Swan song, p.27
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       Swan Song, p.27

           Robert McCammon
 
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Chapter 27

 

  The Chevy's gun turret fired, and bullets ripped across the ground dangerously near Swan. Robin realized with sickening certainty that he didn't have the strength to free her. The armored car's radiator grinned like a mouthful of metal teeth. Robin's grip tightened around the axe handle.

  Swan grasped his hand. "Don't leave me," she said, dazed and unaware that Mule was dying on top of her.

  Robin had already decided. He pulled free and sprinted toward the armored car.

  "Robin!" she cried out, and then she lifted her head and saw where he was going.

  He zigzagged as the turret's gun chattered again. Bullets kicked up snow and dirt at his heels. The Chevy veered toward him and away from Swan, just as he'd hoped it would. Move your lazy ass! he told himself as he dove to the ground, rolled and scrambled up again to throw off the gunner's aim. The Chevy picked up speed, steadily closing the range. He jinked to both sides, heard the machine gun speak and saw the hot streaks of slugs zip through the air. Oh, shit! he thought as a searing pain ripped across his left thigh; he knew he'd been tagged, but it wasn't too bad, and he kept going. The armored car followed him into the smoke.

  On the northern perimeter, Paul Thorson and forty other men and women were surrounded by soldiers. Paul had only two bullets left, and most of the others had run out of ammunition a long time before; they wielded clubs, pickaxes and shovels and dared the soldiers to charge.

  a Jeep pulled up behind the protective barrier of aOE infantry, and Colonel Macklin rose to his feet. His coat was draped over his shoulders, and the deep-set eyes in his skeletal face fixed on the group of defenders who'd been pushed back against the wall. "Is she with themi" he asked the man occupying the rear seat.

  Friend stood up. He wore an army of Excellence uniform and a gray cap pulled over his thin, dark brown hair; today his face was plain and nondescript, soulless and without character. His watery hazel eyes ticked back and forth for a few seconds. "No," he said finally, in a toneless voice, "she's not with them. " He sat back down again.

  "Kill them all," Macklin told the soldiers. Then he ordered his driver on as the army of Excellence troops sprayed the trapped men and women with machine gun bullets. among them, Paul squeezed off a shot and saw one of the soldiers stagger - and then he himself was hit in the stomach, and a second bullet broke his collarbone. He fell on his face, tried to get up and shivered as a third and fourth bullet hit his side and pierced his forearm. He pitched forward and lay still.

  Three hundred yards away, the armored Chevy Nova was searching through the smoke, its turret gun firing at every hint of motion. The tires crunched over corpses, but one of the bodies that lay sprawled on the ground suddenly pulled in his arms and legs as the vehicle passed right over him.

  When the armored car had cleared his body, Robin sat up and grasped the axe that had been hidden underneath him. He stood up, took three running strides and jumped onto the Nova's rear fender. He kept going until he stood on the roof - and then he lifted the axe and smashed it down with all his strength on the sheet metal turret.

  It crumpled inward, and the gunner tried to swivel his weapon, but Robin jammed it by placing his boot against the barrel. He battered down on the turret, his axe ripping through the sheet metal and slamming into the gunner's skull. There was a strangled cry of agony, and the driver put his foot down on the accelerator. as the Nova shot forward Robin was thrown off the roof to the ground; he'd lost his grip on the axe, and when he scrambled to his feet he could see the axe's handle still sticking rigidly up in the air, its business end about two inches deep in the gunner's head. Robin expected the car to come at him again, but the driver had panicked, veering erratically. The Nova kept going and disappeared in the smoke.

  Mute was dying, steam rising from his nostrils and the bullet holes in his belly. Swan's head had cleared enough for her to realize what had happened, but she knew there was nothing she could do. Mule still twitched, as if trying to stand with willpower alone. Swan saw more soldiers coming, and she pulled at her leg, but it was jammed tight.

  Suddenly someone bent down beside her and worked his arms under Mule's side. Swan heard the muscles and sinews crack in his shoulders as he heaved upward, supporting some of the horse's weight and easing the terrible pressure on Swan's leg.

  "Pull yourself out!" he said, his voice strained with the effort. "Hurry!"

  She wrenched at her leg and worked it a few more inches toward freedom. Then Mule shifted again, as if using his last strength to help, and with an effort that almost dislocated her thigh from its socket she pulled her leg out. The stinging blood immediately rushed back into it, and she gritted her teeth as the pain hit her.

  The man withdrew his arms. His hands were blotched with white and brown pigment.

  She looked up into Josh's face.

  His skin had returned to its rich, dark umber color. He had a short gray beard, and almost all of his tight cap of hair had turned white. But his nose, which had been broken so many times and been so misshapen, was straight-bridged and strong again, and the old scars of football and wrestling had been wiped clean. His cheekbones were high and sharp, as if chiseled from dark stone, and his eyes were a soft shade of gray that shone with the translucent wonder of a child.

  She thought that, next to Robin, he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen.

  Josh saw the soldiers coming, and adrenaline pumped through his body; he'd left Glory and aaron in the house to search for Swan, and now he had to get all of them to safety. Where Sister was he didn't know, but he understood all too well that the soldiers were breaking through the walls on all sides of Mary's Rest, and soon they'd be in the alleys, setting the shacks on fire. He picked Swan up in his arms, his sprained shoulder and his ribs aflame with pain.

  at that instant, Mule's body trembled and a burst of steam came from the horse's nostrils, pluming up into the sky like a tired soul finding release - and Josh knew that no beast of burden deserved rest as much as Mule. There would never be another horse as fine, or as beautiful.

  Mule's eyes were already beginning to glaze over, but Swan understood that what Mule had been was already gone. "Oh. . . " she whispered, and then she was unable to speak.

  Josh saw Robin running out of the smoke. "This way!" Josh shouted. Robin ran toward them, limping a little and holding his left thigh. But the soldiers had seen, too, and one of them started firing a pistol. a bullet plowed up dirt about four feet from Robin, and another whined past Josh's head.

  "Come on!" Josh urged, and he started running toward town with Swan in his arms, his lungs working like a bellows in a metal forge. He saw another group of soldiers on the left. One of them shouted "Halt!" but Josh kept going. He looked quickly back to make sure Robin was following. Robin was right on his heels, wounded leg and all.

  They were almost to the warren of alleys when four soldiers stepped into their path. Josh decided to barrel through them, but two of the men lifted their guns. He stopped, skidding in the mud and looking for a way out like a fox trapped by hounds. Robin whirled to the right - and about ten feet away were three more soldiers, one of them already leveling his M-16. More soldiers were approaching from the left, and Josh knew that within seconds they were going to be cut to pieces in a crossfire.

  Swan was about to be killed in his arms. There was no way out now, and only one chance to save her - if indeed she could be saved. He had no choice, and no time to ponder the decision.

  "Don't shoot!" he shouted. and then he had to say it, to keep the soldiers from firing: "This is Swan! This is the girl you're looking for!"

  "Stand where you are!" one of the soldiers commanded, aiming a rifle at Josh's head. The other men formed a circle around Josh, Swan and Robin. There was a brief discussion among several of the soldiers, one of whom seemed to be in charge, and then two of the men headed off in opposite directions, obviously going to find someone else.

  Swan wanted to cry,
but she dared not let a tear show, not in front of these men. She kept her features as calm and composed as if sculpted from ice. "It's going to be okay," Josh said quietly, though the words sounded hollow and stupid. at least, for the moment, she was alive. "You'll see. We'll get out of this some - "

  "No talking, nigger!" a soldier shouted, pointing a . 38 in Josh's face.

  He gave the man the best smile he could muster.

  The noise of gunfire, explosions and screams still drifted over Mary's Rest like the residue of nightmares. Our asses are grass, Robin thought, and there wasn't a damned thing they could do about it. Two rifles and four pistols were aimed at him alone. He looked out toward the blazing eastern wall, then toward the west, way over beyond the cornfield, where trucks and armored cars seemed to be grouping to make camp.

  In five or six minutes, one of the soldiers who'd left returned leading an old brown United Parcel Service truck in their direction. Josh was ordered to put Swan down, but she still had difficulty standing and had to lean against him. Then the soldiers conducted a thorough and rough body search. They let their hands linger on Swan's budding breasts; Josh saw Robin's face redden with anger, and he cautioned, "Be cool. "

  "What's this shiti" The tarot card that had been in the pocket of Josh's jeans was held up.

  "Just a card," Josh replied. "Nothing special. "

  "Damn straight. " The man tore it into fragments and let The Empress fall in pieces to the ground.

  The rear door of the UPS truck was opened. Josh, Robin and Swan were shoved inside with thirty other people. When the door was slammed shut and bolted again, the prisoners were left in total darkness.

  "Take 'em to the chicken coop!" the sergeant in charge ordered the driver, and the UPS truck carried away its new load of parcels.

  Eighty-four

  Swan clasped her hands over her ears. But she could still hear the terrible hurting sounds, and she thought her mind would crack before they stopped.

  Out beyond the "chicken coop" - which was a wide circle of barbed wire surrounding the two hundred and sixty-two survivors, now prisoners - the soldiers were going through the cornfield, shearing the stalks off with machetes and axes or wrenching them up roots and all. The stalks were being piled up like corpses in the backs of trucks.

  No bonfires were allowed within the coop, and the armed guards who stood around the wire were quick to fire warning shots that dissuaded people from huddling together. Many of the wounded were freezing to death.

  Josh flinched at the laughter and singing of the troops in town. He looked toward the shacks with weary eyes and saw a large fire burning in the middle of the road, near the spring. Parked around Mary's Rest were dozens of trucks, armored cars, vans and trailers, and other bonfires blazed to keep the victors warm. Bodies were being stripped of clothes and left in macabre, frozen heaps. Trucks moved around collecting the clothes and guns.

  Whoever the bastards were, Josh thought, they were masters of efficiency. They wasted nothing but human life.

  There was the air of a wicked carnival over Mary's Rest, but Josh consoled himself with the fact that Swan was still alive. also nearby, sitting as close as the guards would allow, were Glory and aaron. She was shocked beyond tears. aaron lay curled up, his eyes open and staring and the thumb of one hand jammed into his mouth. The soldiers had taken Crybaby and thrown it onto a bonfire.

  Robin walked along the barbed wire like a caged tiger. There was only one way in or out, through a barbed wire gate the soldiers had hastily built. Off in the distance were more rapid gunshots, and Robin figured the bastards had found somebody still alive. He'd counted only six of his highwaymen inside the coop, and two of them were badly wounded. Dr. Ryan, who'd survived an attack on his makeshift hospital, had already told Robin those two were going to die. Bucky had made it, though he was sullen and would not speak. But Sister was missing, and that really twisted Robin's guts.

  He stopped and stared across the wire at a guard. The man cocked his pistol, aimed it at Robin and said, "Move on, you piece of shit. "

  Robin grinned, spat on the ground and turned away. His groin crawled as he waited for the bullet to slam into his back. He'd seen prisoners shot down for no apparent reason other than to amuse the guards, and so he didn't breathe easily again until he'd gotten far away from the man. But he walked slowly; he wasn't going to run. He was through running.

  Swan took her hands from her ears. The last of the hurting sounds were drifting away. The cornfield was a stubbled ruin, and the trucks rumbled away fat and happy as cockroaches.

  She felt sick with fear, and she longed for the basement where she and Josh had been trapped such a long time ago. But she forced herself to look around at the other prisoners and to absorb the scene: the moaning and coughing of the wounded, the babbling of those who'd lost their minds, the sobbing and wailing of the death dirges. She saw their faces, their eyes dark and turned inward, all hope murdered.

  They'd fought and suffered for her, and here she was sitting on the ground like an insect, waiting for a boot to smash down. Her fists clenched. Get up! she told herself. Damn it, get up! She was ashamed of her own frailty and weakness, and a spark of rage leapt within her as if thrown off by an iron wheel grinding flint. She heard two of the guards laughing. Get up! she screamed inwardly, and the rage grew, spread through her and burned the sick fear away.

  "You're a leader," Sister had said, "and you'd better learn how to act like one. "

  Swan didn't want to be. Had never asked to be. But she heard an infant crying not too far away, and she knew that if there was to be a future for any of these people, it had to start right here. . . with her.

  She stood up, took a deep breath to clear away the last cobwebs and walked among the other prisoners, her gaze moving left and right, meeting theirs and leaving the impression of a glimpse into a blast furnace.

  "Swan!" Josh called, but she paid no attention and kept going, and he started to get up and go after her, but he saw how stiff her back was; it was a regal posture, full of confidence and courage, and now the other prisoners were sitting up as she passed them, and even the wounded were struggling to rise from the dirt. Josh let her go.

  Her left leg was still stiff and aching, but at least it was unbroken. She, too, was aware of the energizing effect she was having on the others - but she did not know that around her they could have sworn they felt a radiance that briefly warmed the air.

  She reached the crying infant. The child was held in the arms of a shivering man with a swollen, purple gash on the side of his head. Swan looked down at the child - and then she began to unbutton her coat of many colors and shrug out of it. She knelt down to wrap it around the man's shoulders and enfold the infant in it.

  "You!" one of the guards shouted. "Get away from there!"

  Swan flinched, but she kept at what she was doing.

  "Get away!" a woman prisoner urged. "They'll kill you!"

  a warning shot was fired. Swan arranged the folds of the patchwork coat to keep the child warm, and only then did she stand up.

  "Go back to where you were and sit down!" the guard ordered. He was holding a rifle braced against his hip.

  Swan felt everyone watching her. The moment hung.

  "I won't tell you again! Move your ass!"

  God help me, she thought - and then she swallowed hard and started walking toward the barbed wire and the guard with the rifle. Immediately he lifted his weapon to a firing position.

  "Halt!" another guard warned, off to the right.

  Swan kept going, step after step, her eyes riveted to the man with the rifle.

  He pulled the trigger.

  The bullet whined past her head, and she knew it must have missed her by three inches or less. She stopped, wavered - and then took the next step.

  "Swan!" Josh shouted, standing up. "Swan, don't!"

  The guard with the rifle took a backward step as Swan approached.
"The next one is right between your eyes," he promised, but the girl's merciless stare pierced him.

  Swan stopped. "These people need blankets and food," she said, and she was surprised at the strength in her voice. "They need them now. Go tell whoever's in charge that I want to see him. "

  "Fuck you," the guard said. He fired.

  But the bullet went over Swan's head, because one of the other guards had grabbed the rifle barrel and uptilted it. "Didn't you hear her name, dumb assi" the second man asked. "That's the girl the colonel's looking for! Go find an officer and report!"

  The first guard had gone pale, realizing how close he'd come to being skinned alive. He took off at a run toward Colonel Macklin's Command Center.

  "I said," Swan repeated firmly, "that I want to see whoever's in charge. "

  "Don't worry," the man told her. "You'll get to see Colonel Macklin soon enough. "

  another truck stopped over by the chicken coop's gate. The rear door was unbolted and opened, and fourteen more prisoners were herded into the containment area. Swan watched them come in, some of them badly wounded and hardly able to walk. She went over to help - and an electric thrill shot through her, because she'd recognized one of the new arrivals.

  "Sister!" she cried out, and she ran toward the dirty woman who'd stumbled through the gate.

  "Oh, dear God, dear God!" Sister sobbed as she put her arms around Swan and held her. They clung together for a moment, silent, each just needing to feel the other's heart beating. "I thought you were dead!" Sister finally said, her vision blurred by tears. "Oh, dear God, I thought they'd killed you!"

  "No, I'm all right. Josh is here, and so are Robin, Glory and aaron. We all thought you were dead!" Swan pulled back to look at Sister. Her stomach clenched.

  Burning gasoline had splattered onto the right side of Sister's face. Her eyebrow on that side had been burned off, and her right eye was almost swollen shut. Her chin and the bridge of her nose had both been gashed by flying glass. Dirt was all over the front of her coat, and the fabric was charred and torn. Sister understood Swan's expression, and she shrugged. "Well," she said, "I guess I was never meant to be pretty. "

  Swan hugged her again. "You're going to be okay. I don't know what I would've done without you!"

  "You'd get along fine, just like you did before Paul and I showed up. " She glanced around the area. "Where is hei"

  Swan knew who she meant, but she said, "Whoi"

  "You know who. Paul. " Sister's voice tightened. "He is here, isn't hei"

  Swan hesitated.

  "Where is hei Where's Pauli"

  "I don't know," she admitted. "He's not here. "

  "Oh. . . my God. " Sister clasped a dirt-caked hand to her mouth. She was dizzy, and this new blow almost finished her; she was weary and sick of fighting, and her bones ached as if her body had been snapped apart and rearranged. She'd retreated from the western wall as the soldiers overran it, had found a discarded butcher knife and killed one of them in hand-to-hand fighting, then had been forced across the field by a wave of attacking troops. She'd hidden under a shack, but when it was set afire over her head she'd had no choice but to surrender. "Paul," she whispered. "He's dead. I know he is. "

  "You don't know that! Maybe he got away! Maybe he's still hiding!"

  "Hey, you!" the guard shouted. "Break it up and move on!"

  Swan said, "Lean on me," and she started helping Sister back to where the others were. Josh was coming toward them, followed by Robin. and suddenly Swan realized that Sister no longer had the leather satchel. "The glass ring! What happened to iti"

  Sister put a finger to her lips.

  a Jeep roared up. Its two passengers were Roland Croninger, still wearing a helmet and with mud splattered across his bandaged face, and the man who called himself Friend. Both of them got out while the driver kept the engine idling.

  Friend stalked along the wire, his brown eyes narrowed as he searched among the prisoners. and then he saw her, supporting an injured woman. "There!" he said excitedly, and he pointed. "That's her!"

  "Bring the girl out," Roland told the nearest guard.

  Friend paused, staring at the woman who leaned on Swan's shoulder. The woman's face was unfamiliar, and the last time he'd seen Sister she'd been disfigured. He thought he recalled seeing that woman the day he'd overheard the Junkman talking about the army of Excellence, but he hadn't paid any attention to her. That was back when he was sick, and details had escaped him. But now he realized that, if indeed the woman was Sister, she no longer had that damned bag with the circle of glass in ft.

  "Wait!" he told the guard. "Bring that woman out, too! Hurry!"

  The guard motioned for another to help him, and they entered the containment area with their rifles ready.

  Josh was just about to reach out for Sister when the guards ordered Swan to halt. She looked over her shoulder at the two rifle barrels. "Come on," one of the men said. "You wanted to see Colonel Macklini Here's your chance. You too, lady. "

  "She's hurt!" Josh objected. "Can't you see - "

  The guard who'd spoken fired his rifle into the ground at Josh's feet, and Josh was forced back.

  "Let's go. " The guard prodded Swan with his rifle. "The colonel's waiting. "

  Swan supported Sister, and they were bracketed by the two guards as they were escorted to the gate.

  Robin started after them, but Josh grabbed his arm. "Don't be stupid," Josh warned.

  The boy angrily wrenched free. "You're just going to let them take heri I thought you were supposed to be her guardian!"

  "I used to be. Now she'll have to take care of herself. "

  "Right!" Robin said bitterly. "What are we going to do, just waiti"

  "If you have a better suggestion - and one that won't get a lot of people killed, including yourself and Swan - I'd just love to hear it. "

  Robin had none. He watched helplessly as Swan and Sister were herded toward the Jeep where the two men waited.

  as they neared the Jeep, both Swan and Sister felt their skin crawl. Sister recognized the one with the bandaged face from her confrontation with the tank - and she knew the other as well. It was in his eyes, or his smile, or the way he cocked his head or held his hands in fists at his sides. Or maybe it was the way he trembled with excitement. But she knew nun, and so did Swan.

  He did not look at Swan. Instead, he strode forward and ripped the collar of Sister's coat away from her neck.

  Exposed underneath was a brown scar in the shape of a crucifix.

  "Your face is different," he said.

  "So is yours. "

  He nodded, and she saw a quick glint of red deep in his eyes, there and then gone like a glimpse of something monstrous and unknown. "Where is iti"

  "Where is whati"

  "The ring. The crown. Or whatever the fuck it is. Wherei"

  "Don't you know everythingi You tell me. "

  He paused, and his tongue flicked across his lower lip. "You didn't destroy it. I know that fer sure, fer sure. You hid it somewhere. Oh, you think you're just a cutie-pie, don't youi You think you shit roses, just like - " He almost turned his head, almost let himself look at her, but he did not. The muscles of his neck were as taut as piano wires. "Just like she does," he finished.

  "What crowni" Roland asked.

  Friend ignored him. "I'll find it," he promised Sister. "and if I can't persuade you to help me, my associate Captain Croninger has a wonderful way with tools. Do you forgive me nowi"

  Swan realized he was speaking to her, though he still stared at Sister.

  "I said, do you forgive me nowi" When Swan didn't reply, his smile broadened. "I didn't think so. Now you have a taste of what hate is. How do you like iti"

  "I don't. "

  "Oh," he said, not yet trusting himself to even glance at her, "I think you'll learn to enjoy the flavor. Shall we go, ladiesi"

  They got into the Jeep, and the dri
ver headed toward Colonel Macklin's trailer.

  Out by the broken northern wall, where flames still gnawed and trucks rumbled back and forth with their cargos of guns, clothing and shoes, a solitary figure found a group of corpses that the scavenger brigades hadn't yet gotten to.

  alvin Mangrim rolled the body of a dead man over and examined the ears and nose. The nose was too small, he decided, but the ears would do just fine. He withdrew a bloody butcher knife from a leather holder at his waist and went to work severing both the ears; then he dropped them into a cloth bag that hung around his shoulder. The bottom of it was soggy with blood, and inside it were more ears, noses and a few fingers he'd already "liberated" from other bodies. He was planning on drying the objects out and stringing them into necklaces. He knew Colonel Macklin would like one, and he thought it might be a good way to barter some extra rations. In this day and age a man had to use his mind!

  He recalled a tune from a long time ago, part of a shadowy world. He remembered holding a woman's hand - a rough, hard and hateful hand, covered with calluses - and going to a theater to see a cartoon movie about a lovely princess who shacked up with seven dwarves. He'd always liked the tune that the dwarves whistled as they worked in the mine, and he began to whistle that song as he carved off a woman's nose and dropped it into the bag. Most of the music he was whistling went out through the hole where his own nose had been, and it occurred to him that if he found a nose the right size he could dry it and use it to plug the hole.

  He went to the next corpse, which was lying on its face. The nose would probably be smashed, alvin thought. But he grasped the corpse's shoulder and rolled it over anyway.

  It was a man with a gray-streaked beard.

  and suddenly the corpse's eyes opened, bright blue and bloodshot against the grayish-white flesh.

  "Oh. . . wow," alvin Mangrim said.

  Paul lifted his Magnum, pressed the barrel against the other man's skull and blew his brains out with the last bullet.

  The dead man fell over Paul's body and warmed him. But Paul knew he was dying, and he was glad now that he'd been too gutless to put that gun against his own head and take the easy way out. He didn't know who the dead man was, but the bastard was history.

  He waited. He'd lived most of his life alone, and he wasn't afraid to die alone. No, not afraid at all - because the fearsome thing had been getting to this point. It was a piece of cake from here on. The only thing he regretted was not knowing what had happened to the girl - but he knew that Sister was a tough old bird, and if she'd survived all this, she wasn't going to let any harm come to Swan.

  Swan, he thought. Swan. Don't let them break you. Spit in their eyes and kick their asses - and think sometimes of a Good Samaritan, okayi

  He decided he was tired. He was going to rest, and maybe when he woke up it would be morning. It would be so wonderful to see the sun.

  Paul went to sleep.

  FOURTEEN

  Prayer for the Final Hour

  Eighty-five

  Yellow lamplight fell upon the visage of Death, and in its presence Swan drew herself up tall and straight. Fear fluttered inside her ribs like a caged butterfly, but Swan met Colonel Macklin's gaze without cringing. He was the skeletal rider, Swan realized. Yes. She knew him, knew what he was, understood the ravenous power that drove him. and now he'd scythed down Mary's Rest, but his eyes were still hungry.

  On the desk before Colonel Macklin was a piece of paper. Macklin lifted his right arm and slammed his hand down, impaling the casualty report on the nails. He pulled them loose from the scarred desktop and offered his palm to Swan.

  "The army of Excellence has lost four hundred and sixty-eight soldiers today. Probably more, when the reports are updated. " He glanced quickly at the woman who stood beside Swan, then back to the girl. Roland and two guards stood behind them, and standing at Macklin's right was the man who called himself Friend. "Take it," Macklin said. "Look for yourself. Tell me if you're worth four hundred and sixty-eight soldiers. "

  "The people who killed those soldiers thought so," Sister spoke up. "and if we'd had more bullets, you'd still be outside the walls getting your butts kicked. "

  Macklin's attention drifted to her. "What's your namei"

  "She's called Sister," Friend said. "and she's got something I want. "

  "I thought you wanted the girl. "

  "No. She's nothing to me. But you need her. You saw the cornfield for yourself; that's her work. " He smiled vacantly at Sister. "This woman's hidden a pretty piece of glass that I'm going to have. Oh, yes! I'm going to find it, believe me. " His eyes probed deeply into Sister's, down through flesh and bone to the storehouse of memory. The shadows of her experiences flew like startled birds within her mind. He saw the jagged ruins of Manhattan, and Sister's hands uncovering the circle of glass for the first time; he saw the watery hell of the Holland Tunnel, the snow-covered highway that wound through Pennsylvania, the prowling packs of wolves and a thousand other flickering images in the space of seconds. "Where is iti" he asked her, and at once he saw the image of an uplifted pickaxe in her mind, as if silhouetted by lightning.

  She felt him picking at her brain like a master thief at a safe's lock, and she had to scramble the tumblers before he got in. She closed her eyes, squeezed them tightly shut and began to lift the lid of the most terrible thing, the thing that had sent her screaming over the edge and turned her into Sister Creep. The lid's hinges were rusted, because she hadn't looked inside it for a long time, but now she got the lid up and forced herself to see it, just as it had been that rainy day on the turnpike.

  The man with the scarlet eye was blinded by a blue light spinning around, and he heard a male voice saying, "Give her to me, lady. Come on now, let me have her. " The image cleared and strengthened, and suddenly he was holding a little girl's body in his arms; she was dead, her face smashed and distorted, and nearby was an overturned car with steam hissing from its radiator. On the bloody concrete a few feet away were fragments of glass and little bits of sparkle. "Give her to me, lady. We'll take care of her now," a young man in a yellow rain slicker was saying as he reached for the child.

  "No," Sister said softly, painfully, deep within the awful moment, "I won't. . . let you. . . have her. " Sister's voice sounded slurred and drunken.

  He drew back, out of the woman's mind and memory. He resisted the urge to reach out and snap her neck. Either she was much stronger than he'd thought, or he was weaker than he knew - and he could feel that damned little bitch watching him, too! Something about her - her very presence - drained the power out of him! Yes, that was it! Her rampant evil was making him weak! One blow was all it would take; one quick blow to her skull, and it would all be over! He balled up his fist, and then he dared to look her in the face. "What are you staring ati"

  She didn't answer. His face was fearsome, but it had a wet, plastic sheen. Then she said, as calmly as she could, "Why are you so afraid of mei"

  "I'm not afraid!" he bellowed, and dead flies fell from his lips. His cheeks reddened. One of his brown eyes turned jet-black, and the bones shifted under his face like the rotten foundations of a papier-mache house. Wrinkles and cracks shot from the corners of his mouth, and he aged twenty years in an instant. His red, wrinkled neck quivered as he pulled his gaze away from her and back to Sister. "Croninger!" he said. "Go get Brother Timothy and bring him here. "

  Roland left the trailer without hesitation.

  "I could have someone shot every sixty seconds until you tell me. " Friend leaned closer to Sister. "Who should we start withi That big niggeri How about the boyi Shall we just pick and choosei Draw straws, or names out of a hati I don't give a shit. Where'd you hide iti"

  again, all he could see was a spinning blue light and the scene of an accident. a pickaxe, he thought. a pickaxe. He looked at the woman's dirty clothes and hands. and he knew. "You buried it, didn't youi"

  There was no emotion on Sister's face. H
er eyes remained tightly closed.

  "You. . . buried. . . it," he whispered, grinning.

  "What do you want with mei" Swan asked, trying to divert his attention. She looked at Colonel Macklin. "I'm listening," she prompted.

  "You made the corn grow. Is that righti"

  "The ground made the corn grow. "

  "She did it!" Friend said, turning away from Sister for the moment. "She put the seeds in the dirt and made them grow! Nobody else could've done that! The ground is dead, and she's the only one who can bring it back! If you take her with you, the army of Excellence'll have all the food it needs! She could make a whole field grow from one ear of corn!"

  Macklin stared at her. He didn't think he'd ever seen a girl as lovely as her - and her face was strong, very strong. "Is that righti" he repeated.

  "Yes," she replied. "But I won't grow food for you. I won't grow crops for an army. There's no way you can force me. "

  "Yes, there is!" Friend hissed over Macklin's shoulder. "She's got friends out there! a big nigger and a boy! I saw them myself, just a little while ago! You bring them with us when we march, and she'll grow the crops to save their throats!"

  "Josh and Robin would rather die. "

  "Would you rather they diedi" He shook his head, and his other eye turned sea-green. "No, I don't think so. "

  Swan knew he was right. She couldn't refuse to help them if Josh's and Robin's lives were at stake. "Where are you marching toi" she asked tonelessly.

  "Here!" Friend said. "Here's our Brother Timothy! He'll tell you!" Roland and Brother Timothy were just entering the trailer; Roland had a firm grip on the skinny man's arm, and Brother Timothy walked as if in a state of trance, his shoes shuffling along the floor.

  Swan turned toward the two men and flinched. The new arrival's eyes were staring circles of shock, surrounded by deep purple. His mouth was half open, the lips gray and slack.

  Friend clapped his hands together. "Simon says! Tell the little bitch where we're marching to, Brother Timothy!"

  The man made a groaning, garbled sound. He shuddered, and then he said, "To. . . Warwick Mountain. To find God. "

  "Very good! Simon says! Tell us where Warwick Mountain is!"

  "West Virginia. I was there. I lived with God. . . for seven days. . . and seven nights. "

  "Simon says! What does God have up on Warwick Mountaini"

  Brother Timothy blinked, and a tear ran down his right cheek.

  "Simon's about to get angry, Brother Timothy," Friend said sweetly.

  The man whined; his mouth opened wider, and his head thrashed back and forth. "The black box. . . and the silver key!" he said, his words rushing and tangling together. "The prayer for the final hour! Fear death by water! Fear death by water!"

  "Very good. Now count to ten. "

  Brother Timothy held up both hands in the lamplight. He began to count on his fingers. "One. . . two. . . three. . . four. . . five. . . six - " He stopped, puzzled.

  and Swan had already seen that the other four fingers of his right hand had been chopped off.

  "I didn't say 'Simon says,'" Friend told him.

  The veins struck out from Brother Timothy's neck, and a pulse beat rapidly at his temple. Tears of terror filled his eyes. He tried to back away, but Roland's grip tightened on his arm. "Please," Brother Timothy whispered hoarsely, "don't. . . hurt me anymore. I'll take you to him, I swear I will! Just. . . don't hurt me anymore. . . " His voice was broken by sobbing, and he cringed as Friend approached.

  "We won't hurt you. " Friend stroked the other man's sweat-damp hair. "We wouldn't dream of it. We just wanted you to show these ladies what the power of persuasion can do. They'd be very stupid if they didn't do what we said, wouldn't theyi"

  "Stupid," Brother Timothy agreed, with a zombie grin. "Very stupid. "

  "Good dog. " Friend patted the top of his head. Then he returned to Sister's side, grabbed the back of her neck and twisted her head toward Brother Timothy; with his other hand he roughly forced one of her eyes open. "Look at him!" he shouted, and he shook her.

  His touch spread unbearable cold through her body; her bones ached, and she had no choice but to look at the maimed man who stood before her.

  "Captain Croninger has a very nice playroom. " His mouth was right up against her ear. "I'm going to give you until dawn to remember where that trinket is. If your memory's still deficient, the good captain's going to start picking people out of the chicken coop to play games with him. and you're going to watch, because the first game will be to cut your eyelids off. " His hand squeezed like a noose.

  Sister was silent. The blue light continued to spin in her mind, and the young man in the yellow rain slicker kept reaching for the dead child in her arms.

  "Whoever she was," he whispered, "I hope she died hating you. "

  Friend felt Swan watching him, felt her eyes probing to his soul, and he removed his hand before blind rage made him break the woman's neck. Then he could stand it no longer, and he whirled toward her. Their faces were about six inches apart. "I'll kill you, bitch!" he roared.

  Swan used every shred of willpower to keep herself from shrinking back. She held his gaze like an iron hand trapping a snake. "No, you won't," she told him. "You said I didn't mean anything to you. But you were lying. "

  Brown pigment streaked across his pale flesh. His jaw lengthened, and a false mouth opened like a jagged wound in his forehead. One eye remained brown, while the other turned crimson, as if it had ruptured and gorged with blood. Smash her! he thought. Smash the bitch dead!

  But he did not. Could not. Because he knew, even through the vile entanglement of his own hatred, that there was a power in her beyond anything he could understand, and something deep within him yearned like a diseased heart. He despised her and wanted to grind her bones - but at the same time he dared not touch her, because her fire might sear him to a cinder.

  He backed away from her; his face became Hispanic, then Oriental, and finally it caught somewhere in mid-change. "You're going with us when we march," he promised. His voice was high and raspy, rising and tumbling through octaves. "We're going to West Virginia first. . . to find God. " He sneered the word. "Then we're going to find you a nice farm with plenty of land. and we're going to get the seeds and gram for you, too. We'll find what you need in silos and barns along the way. We're going to build a big wall around your farm, and we'll even leave some soldiers to keep you company. " The mouth in his forehead smiled, then sealed up. "and for the rest of your life you're going to be growing food for the army of Excellence. You'll have tractors, reapers, all kinds of machines! and your own slaves, too! I'll bet that big nigger could really pull a plow. " He glanced quickly at the two guards. "Go get that black bastard out of the chicken coop. and a boy named Robin, too. They can share Brother Timothy's quarters. You don't mind, do youi"

  Brother Timothy grinned slyly. "Simon didn't say speak. "

  "Where can we put these two ladiesi" Friend asked Colonel Macklin.

  "I don't know. a tent, I guess. "

  "Oh, no! Let's at least give the ladies mattresses! We want them comfortable while they think! How about a traileri"

  "They can go into Sheila's trailer," Roland suggested. "She'll watch them for us, too. "

  "Take them there," Friend ordered. "But I want two armed guards on duty at that trailer's door. There will be no mistakes. Understoodi"

  "Yes, sir. " He withdrew his pistol from its waist holster. "after you," he told Swan and Sister, and as they went out the door and down the carved steps Swan clenched Sister's hand.

  Friend stood at the doorway and watched them go. "How long before dawni" he asked.

  "Three or four hours, I think," Macklin said. Swan's face remained impressed in Macklin's mind as clearly as a photograph. He ripped the casualty report off the nails in his palm; the numbers were organized by brigade, and Macklin tried to concentrate on them, but he couldn't get past the
girl's face. He'd not seen such beauty in a long, long time; it was beyond sexual - it was clean, powerful and new. He found himself staring at the nails in his palm, and at the filthy bandages taped around his wrist. For an instant he could smell himself, and the odor almost made him puke.

  He looked up at Friend in the doorway, and Macklin's mind suddenly cleared like clouds blown away by a scorching wind.

  My God, he thought. I'm. . . in league with. . .

  Friend turned his head slightly. "Is anything on your mindi" he inquired.

  "No. Nothing. I'm just thinking, that's all. "

  "Thinking gets people in trouble. Simon says! Isn't that right, Brother Timothyi"

  "Right!" the man chirped, and he clapped his mangled hands together.

  Eighty-six

  "I'm an entertainer," the woman who sat on a pile of dirty pillows in the corner suddenly said.

  It was the first time she'd spoken since they'd been shoved into the filthy trailer more than a hour before. She'd just sat there and watched them as Swan lay on one of the bare mattresses and Sister paced the room.

  "Do you two like to partyi"

  Sister stopped pacing, stared at her incredulously for a few seconds and then continued. There were nine steps from wall to wall.

  "Well" - she shrugged - "if we're going to bunk together, we should at least know one another's names. I'm Sheila Fontana. "

  "Good for you," Sister muttered.

  Swan sat up and regarded the dark-haired woman with closer scrutiny. By the light of the trailer's single kerosene lamp, Swan saw that Sheila Fontana was thin to the point of emaciation, her yellowish flesh drawn and sunken over her facial bones. The scalp showed at the crown of her head, and her black hair was dirty and lifeless. around her on the floor was a scatter of empty food cans, bottles and other trash. The woman wore stained and dirty clothes under a heavy corduroy coat, but Swan had also seen that Sheila's fingernails, though broken and gnawed down to the quick, had been meticulously polished bright red. On first entering the trailer, Swan had noticed the dresser covered with make-up jars, tubes of lipstick and the like, and now she glanced over at the mirror where the clipped photographs of young, fresh-faced models were taped up. "I used to be an entertainer, too," Swan offered. "In the Travelin' Show, with Josh and Rusty. Mostly I just stayed in the wagon, though. Rusty was a magician - he could make things disappear and appear again, just like that. " She snapped her fingers, lost in a memory of the past. She focused her attention on Sheila again. "What do you doi"

  "a little of everything, honey. " Sheila smiled, showing gray and shrunken gums. "I'm an RL. "

  "an RLi What's thati"

  "Recreation Lady. I ought to be out on the stroll right now, too. a good RL can score till she's sore after a battle. It makes the men want to fuck. "

  "Huhi"

  "She means she's a whore," Sister explained. "Jesus, it smells in here!"

  "Sorry, I'm fresh out of air-Wick. You can spray some of that perfume around, if you want. " She motioned toward the gummy, dried-up bottles on the dresser.

  "No, thank you. " Sister broke her rhythm and strode to the door; she twisted the handle, opened the door and faced the two guards who were just outside.

  Both of them held rifles. One of the guards said, "Get back in there. "

  "I'm just getting some fresh air. Do you mindi"

  a rifle barrel was pushed against her chest. "Back inside," the man ordered. He shoved her, and Sister slammed the door shut.

  "Men are beasts," Sheila said. "They don't understand that a woman needs her privacy. "

  "We've got to get out of here!" Sister's voice quavered on the edge of panic. "If he finds it, he's going to destroy it - and if I don't let him find it, he's going to start executing people!"

  "Find whati" Sheila drew her knees up against her chest.

  "It's going to be dawn soon," Sister continued. "Oh, God!" She leaned against the wall, hardly able to stand. "He's going to find it! I can't stop him from finding it!"

  "Hey, lady!" Sheila said. "anybody ever tell you you were crazyi"

  Sister was close to falling apart, Swan knew; she was, too, but she would not let herself think about what was ahead. "How long have you been with themi" Swan asked the dark-haired woman.

  Sheila smiled thinly - a horrible smile on that emaciated, life-drained face. "Forever," she replied. "Oh, Christ, I wish I had some blow! Or pills. If I had just one Black Beauty, I'd slice that bastard into little-bitty pieces and fly high for a fucking week! You don't have any dope on you, do youi"

  "No. "

  "I didn't think so. Nobody's got any. I guess it's all been smoked, snorted and popped by now. Oh, shit. " She shook her head sadly, as if bemoaning the death of a lost culture. "What's your name, honeyi"

  "Swan. "

  Sheila repeated it. "That's a nice name. an unusual name. I used to know a girl named Dove. She was hitching a ride up near El Cerrito, and Rudy and I pulled - " She stopped. "Listen!" she whispered urgently. "Do you hear thati"

  Swan heard some men laughing nearby, and in the distance were the sounds of gunshots.

  "The baby!" Sheila's right hand went to her mouth. Her eyes were pools of darkness. "Listen! Can't you hear the baby cryingi"

  Swan shook her head.

  "Oh. . . Jesus!" Sheila was almost choked with terror. "The baby's crying! Make it stop crying! Please!" She put her hands over her ears, and her body began to curl into a fetal shape. "Oh, God, please make it stop!"

 
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