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He was half again her size, and she could not push him off, so before he could strike again, she raised her head off the floor and bit his face. Would have gone for his throat. Couldn’t thrust her head in at the right angle, had to go higher. Lower teeth under his jawbone, upper teeth sunk in his unscarred cheek.


He howled and reared back from her, and she held on as if she were a terrier. He flailed on her shoulders, on the sides of her head, glancing blows, thrown in panic, and Molly wouldn’t relent.


He reared up farther, just far enough, and she unlocked her bite, spat him out, shoved him off, levered him aside, thrashed away from him.


The savage, shocked by savagery when it was committed against him, rolled onto his side, and clasped both hands to his torn face, assessing the damage with whimpered disbelief.


Spitting out his blood, gagging on the taste, spitting again, and then again before she would allow herself to gasp for breath, Molly seized the flashlight, scrambled to her feet.


She had seconds, three or four. His shock would be brief, his rage swift, his vengeance brutal.


Lambs, he had said. The little lambs are mine. Mustbe more than one child in the room where Virgil had gone. Sacrifices, he had said.


Phantom bells rang in her damaged ear, and the half-crushed cartilage prickled like glass.


Somewhere the pistol. She had to find it. Her only hope.


Carpet, spatters of blood, carpet, dirty footprint, coins that had perhaps spilled from his pockets, all in the questing beam of light, but no pistol.


Cursing her in a slurred voice, air whistling through his torn cheek with each word, he was on his hands and knees, coming up.


Hoping to buy time to find the handgun, she kicked at his head, missed. He snared her foot, almost toppled her, lost his grip.


Carpet, carpet, blot of blood, more coins, carpet, a hand-rolled cigarette—weed, twisted at both ends—carpet, no gun, no gun. He might have fallen on the pistol.


No more time. She ran to the nearest room, fencing shadows with the flashlight, threw the door shut behind her, fumbled for the lock, hoping there would be one, and there was, just a privacy latch, no deadbolt.


The latch clicked, and he hit the door hard, shook it by the knob. He would kick it next. The latch was flimsy. It wouldn’t hold.


55


MANDOLIN AND FLUTE AND TAMBOURINE AND French horn on a bed of holly, encircled with ribbons, formed the motif on the seat of the straight-backed needlepoint chair to the left of the door.


In the hall, the bitten man kicked the door. The latch twanged but didn’t spring, though one more kick would pop it.


Molly tipped the chair onto its back legs and quickly wedged the headrail under the doorknob.


A second kick shattered the latch mechanism, but the bracing chair held the door and resisted a third kick as well, exquisite needlepoint proving a match for savagery, as ought to be the case in a properly ordered world.


He cursed her, pounded on the door with a fist. “I’ll be back at you,” he promised. “I’ll be back when I’m done with my lambs.”


Then maybe he went away.


Whether he was waiting for her or not, he was just a man, not something from another world. He hadn’t been able to phase through the barricaded door.


Numerous encounters with threats unearthly and unthinkable had left her unharmed, yet an ordinary man had wounded her. In this fact was a significance that she could sense but not grasp, and once more she felt herself to be on the doorstep of a revelation of enormous importance.


She had no time to connect the puzzle pieces to which intuition had called her attention. Contemplation required peace and time, and she had none of either.


The beast she’d bitten had said the lambs, the children, were his sacrifices. To what, to whom, on what altar, for what purpose did not matter, only his intention—and stopping him.


Her crushed and bleeding ear ached, but it no longer rang. She could hear well enough.


The only sound was the ceaseless movement inside the walls, the rustle and slither. No voices rose from the whispery throng.


Through her rolled waves of nausea. Saliva flooded her mouth. She could still taste blood, so she spat instead of swallowing, and spat again.


Turning from the door, probing with the flashlight, the first thing she saw was a hatchet embedded in the side of a tall wooden cabinet. Blood on the blade, on the handle.


Sickened, she didn’t want to look further, but she had to, and did.


She was in a home office, unrevealed by two windows looking out on moss-strangled trees in the purple noon. A door stood open to an adjacent bathroom.


She shared the room with two chopped bodies—a man on the floor, a woman tumbled in an armchair. She had become inured to horror, yet she didn’t look at them too closely or too long.


Family photos on the wall behind the desk revealed that these were the parents of the children locked in the room near the head of the stairs. The kids in the pictures were a dimpled boy and an older sister with black hair and Cleopatra bangs.


Appearing in none of the photos, the scarred man must be an intruder. She had known that Michael Render would not be the only sociopath to embrace the chaos of a crumbling civilization.


Sacrifices.


Hurriedly, she searched the desk drawers, seeking a weapon. She hoped to find a handgun. The best she could come up with was a pair of scissors.


Behind her, the scarred man said, “Drop them,” and pressed the muzzle of a gun, probably her own 9-mm pistol, against the nape of her neck.


56


THE NEEDLEPOINT CHAIR REMAINED BRACED under the knob; but the killer had not phased through that barrier or any other.


The adjacent bath was shared between this study and a bedroom. He had been in the house long enough to know it well, and he had come into the study by way of the bath and the neighboring room.


Molly didn’t at once drop the scissors, as commanded. Her vivid imagination painted a tableau of rape and torture that made it worth the risk of twisting around on him, trying to put the scissors in his guts, hoping to dodge the shot.


But she didn’t know the future and could not act on a fear of what it might be. The past and future are equally unredeemable, and the only time of consequence is this moment, now, where life occurs, where choices are made for reasons practical and philosophical.


Dropped, the scissors clattered on the desk top.


He shifted the muzzle of the pistol to her throat, encircled her with one arm, pawed her br**sts through her sweater, motivated not by lust but by the desire to hurt her, which he did, squeezing hard.


“You like to bite, huh?” His voice was strangely affected by his punctured cheek, his breath reeking as before but now also redolent of blood. “You eat lamb?”


If she screamed, Neil would come, but he would leave the six children in the street, protected only by the dogs, which were now under suspicion.


“You eat lamb?” he repeated, squeezing her with such cruelty that she almost gave him the satisfaction of crying out in pain.


“No. I don’t like it.”


“You’re gonna acquire a taste for it,” he said. “I’m gonna take you down the hall, see my two lambs, gonna watch while you bite those tender babies.”


In the walls, in the ceiling, the unknown presences churned with greater frenzy.


“The harder you bite them, the more fun places you think to bite them, the better your chances I’ll let you live.”


Vamping for time, expecting his answer to be one kind of crazy or another with no enlightening content, Molly said, “Sacrifices, you called them. To what, why?”


“They want the kids, kids more than anything, but they can’t touch them.”


“Who?”


“Them that rule the world now.”


“Why can’t they touch the kids?”


“Don’t you know nothing? Kids ain’t for sifting,” he said. “But ain’t no rules apply to me. If I do the kids, them with the power will be good to me.”


Molly felt like a blind woman reading lines of Braille in which random dots had been omitted. Some vital understanding loomed just beyond the limits of her vision.


He withdrew his arm from around her, but he dug the muzzle of the pistol harder against her throat, just under the hinge of the jawbone. “You pick up the flashlight on the desk and move slow and easy with me. Don’t try nothin’ or I’ll blow your pretty head off.”


The bleak afternoon brightened beyond the windows. Cold white radiance streamed down, rinsing the purple out of the air.


She recognized the quality of light. One of the silent, glowing craft must be hovering over the house.


As before, she felt closely observed, examined, but more than merely examined: She felt known in heart and mind and body, known in terrifying completeness.


Her assailant apparently felt the same thing, because his body stiffened and he shrank a step back from the windows, pulling her with him. “What’s this shit?”


Fear distracted him, and when the pressure of the muzzle eased at Molly’s throat, she knew this was the time to act, for she was in the moment as seldom before, clear-eyed and quick of mind, all the experience of her past and all the hopes of her future focused here at the still point that was now.


From the desk she snatched the scissors. Simultaneously she pulled away from him and heard the double click of the trigger but not the boom of a shot.


She swung toward him. The pistol a foot from her face. Muzzle so huge, so dark. He pulled the trigger again. The gun didn’t fire.


As ruthless as any Fate snipping a lifeline, she slashed at his gun hand with the scissors. He cried out and dropped the weapon.


She threw the scissors at him, stooped, and snatched the pistol off the floor.


Rising to full height, she saw him reach for her. She squeezed the trigger, and the gun bucked in her hand.


He served as the sacrifice that he had intended to make of the children. The bullet found his heart with such accuracy that he was dead before he could look surprised, a cooling corpse before he hit the floor.


His two misfires followed by her point-blank shot were not a series of coincidences, and the gun was not defective. Some power was at work on her behalf, some agency uncanny.


Behind the plaster, the teeming hive had fallen silent.


57


THE BRILLIANCE OF THE HOVERING UFO, POURING through the windows, brought too much revealing light to this body-strewn abattoir. Molly retrieved her flashlight from the desk and departed by way of the bath that connected this study to another room.


A high window in the shower stall admitted light, which revealed her moving figure in the mirror—and the figure of another who was not present. She saw the other in a glance, halted in shock to look again, but only she herself was now reflected.


She didn’t know if her mother, Thalia, glimpsed in the mirror, had actually been there or whether this vision had been merely the ephemeral expression of her fondest wish, hallucination, even perhaps a flicker of madness.


She wanted to linger, studying the mirror, but the lambs, having been spared from sacrifice, needed her. Through the next room, into the hall, her way was lighted by the vessel above, by virtue of windows and skylights.


When she reached the door near the head of the stairs, it swung open wide in front of her.


This was a girl’s bedroom. Stuffed animals reclined against the headboard of a bed skirted in flounces. Satiny drapes trimmed with rickrack. Posters of teen idols on the walls, polished boys with an androgynous quality. Frills and thrills.


Two chairs stood back to back. The girl with the Cleopatra bangs, perhaps ten or eleven, and her dimpled brother sat in them, secured at wrists and ankles by duct tape.


Virgil guarded the children, and he had something formidable to guard against.


A colony of fungi—white spheres, pale lung sacs—crouched in a corner. A second colony, having sprouted those thick yet insectile legs, hung from the ceiling over the bed. Except for the inflating and deflating sacs, they were motionless, although busy life might be asquirm within them.


On the bed were the depleted roll of duct tape and the knife that the killer had used to cut it.


Hoping that the bright vessel would continue to hover over the house, shedding light through the windows, and that she would not be forced to work by flashlight in the company of the ambulatory fungi, Molly plucked the knife off the bed and sawed at the binding tape.


Their names were Bradley and Allison, and Molly did her best to soothe their fears as she also explained how directly and quickly they must leave the house. She lied about the fate of their parents when they asked anxiously after them.


Saving all these children’s lives might be easier than helping them to accept a future founded on the shaky ground of personal tragedy and catastrophic destruction.


Resolutely, she turned her mind from that consideration. To do this work, she must live in the moment, and to give the children hope and counsel them out of the despair that came with dwelling on things forever lost, she must eventually teach them to live in the moment, too.


She realized only now that since stepping across the threshold at the front door of this house, she had at some point acquired the conviction that they would have a future, when previously she could not find reason to foresee long-term survival. She knew some of the reasons for this change of heart, but not all of them; evidently her subconscious had perceived other causes for optimism that it was not yet ready to share with her.


Because Bradley was young and more frightened than his sister, Molly freed him first and told him to stay close to Virgil, in whom most of her trust had been restored by recent events.


As she finished freeing Allison, Molly heard a wet, decidedly organic sound and looked up as the skin on a round, cantaloupe-size fungus in the overhead colony peeled back like the lids of an eyeball. Under those membranes lay a human face.


Of all the impossible and grotesque things that she had seen since the coyotes on the porch, this rated as the most bizarre, the least comprehensible, the most disturbing. Repulsed, she nevertheless could not avert her eyes.


A longer look revealed that the face in the fungus wasn’t molded dimensionally. The surface of the sphere under the peeled-back lids was smooth and curved and transparent, and the human face appeared to float within it like an object in one of those Christmas snow globes.


This particular face was that of a man with blue eyes and blond mustache. His gaze turned to Molly, and he seemed to see her. His expression was anguished and imploring, and he appeared to be crying out to her, though he produced no sound.


White membranes peeled back from a second fungus in the colony, revealing another face held in another sphere: a woman screaming and in a state of abject torment. Her screams were silent.


These were not real faces, but watching them in a paralytic state of awe, of dread, Molly suspected—and quickly came to believe—that each represented a human consciousness, the mind and memory of someone who had actually lived. They had been stripped out of their physical bodies at death and somehow captured in these hideous structures.

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