. “But wait. Just let me put on this damn thing.”
The damn thing was the helmet. It was silver and black with a clear window across the face.
A circle of little holes in the helmet, in front of Mr. Lyss’s mouth, let out his voice. “How do I look?”
“Like a spaceman.”
“Scary-looking, am I?”
“No. You look funny.”
“You know what I’ve done to any snarky bastard who says I look funny?”
“Nothing nice,” Nummy said.
The instant he saw it, Frost knew the mouth in the palm of her hand was real, but nevertheless he tried to tell himself that it was just an unusually dimensional tattoo or a joke decal, because if it was real, none of his training or experience would be worth spit in this situation. If it was real, this town didn’t need undercover FBI agents; it needed exorcists, a platoon of them.
When the tongue licked out of the mouth, fondling the teeth and fluttering obscenely, Frost looked to the woman’s eyes. Previously they were glazed, as if she were half in a trance, but they changed now. Her stare became bold and sharp, her eyes as fierce as the eyes of any bird of prey, although no bird’s gaze ever burned with the scorching hatred that informed this creature’s eyes.
The blue-silk robe that had materialized around her became mist again, like the smoke that rises off dry ice, and the mist appeared to be absorbed into her skin. From her toes to the top of her head, she rippled like a heat mirage, and the ultimate-Playmate proportions of her body melted away as her flesh and bones flowed like soft wax. Some of the substance of her torso poured into her outstretched right arm, which swelled, the skin stretching like sausage casing being pumped full of liquified meat. Her hand thickened, and the tongue in the mouth of that hand unraveled toward them, now silvery-gray, as flat as a tapeworm, undulating through the air, the tip of it flaring like the hood of a cobra.
Dagget let out a cry of revulsion and terror that startled Frost but also prepared him for the deafening boom of his partner’s pistol, six quick shots that echoed off the tile floor and walls, off the glass shower door, off the mirror, like flying through the heart of storm clouds when thunder broke the sky. The range was point-blank and Dagget was a master marksman and Frost saw the bullets tear into the na*ed body, which was now as weird as someone reflected in one of those distorting mirrors in a carnival funhouse.
But no blood spilled, no wounds bloomed raw and red. The beast didn’t drop or reel backward from the impact of the high-power rounds, but instead absorbed them as a pond would absorb a dropped stone. The flesh didn’t even dimple with concentric ripples as water would have done. The tissue received the bullets and at once closed around them, smooth and un-scarred.
Dagget’s next four shots had no greater effect than the first six, except that the undulating gray tongue abruptly grew thicker and shot at him with the lightning speed of a striking snake. It wasn’t a tongue anymore, it was an auger, and it bored into Dagget’s face. In an instant it was not a drill anymore, either, and it seemed to have become the hose of a vacuum cleaner, sucking out the contents of his head, his skull imploding like a papery husk, head gone in a blink.
Backing out of the bathroom doorway, Frost stumbled, almost fell, got his balance.
In the bathroom, beyond the open door, Dagget’s pistol clattered against the floor tiles, but his headless body didn’t collapse. The ravenous gray tentacle now seemed to be composed of a swarming mass of small somethings, millions of tiny silvery piranhas, and all of them schooled down through his neck, into his dead body, apparently holding him erect, his legs jittering and his feet seeming to dance on the bathroom floor. Looming beyond the headless marionette, the thing that had been a beautiful woman was now nothing that had a name, a mottled gray-and-silver mass, clotted with red that quickly darkened to veins of charcoal-gray, larger than it had been. It surged even larger as the substance of the corpse was drawn out like soda through a straw, until there were only empty clothes flapping in the air like a scarecrow’s costume, but then the clothes wadded up and were sucked away into the vacuuming tentacle.
Dagget had been killed and devoured in five seconds.
Sammy Chakrabarty always thought the old building that housed KBOW was an ugly pile, but the features that made it off-putting in the past were virtues in the current crisis.
Built in the 1870s by the local arm of the Patrons of Husbandry, otherwise known as the Grange, it served as the Grange Hall, offices and meeting rooms and a big space for community dinners and dances. The Granger movement was an organization of farmers who, in those days, wanted the government to confiscate and operate the railroads and the grain elevators as a public service, thus shifting some of the farmers’ costs from them to the taxpayers.
For most people in the Grange, the motivation was self-interest, but as in any such political organization, a minority of the members were also paranoids. When you were lobbying to have the government seize some people’s property for your benefit, it wasn’t paranoid to think those on the losing end of that deal might take decisive action to halt your activities, might even come around one night with the intention of using more than words to persuade you to rethink your position. But the truest apostles of the paranoid faith spread wild stories, fevered fantasies of bloodbaths in distant states, fierce armies of railroad goons and brutal mercenaries in the employ of grain-elevator barons, entire units of the Grange shot in cold blood, hundreds of people at a time, shot and beaten and stabbed and set on fire and then shot again and then hung and then rehung, and subjected to verbal abuse, their farm animals sold into slavery, their dogs forced to wear humiliating costumes, their barns burned, their land salted and paprikaed.
As Sammy quickly walked the rooms and the hallways of KBOW, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of this fort, he figured that the head of the building committee for the Rainbow Falls Grange had been one of the squirreliest of the group, forcing a design that assumed any Grange supper-and-dance night could become a battleground and the building put under siege. The exterior walls, alternating layers of concrete and brick, were eighteen inches thick. The double-hung windows were kept to a minimum number, narrow and protected by decorative bronze grids that were essentially attractive prison bars. In respect of the building’s historical status, the decorative bronze doors remained, as well, one on each side of the structure, but they were so heavy that they had been retrofitted with concealed ball-bearing hinges to make them easier to use.
By design, nothing in the construction materials was flammable. Yet the contents of the place would have made it a firetrap without the sprinkler system that had been added decades ago to meet the building-code requirements for KBOW to occupy the premises.
The parapeted, nearly flat roof featured glazed-brick paving sloped just enough to the perimeter scuppers to let rain drain off quickly. In snow season, maintenance men regularly shoveled the roof. But tonight would be the first time—at least in recent history—that a gunman would be stationed up there to defend the building.
Ralph Nettles and Deucalion were gone less than ten minutes, and they returned with enough firearms to delight the paranoid head of the Grange building committee if he had still been alive to see them. Six pistols, four assault rifles, three pistol-grip shotguns. They also brought several metal ammunition boxes with strap handles, packed with boxed ammo and with preloaded spare magazines for the various weapons.
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