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She was in a dark humor that was new to her and, she sensed, dangerous to indulge.


“If the staff skipped,” Neil said, “and surely they did skip, the inmates wouldn’t let ordinary locked doors and wire-glass windows hold them in for long.”


“‘We don’t call them inmates,’” Molly said, quoting one of the psychiatrists. “‘We call them patients.’”


“But the most recent place they were keeping him—it’s far up north.”


“Two hundred fifty miles from here,” she confirmed.


“The storm, this nightmare—it didn’t begin so long ago.”


Indeed, when Molly considered the swiftness with which the usual order seemed to have given way to chaos, a jittering terror crawled the darker hallways of her mind. Could human civilization crumble significantly, worldwide, in a matter of hours, in but a quarter of a day, as suddenly as the planet itself might convulse if struck by an asteroid the size of Texas? If their as yet unseen adversary, come down from the stars, could topple centuries-old kingdoms and overturn all of history so swiftly, without meaningful resistance, then surely it was easy to foresee—and impossible to prevent—the eradication of every human life, in every low habitation and high redoubt on Earth, in just twenty-four hours.


If the technology of a greatly advanced extraterrestrial race would seem like purest magic to any civilization a thousand years its inferior, then the masters of that technology would be as gods—but perhaps gods with enigmatic desires and strange needs, gods without compassion, without mercy, offering no redemption, no viaticum, and utterly unresponsive to prayer.


Neil said, of Render, “He couldn’t have broken out and gotten here so quickly. Not even with a fast car and your address, not in these driving conditions, with plenty of roads washed out or flooded between here and there.”


“But there he was, and walking,” Molly said.


“Yes, there he was.”


“Maybe there’s nothing impossible tonight. We’re down the hole to Wonderland, and no White Rabbit to guide us.”


“If I remember correctly, the White Rabbit was an unreliable guide, anyway.”


In a few miles, they came to the turnoff to Black Lake, both the body of water and the town. Molly turned right, leaving the ridge, and followed the descending road, into the steadily darkening rain, its luminosity nearly spent, between massive trees that rose in black ramparts, toward the hope of fellowship and the disquieting expectation of new terrors.


PART THREE


“Through the dark cold and the empty desolation…”


—T. S. Eliot, East Coker


17


MOLLY EXPECTED THAT THE POWER GRID would have failed by now and that the town would stand in darkness. Instead, the glimmer of shop lights and streetlamps was amplified by the refracting rain, so Black Lake looked as if it were the site of a festival.


With a year-round population of fewer than two thousand, the town was much smaller than Arrowhead and Big Bear, the two most popular destinations in these mountains. Lacking ski slopes, Black Lake didn’t enjoy a winter boom, but in summer, campers and boaters outnumbered locals two to one.


The lake was fed by an artesian well, by a few small streams, and now by the deluge. Instead of mixing with the existing lake and being diluted by it, the accumulating rain seemed to float atop the original body of water, as oil would, its luminosity compounded by its volume, shining as if the moon had fallen here.


With inflow substantially exceeding the floodgate outflow, the lake already had risen beyond its banks. The marina was under water, the boats tethered to cleats on submerged docks, the belaying ropes stretched taut.


Silver fingers of water explored with blind patience among the shoreline buildings, learning the lay of the unfamiliar land, probing for weaknesses. If the rain continued unabated, within hours the houses and the businesses on the lowest street would disappear under the rising tide.


Molly had no doubt that during the coming day, the people of Black Lake would face worse threats than flooding.


With most houses brightened by lamplight in every window, the citizens were clearly alert to the dangers at their doorstep and to the momentous events in the world beyond these mountains. They knew that darkness was coming, in every sense of the word, and they wanted to press it back as long as possible.


Black Lake’s residents were different from the former flatlanders and the vacation-home crowd drawn to the more glamorous mountain communities. These folks were at least third-or fourth-generation highlanders, in love with altitude and forests, with the comparative peacefulness of the San Bernardinos high above the overpopulated hills and plains to the west.


They were tougher than most city people, more self-sufficient. They were more likely to own a collection of firearms than was the average family in a suburban neighborhood.


The town wasn’t big enough to have a police force of its own. Because of inadequate manpower spread over too much territory, the county sheriff’s response time to a call from Black Lake averaged thirty-two minutes.


If some hopped-up loser, desperate for drug money or violent sex, broke into your house, you could be killed five times over in thirty-two minutes. Consequently, most of these people were prepared to defend themselves—and with enthusiasm.


Molly and Neil saw no faces at any windows, but they knew that they were being monitored.


Although they had friends throughout Black Lake, neither of them was keen to go door-knocking, partly because of all those guns and their anxious owners. They were also wary of walking into a situation as bizarre as that at the Corrigan place.


In the unrelenting downpour, the cozy houses with their lamplit windows appeared welcoming. To the hapless insect, of course, the Venus’s-flytrap offers a pretty sight and an alluring scent, while the two-lobed leaves wait, jaws cocked and teeth poised.


“Some will have kept to their own homes,” Neil said, “but not all. The more strategically minded have gathered somewhere, pooling ideas, planning a mutual defense.”


Molly didn’t inquire how even the most rugged individualists among these mountain rustics—or an army, for that matter—might be able to defend themselves against technology that could use weather as a weapon on a planetary scale. As long as the question remained unasked, she could pretend there might be an answer.


Black Lake had no grand public buildings that could serve as a nerve center in a crisis like this. Three elected councilmen, who shared the title of mayor on a rotating basis, held their meetings in a booth at Benson’s Good Eats, one of only two restaurants in town.


No schoolhouse, either. Those kids who weren’t home-schooled were bused to out-of-town schools.


Black Lake had two churches, one Catholic and one evangelical Baptist. When Molly cruised by them, both appeared deserted.


At last they found the master strategists on Main Street, in the small commercial district, safely above the steadily rising lake. They had gathered in the Tail of the Wolf Tavern.


A dozen vehicles were parked in front of the place, not along the curb, where the gutters overflowed, but almost in the middle of the street. They faced out from the building, forming an arc, as if they were getaway cars ready to make a fast break.


Under an overhanging roof, protected from the rain, two men stood watch outside the tavern. Molly and Neil knew them.


Ken Halleck worked at the post office that served Black Lake and a few smaller mountain towns. He was known for his smile, which could crease his rubbery face from muttonchop to muttonchop, but he was not smiling now.


“Molly, Neil,” he said solemnly. “Always thought it would be the nut-case Islams who did us in, didn’t you?”


“We aren’t done yet,” said Bobby Halleck, Ken’s son, raising his voice higher than necessary to compete with the rain. “We got the Marines, Army Rangers, Delta Force, we got the Navy Seals.”


Bobby was seventeen, a high-school senior and star quarterback, a good kid with a gee-whiz spunkiness like that of a character from a 1930s or ’40s football movie with Jack Oakie and Pat O’Brien. He seemed not too young to be standing guard but certainly unseasoned, which was probably why his father, armed with a rifle, had given Bobby a pitchfork, which seemed an inadequate deterrent to alien storm troopers although less likely to be accidentally discharged.


Bobby said, “TV’s gone kerflunk, so we aren’t hearing about them, but you can bet the U.S. military is kicking ass.”


Ken watched his son with affection that it was his nature to express openly and often, but now also with a grief that he would never dare put into words for fear that sadness would soon thicken into unrelieved despair, robbing their last hours or days together of what small joys they might otherwise share.


“The President’s holed-up inside some mountain somewhere,” Bobby said. “And we got secret nukes in orbit, I’ll bet, so the bastards won’t be as safe high up in their ships as they think they are. You agree, Mr. Sloan?”


“I’d never bet against the Marines,” Neil told the son, and put a hand consolingly on the father’s shoulder.


“What’s happening here?” Molly asked Ken, indicating the tavern.


“The idea is mutual defense,” he said. “The reality…I don’t know. People have different ideas.”


“About whether they want to live or die?”


“I guess they don’t all see the situation that starkly.” Of her disbelief, he said, “Molly, you know, folks in this town are still who’ve always lived here…except, as people, they aren’t always the same as they used to be. Sometimes I think we’d be better off if the TV had gone kerflunk fifty years ago and never come back on.”


The cold gray stone exterior of the tavern promised less warmth than the interior in fact delivered: worn mahogany floors, polished mahogany walls and ceiling, photographs of the town’s early residents in that time, a century previous, when the streets were shared by automobiles and horses.


The air was redolent of stale beer spilled through the years, of fresh beer recently drawn from taps, of onions and peppers and the limy corn-tortilla fragrance of nachos, of damp wool and cotton clothing slowly steamed dry by body heat—and of a faint sour scent that she imagined might be the odor of communal anxiety.


Molly was dismayed to find only about sixty people, perhaps twenty of whom she knew. The bar held twice that many on an average Saturday night; it could have accommodated four times that number in this emergency.


Only six children were present, which worried her. She expected that families with kids would have been among the first to organize a community defense.


She had brought the doll with her, hoping that the girl who’d left it in the abandoned Navigator might be among those sheltering here. None of the children reacted to the sight of the doll, so Molly put it on the bar.


There was always a chance that the doll’s owner would still arrive here, out of the storm. Always hope.


All six children were gathered at a large corner booth, but the adults had settled in four distinct groups. Molly sensed at once that they were divided by four different ideas about how best to respond to the crisis.


She and Neil were greeted by those they knew and studied by those they didn’t know with a calculation that was almost wariness, as if they were viewed, first, not as allies by the simple virtue of being neighbors, but instead as outsiders to be greeted with greater warmth only when their opinions and loyalties were known.


More than anything else, the dogs surprised her and Neil. She’d once been to France, where she had seen dogs in both drab working-class bars and the finest restaurants. In this country, however, health codes confined them to open patios, and most restaurateurs did not even tolerate them in an al fresco setting.


She saw four, six, eight dogs at first count, in every corner of the room. There were mutts and purebreds, mid-size and larger specimens, but no lap dogs. More canines than children.


Almost as one, the dogs rose to their feet and turned their heads toward her and Neil: some comic faces, some noble, all solemn and alert. Then, after a hesitation, they did a peculiar thing.


18


FROM ALL OVER THE TAVERN, BY DIFFERENT routes, the dogs came to Molly. They didn’t approach in the exuberant romp that expresses a desire to play or with the tail-tucked caution and the wary demeanor that is a response to an unfamiliar and vaguely troubling scent.


Their ears were pricked. Their tails brushed the air with slow tentative strokes. They were clearly drawn to her by curiosity, as if she were something entirely new in their experience—new but not threatening.


Her first count had been one short. Nine dogs were present, not eight, and each was intrigued by her. They circled, crowding against her, busily sniffing her boots, her jeans, her raincoat.


For a moment she thought they smelled the coyotes on her. Then she realized that when she had ventured onto the porch among those beasts, she had been in pajamas and robe, not in any of the clothes she currently wore.


Besides, most domesticated dogs had no sense of kinship with their wild cousins. They usually reacted to the scent of a coyote—and certainly to the cry of one in the night—with raised hackles and a growl.


When she reached down to them, they nuzzled her hands, licked her fingers, welcoming her with an affection that most dogs usually reserved for those people with whom they had enjoyed a much longer acquaintance.


From behind the bar, the owner of the tavern, Russell Tewkes, said, “What’ve you got in your pockets, Molly—frankfurters?”


The tone of his voice didn’t match the jokey nature of the question. He spoke with a heavy note of insinuation that she didn’t understand.


With the build of a beer barrel, the haircut and the merry face of a besotted monk, Russell was the image of a friendly neighborhood barkeep. For the woebegone, he had a sympathetic ear to rival that of any child’s mother. Indefatigably good-natured, at times he came dangerously close to being jolly.


Now a squint of suspicion narrowed his eyes. His mouth set in a grim line. He regarded Molly as he might have reacted to a hulking Hell’s Angel who had the word hate tattooed on both fists.


As the dogs continued to circle and sniff her, Molly realized that Russell was not alone in his distrust. Others in the bar, even people she knew well, who had a moment ago greeted her by name or with a wave, watched her not with the previous political calculation, but with unconcealed suspicion.


Suddenly she understood their change of attitude. They were as familiar with those alien-invasion movies as she and Neil were, and the creepshow currently playing in the theaters of their minds was one of those they-walk-among-us-passing-for-human tales, perhaps Invasion of the Body Snatchers or John Carpenter’s The Thing.

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