Nancy swept the remaining porcelain figurines from the glass display shelves. She stomped on them, one after the other, stomped and ground them under her heels and kicked at the fragments. She snatched up an angel head and threw it across the room with such force that a sharp piece of the broken neck lodged in the Sheetrock. The glazed and haloed head, big as a plum, stared down at her as if with astonishment, like the head of a trophy deer mounted on a hunter’s wall. Stomping, grinding, kicking, Nancy suddenly became aware that she was shrieking with a kind of furious delight, her shrill cries echoing off the living-room walls, and the wild sound empowered her, thrilled her.
Ariel must have been thrilled, too, because she took a single step past the archway, into the room, and stood shrieking along with Nancy. She raised her fists and shook them, and she threw her head back and forth, whipping her shoulders with her long blond hair. Her eyes were bright with intelligence and reason. Her voice was strong and clear with intelligence and reason. She wasn’t usurping Nancy’s moment, but rather encouraging her; this was a you-go-girl shriek.
Mr. Lyss parked at the curb and switched off the headlights, and all the bright tumbling snowflakes came down dimmer in the dark, as if the light that was turned off had been in each of them.
“You positive this is Bozeman’s house?”
Nummy said, “Yes, sir. This here’s just one block over from Grandmama’s place, where I lived before the Martians come.”
The cozy brick house was one story with white shutters at the windows. The front porch had a white painted-iron railing and white iron corner posts and what they called a baked-aluminum roof. Nummy always wondered where they found an oven to bake something as big as that roof.
“You sure he lives alone, Peaches?”
“Kiku she’s dead and the kids was never born.”
“How long ago did Kiku buy the farm?”
“She didn’t buy no farm, it was a grave plot.”
“I guess I misunderstood. How long’s she been dead?”
“It might be like two years. Longer than Grandmama.”
“Maybe Bozeman doesn’t live alone.”
“Who would he live with?” Nummy wondered.
“A girlfriend, a boyfriend, one of each, his grandmama, a damn pet alligator. How the hell should I know? The sonofabitch could live with anybody. If you used what brain you have, boy, you wouldn’t ask so many dumb questions.”
“The Boze lives alone. I’m pretty sure. Anyway, there’s no lights on in there, so nobody’s home.”
“Alligators can see in the dark,” Mr. Lyss said. “But come on, let’s go. I want that snowmobile, and I want out of this village of the damned.”
The house next door was dark, too, and there were no streetlamps. The blacktop and the lawns were covered with snow, but although that white blanket seemed like it was giving off light, it really didn’t. And the falling flakes were so thick they were almost like a fog, so you couldn’t see far. Even if someone might be looking out a window somewhere, he wouldn’t be able to see that Mr. Lyss carried a long gun held down at his right side.
Mr. Lyss had two pistols and all kinds of extra bullets in the pockets of his big coat. He found the guns in the preacher’s house that they burned down because it was full of the giant cocoons growing monsters inside. Mr. Lyss said he was going to pay for the guns with his lottery winnings—he had a ticket in his wallet with what he knew would be the right number—but Nummy had the bad feeling that Mr. Lyss really just stole them. Mr. Lyss seemed like his folks had never churched him when he was growing up.
The snow made a soft crunching sound under their feet as they walked around the house to the back porch, where they couldn’t be seen from the street. Mr. Lyss didn’t need his set of lock picks, because when he tried the kitchen door, it opened inward, hinges creaking.
Suddenly Nummy didn’t want to go into Officer Barry Bozeman’s house, not because it was wrong to go into a house when you weren’t invited, but because something bad waited for them in there. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew. A sick, sliding feeling in his stomach. A tightness in his chest that prevented him from drawing deep breaths.
“Let’s leave now,” Nummy whispered.
“Nowhere to go,” said Mr. Lyss. “And not enough time to go there.”
The old man crossed the threshold, slid one hand along the wall beside the door, and switched on the lights.
When Nummy reluctantly followed Mr. Lyss, he saw the Boze in his underwear and open bathrobe, sitting in a chair at the kitchen table. The Boze’s head was tipped back, his mouth hanging open, his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
“Dead,” said Mr. Lyss.
Nummy knew dead when he saw it.
Even though Officer Bozeman was dead, Nummy was uncomfortable, seeing him in his underwear. He was also uncomfortable because it seemed wrong to stare at a dead person when he didn’t know you were there and he couldn’t tell you to get out or even make himself more presentable.
You couldn’t look away from a dead person, either. Then it would seem you were embarrassed for him, as though it must be his fault he died.
When the dead person was someone you knew, like the Boze—or like Grandmama—you felt a little like you wanted to die yourself. But you just had to look at him anyway, because this was the last time you would see him except in photos, and photos were just photos, they weren’t the person.
A silver bead glistened on the Boze’s left temple, just like the beads on the faces of those zombie people in the jail cells.
All the people in jail had waited like good dogs told “Stay.” And then the handsome young man had arrived and turned into an angel, but then not an angel, and then he had torn them all apart and had taken them into himself.
Nummy hoped the handsome young man didn’t show up here anytime soon.
Mr. Lyss closed the back door and crossed the room, leaving clumps of snow on the vinyl floor. He peered closely at the corpse but didn’t touch it.
“He’s been dead awhile. At least eight or ten hours, probably longer. Probably it happened before dawn.”
Nummy didn’t have any idea how you could know when a person must have died, and he didn’t want to learn. To learn such a thing, you’d have to see a lot of dead people and most likely examine them close, but what Nummy wanted most was never to see another dead person as long as he lived.
From the table, Mr. Lyss picked up a sort of gun made of shiny metal. He turned it this way and that, studying it.
On the table stood a bowl of fresh fruit: a few bananas, a pear, a couple of big apples that didn’t look quite ripe. Mr. Lyss pointed the strange-looking gun at an apple and pulled the trigger. Thhuuup! Suddenly on the apple appeared a gleaming silvery bead just like the one on Officer Bozeman’s face.
Mr. Lyss pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. When he fired the gun a third time—Thhuuup!—the second apple now had a silver bead, too. The fourth time, nothing happened again.
“A two-cycle mechanism. What’s it do on the second cycle?” Mr. Lyss asked.
There wasn’t any kind of cycle in the kitchen, not a bicycle or a tricycle, or a motorcycle. Nummy didn’t know how to answer the old man’s question, and he didn’t want to be snarled at again and told that he was dumb. They both knew he was dumb, he always had been, so neither of them needed to be reminded of it all the time. Nummy kept silent.
As Mr. Lyss returned the silver-bead gun to the table where he’d found it, piano music rose from the living room. The Boze had a piano. He called it an upright, so Nummy figured it originally must have been in a church or somewhere clean and holy like that, not in some barroom. Kiku played the upright, and she taught the Boze to play it, but neither of them could be playing it now, both being dead.
“Let’s get out of here,” Nummy said.
“No. We’re in it now, boy.” The old man raised his long gun. “Cowardice is often a fine thing, but there’s times when it can get you killed.”
Mr. Lyss went to the hallway door, which stood open. He found the light switch, and the dark hall brightened.
As Mr. Lyss stepped out of the kitchen, Nummy decided it was scarier to be alone with a dead person than it was to go see who was at the piano. He followed the old man.
The music was pretty but sad.
At the end of the hall, the living room remained dark. Nummy wondered how anyone could play a piano so well in total darkness.
Sammy Chakrabarty never stood around waiting for someone else to get things done. He was always moving, doing, thinking, dealing with the task of the moment but simultaneously planning ahead. He stood five ten, weighed only 130 pounds, ate enough for two men, but couldn’t gain an ounce because he was so active and his metabolism was always revving.
He had been helping to adapt the current broadcast to the failure of all phone service and Internet access, which seemed to be a crisis when it happened in the middle of a talk show. Now it wasn’t a crisis anymore, wasn’t even a problem, considering that two men had just been killed, men or something passing for men, and KBOW had plunged into the Twilight Zone.
Sammy ran from the engineer’s control room to the kitchenette, which featured a refrigerator, microwave oven, ice-maker, and coffee machine. Sammy yanked open the cabinet drawer that contained flatware and various utensils, including a few knives, and he selected the biggest and sharpest blade.
At twenty-three, Sammy was already the radio station’s program director, promotion director, and community-affairs director. He lived in an inexpensive two-room apartment, drove an ancient Honda, and invested half his after-tax income, doing his own online stock trading with considerable success. His plan was to become general manager by the age of twenty-six, purchase KBOW by the time he was twenty-nine, and use it as a platform to develop groundbreaking programming that might have enough appeal to be syndicated across the country.
The extraordinary events of the past few minutes might have ramifications that would set back his plan as much as a year, perhaps even eighteen months. But Sammy Chakrabarty could not conceive of any circumstances that might delay him longer than that or thwart him altogether.
Carrying the knife, he hurried back through the building toward the engineer’s nest, where the station personnel and the giant with the half-smashed face, who called himself Deucalion, stood over the bodies that looked like Warren and Andy Snyder but perhaps were not.
Ralph Nettles, their engineer, was a rock-solid guy, known for his reliability, truthfulness, and common sense. So it must be true that Warren and Andy had tried to kill him, that this tattooed stranger saved his life and was their ally, and that pale blue vapor gushed from Warren’s nostrils during his death throes, as though he might be less a man than a machine in which some reservoir of coolant had been ruptured. It must be true, but everyone preferred to have a bit more confirming evidence.
In the control room, in addition to Ralph and the giant, there were Burt Cogborn, the station’s advertising salesman and ad-copy writer, and Mason Morrell, their weekday-evening talk-show host, who had switched from live chatter to a prerecorded segment that he kept on hand for emergencies like this. Well, not exactly like this. The kind of emergency Mason had in mind was an unexpected attack of on-air diarrhea. Everyone but the stranger looked anxious and confused.
In Sammy’s absence, the body of Warren Snyder had been stripped to the waist, and his pants had been pulled down far enough to reveal his entire abdomen, sternum to groin.
“I don’t know exactly what you’ll see,” Deucalion said, “but I’m confident it will be enough to prove this wasn’t the real Warren Snyder.”
The giant knelt beside the corpse and plunged the knife into it, just below the breastbone.
Mason Morrell gasped, probably not because the mutilation of the corpse shocked or dismayed him, but only for effect, to suggest that he, an on-air talent, was by nature more sensitive than those who labored behind the scenes of his show. Sammy liked Mason, though the guy was always performing to one degree or another, whether at the microphone or not, and he was sometimes exhausting.
A thin serpent of blood slithered from the haft of the buried knife and along the pale abdomen, and for a moment the cadaver seemed human, after all. But then Deucalion slashed to the navel and beyond, and the illusion of humanity was cut away. The lips of the wound sagged apart, and the blood—if it was blood—proved to be confined to the surface tissues.
Deeper, all was strange, not the viscera of a human body. Some of the organs were the color of milk glass, others were white tinted unevenly with faint streaks of gray like the flesh of certain fish, and a smaller number were white with the merest suggestion of green, some smooth and slick, others textured like curds of cottage cheese, all of them bizarre in shape and asymmetrical. A double helix of opalescent tubes twined through the body trunk, and a creamy fluid leaked from those that had been nicked or severed. Throughout the body cavity lay a fine web of luminous filaments that seemed less biological than electronic, and they glowed softly even though this replicant of Warren Snyder was surely as dead as the real man that he had replaced.
Leaving the knife protruding from the body, Deucalion rose to his full height.
With a quiver of revulsion and with fear in his voice that dismayed him, Sammy Chakrabarty asked, “What is that thing?”
“It was made in a laboratory,” the giant said. “Hundreds or even thousands of them are in the process of taking control of this town.”
“What laboratory?” Ralph Nettles wondered. He shook his head in disbelief. “Our science isn’t far enough advanced to do this.”
“The proof is before your eyes,” Deucalion reminded him.
Burt Cogborn stared not at the cadaver but at his wristwatch, as if his world of radio-spot sales allowed no room for a development of this magnitude, as if he might announce that he had a deadline looming and needed to return to his office to write ad copy.
“Maybe a laboratory,” Ralph acceded. “But not on this planet.”
“On this planet, in this state, this county,” Deucalion assured them with unsettling certainty. “Who I am, who made these creatures, I’ll explain soon. But first, you’ve got to prepare to defend the station, and warn others, both in Rainbow Falls and beyond, what’s happening here.”
“Defend it with what?” Mason Morrell asked. “A couple of kitchen knives? Against hundreds—maybe thousands—of these … these things? And they’re stronger than us? Man, this isn’t a movie, there’s no big-screen superstar to make everything right in the third act. I can’t save the world. I can’t save anything but my own ass, split this place, get out of town, way out, leave it to the army.”
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