Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
IN THESE MOUNTAINS, BETWEEN THE TRUE desert to the east and the plains to the west, wolves were long extinct. The visitation on the porch had the otherworldly quality of an apparition.
When, on closer examination, Molly realized that these beasts were coyotes—sometimes called
wolves—their behavior seemed no less remarkable than when she had mistaken them for the larger creatures of folklore and fairy tales.
As much as anything, their silence defined their strangeness. In the thrill of the chase, running down their prey, coyotes often cry with high excitement: a chilling ululation as eerie as the music of a theremin. Now they neither cried nor barked, nor even growled.
Unlike most wolves, coyotes will frequently hunt alone. When they join in packs to stalk game, they do not run as close together as do wolves.
Yet on the front porch, the individualism characteristic of their species was not in evidence. They gathered flank-to-flank, shoulder-to-shoulder, eeling among one another, no less communal than domesticated hounds, nervous and seeking reassurance from one another.
Noticing Molly at the study window, they neither shied from her nor reacted aggressively. Their shining eyes, which in the past had always impressed her as being cruel and bright with blood hunger, now appeared to be as devoid of threat as the trusting eyes of any household pet.
Indeed, each creature favored her with a compelling look as alien to coyotes as anything she could imagine. Their expressions seemed to be
This was so unlikely that she distrusted her perceptions. Yet she thought that she detected a beseeching attitude not only in their eyes but also in their posture and behavior.
She ought to have been frightened by this fanged congregation. Her heart
beat faster than usual; however, the novelty of the situation and a sense of the mysterious, rather than fear, quickened her pulse.
The coyotes were obviously seeking shelter, although never previously had Molly seen even one of them flee the tumult of a storm for the protection of a human habitation. People were a far greater danger to their kind than anything they might encounter in nature.
Besides, this comparatively dark and quiet tempest had neither the lightning nor the thunder to chase them from their dens. The formidable volume of the downpour marked this as unusual weather; but the rain had not been falling long enough to flood these stoic predators out of their homes.
Although the coyotes regarded Molly with entreating glances, they reserved the greater part of their attention for the storm. Tails tucked, ears pricked, the wary beasts watched the silvery torrents and the drenched forest with acute interest if not with outright anxiety.
As still more of their wolfish kind slouched out of the night and onto the porch, Molly searched the palisade of trees for the cause of their concern.
She saw nothing more than she had seen before: the faintly radiant cataracts wrung from a supersaturated sky, the trees and other vegetation bowed and trembled and silvered by the fiercely pummeling rain.
Nonetheless, as she scanned the night woods, the nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips against her skin. A shudder of inexplicable misgiving passed through her.
Rattled by the conviction that something in the forest returned her scrutiny from behind the wet veil of the storm, Molly backed away from the window.
The computer monitor suddenly seemed too bright—and revealing. She switched off the machine.
Black and argentine, the mercurial gloom streamed and glimmered past the windows. Even here in the house, the air felt thick and damp.
The phosphoric light of the storm cast shimmering reflections on a collection of porcelains, on glass paperweights, on the white-gold leafing of several picture frames…. The study had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.
Molly was struck by a disorienting sense of
that was familiar from dreams but that had never before overcome her while she remained awake.
She backed farther from the window. She edged toward the study door that led to the downstairs hall.
A creeping disquietude stole through her, nerve to nerve. She was anxious not about the coyotes on the porch but about something she couldn’t name—a threat so primal that reason was blind to it and instinct revealed only its rough contours.
Counseling herself that she was too mature to succumb to the easy fright of childhood and adolescence, she nevertheless retreated to the stairs, intending to return to the bedroom and wake Neil.
For perhaps a minute, she stood with one hand on the newel post, listening to the drumming rain, considering what to say after rousing him from sleep. Everything that occurred to her sounded to one degree or another hysterical.
She was not concerned about looking foolish in Neil’s eyes. During seven years of marriage, each had been a fool often enough to have earned the lasting forbearance of the other.
She nurtured an image of herself, however, that sustained her during difficult times, and she strove always to avoid compromising it. In this self-portrait, she was tough, resilient, tempered by terror at an early age, seasoned by grief, qualified by experience to handle whatever fate threw at her.
At eight, she had endured and miraculously survived an episode of extreme violence that might have left any other child in therapy for decades. Later, when she was just twelve, an invisible thief called lymphoma, with quiet violence, stole the life from her mother.
For most of her existence, Molly had not shied from a truth that most people understood but diligently suppressed: that every moment of every day, depending on the faith we embrace, each of us continues to live either by the merciful sufferance of God or at the whim of blind chance and indifferent nature.
She listened to the rain. The downpour seemed not indifferent, but purposeful and determined.
Leaving Neil to his sleep, she turned away from the stairs. The windows remained faintly luminous, as if with the reflected glow of the aurora borealis.
Although her disquiet slowly gathered the force of apprehension, just as a revolving hurricane spins ever greater winds around its dead-calm eye, Molly crossed the foyer to the front door.
Flanking the door were tall, French-paned sidelights. Beyond the sidelights lay the porch onto which she had looked from her office.
The coyotes still gathered in that shelter. As she drew near the door, some of the animals turned once more to gaze in at her.
Their anxious panting painted pale plumes on the glass. From behind this veil of smoking breath, their radiant eyes beseeched her.
Molly was inexplicably convinced that she could open the door and move among them without risk of attack.
Whether or not she was as tough as she believed herself to be, she was not impulsive or reckless. She didn’t possess the fatalistic temperament of a snake handler or even the adventurousness of those who rode rafts over white-water rapids.
The previous autumn, when a wildfire churned up the eastern face of the mountain, threatening to cross the crest and sweep westward to the lake, she and Neil had been, at her insistence, the first among their neighbors to pack essential belongings and leave. Her acute awareness of life’s fragility had since childhood made of her a prudent person.
Yet when writing a novel, she often shunned prudence, trusting her instinct and her heart more than she did intellect. Without risk, she could get nothing on the page worth reading.
Here in the foyer, in this false-aurora glow, under the anxious gaze of the gathered canines beyond the French panes, the moment had a mystical quality, more like fiction than reality. Perhaps that was why Molly considered hazarding onto the porch.
She put her right hand on the doorknob. Rather, she found her hand on the knob without quite recalling when she had put it there.
The roar of the rain, escalating from a cataclysmic chorus until it became the very voice of Armageddon, and the witchy light together exerted a mesmerizing effect. Nevertheless, she knew that she wasn’t falling into a trance, wasn’t being lured from the house by some supernatural force, as in a bad movie.
She’d never felt more awake, more clearheaded. Instinct, heart,
mind were synchronized now as they had rarely been in her twenty-eight years of experience.
The unprecedented September deluge and everything about the odd behavior of the coyotes, not least of all their uncharacteristic meekness, argued that the usual logic didn’t apply. Here, providence required boldness rather than caution.
If her heart had continued to race, she might not have turned the knob. At the
of turning it, however, she felt a curious calm descend. Her pulse rate declined, although each beat knocked through her with jarring force.
In some Chinese dialects, the same word is used to mean either
In this instance, as never before, she was in a Chinese frame of mind.
She opened the door.
The coyotes, perhaps a score of them, neither attacked nor growled. They did not bare their teeth.
Amazed by their behavior and by her own, Molly crossed the threshold. She stepped onto the porch.
As if they were family dogs, the coyotes made room for her and seemed to welcome her company.
Her amazement still allowed a measure of caution. She stood with her arms crossed defensively over her chest. Yet she felt that if she held a hand out to the beasts, they would only nuzzle and lick it.
The coyotes nervously divided their attention between Molly and the surrounding woods. Their rapid and shallow panting spoke not of exhaustion after a long run, but of acute anxiety.
Something in the rain-swept forest frightened them. Evidently, this fear was so intense that they dared not respond to it with their customary snarls, raised hackles, and counterchallenges.
Instead, they trembled and issued soft mewls of meek submission. Their ears were not flattened to signal an aggressive response, but remained pricked, as if they could hear the breathing and the subtle footfalls of a fierce predator even through the crash of rain.
Tails tucked between their legs, flanks trembling, they moved ceaselessly back and forth. They seemed ready, at any moment, to drop as one to the plank floor and submissively expose their bellies in an attempt to forestall an attack by some ferocious enemy.
Brushing against Molly as they swarmed the porch, the coyotes appeared to take as much comfort from contact with her as they did from their pack mates. Although their eyes were strange and wild, she saw in them some of the hopeful trust and need for companionship that were qualities common to the eyes of the gentlest dogs.
Her amazement gave way to astonishment as a humbling flood of emotions never experienced before—or never experienced this strongly—swelled in her. A sense of wonder, childlike in its intensity. An almost pagan feeling of being one with nature.
The humid air thickened with the odor of damp fur and with the smoky ammonia scent of musk.
Molly thought of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, whom artists often depicted in the company of wolves, leading a pack in pursuit of prey, across moonlit fields and hills.
A profound awareness of the interconnectedness of all things in Creation seemed to arise not from her mind, not even from her heart, but from the smallest structures of her being, as if the microscopic tides of cytoplasm in her billions of cells responded to the coyotes, the unusual storm, and the forest in much the way that Earth’s oceans were influenced by the moon.
This extraordinary moment was supercharged with a mystical quality so supremely grand in character and so formidable in power, so unlike anything Molly had known before, that she was overcome by awe and trembled with a peculiar exhilaration that was almost joy. Her breathing became quick and shallow, and her legs grew weak.
Then, as one, the coyotes were seized by a greater terror than the fright that had driven them from the woods. With thin, desperate bleats of panic, they fled the porch.
As they swarmed past her, their wet tails lashed her legs. A few looked up entreatingly, as though she must understand the cause of their fear and might be able to rescue them from the enemy, real or imagined, that had chased them from their dens.
Fast down the steps, into the storm, they traveled in a tight defensive pack, not hunting now, but hunted.
Their rain-soaked coats clung to them, revealing lean forms of bone, sinew, and stringy muscle. Always before, coyotes had looked aggressive and formidable to her, but these seemed lost, unsure of their purpose, almost pitiable.
Molly crossed to the head of the porch steps and stared after them. Although irrational and disturbing, the urge to follow was difficult to resist.
As the coyotes descended through the night, the forest, and the queerly luminescent rain, they frequently glanced back, past the house and toward the top of the ridge. Suddenly seeming to catch the scent of a pursuer, they whidded among the pines, as swift and silent as gray spirits. And were gone.
Chilled, hugging herself, Molly let out a pent-up breath that she’d not been aware of holding.
She waited, tense and wary, but nothing followed the pack.
In these mountains, coyotes had no natural enemies capable of challenging them. The few remaining bears foraged on wild fruits, tubers, and tender roots; they stalked nothing bigger than fish. Although bobcats had survived human encroachment in greater numbers than had the bears, they fed on rabbits and rodents; they would not chase down another predator for food and certainly not for sport.
The musky scent of the coyotes hung on the air after they departed. Indeed, the odor didn’t diminish but seemed to ripen.
Standing at the head of the steps, Molly held a hand out past the protection of the roof. In this cool autumn night, the glimmering rain slipping through her fingers proved to be unexpectedly warm.