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Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

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BOOK: The Taking
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8

UNTIL NOW, MOLLY HAD NEVER FELT A NEED to take a loaded pistol to the bathroom.

She put it on the yellow ceramic tiles beside the sink, the muzzle toward the mirror. The presence of the weapon gave her no comfort, but made her bowels quiver.

In the quick, when either you had the heart for justice or you didn’t, Molly could squeeze the trigger without hesitation. She’d done it once before.

Nevertheless, the prospect of having to shoot someone half sickened her. She was a creator, not a killer.

On her porcelain prie-dieu with flusher handle, she prayed that regardless of what might transpire in the hours ahead, she would not have to defend herself against other human beings. She wanted only enemies so alien that, after the shooting, there could be no cause for doubt, no reason for guilt.

Although acutely aware of the multiple ironies and absurdities of both her position and her prayer, she sent each word to God with sincerity, in a fever of mind and bone. The humor of the moment was too bitter to tease from her even a wretched laugh.

She had chosen the windowless half-bath off the kitchen. From beyond the door, through the white noise of the rain on the roof, came the clink and clatter of Neil packing two insulated coolers full of provisions to take with them in the SUV.

Each of his two careers had required that he think ahead. These days he worked as a cabinetmaker. He knew the importance of having good plans and precise measurements before making the first cut.

He worried that they would grow hungry before they were ready to come home. Worse, events might prevent them from returning home at all.

More monk than adventurer, Diogenes to his Columbus, Molly regretted the need to leave. Her preferred strategy was to bar the doors, board the windows, press sleep from lidless eyes, and wait for trouble to knock. And hope that it never would.

She knew, however, that Neil’s argument for action was the wiser course. Whatever might be coming in the rain or on the wake of it, they would be more vulnerable alone than they would be in the company of their neighbors.

Before she washed her hands, she lowered her face to the sink and warily breathed the steam rising from the gushing water. She could not detect any trace of the scent of the rain.

The tainted storm had not yet found its way into the public water system. Or if it
had
found its way, it traveled now in this bland disguise, undetectable.

Before picking up the cake of soap, she transferred the pistol from the counter to the toilet tank—beyond the grasp of anything that might reach through the mirror.

With such bizarre precautions already second nature only hours into this new reality, Molly wondered if she would know when she had gone mad. Perhaps she had already left sanity behind. Perhaps she had journeyed so far from rationality that Neil could never pack enough hampers of provisions to feed her during a return trip.

She washed her hands.

She remained the only presence in the mirror, not stained and ruined and grown over with strange vines, nor cleaved through the face from brow to chin, but still so young, and bright-eyed with a desperate hope.

         

Coolers filled with food, a case of bottled water, and basic first-aid supplies had been loaded aboard the SUV in the garage. They were prepared for travel where the ways were deep and the weather sharp.

Molly had also packed her mother’s books, and the four that she herself had written, plus her current uncompleted manuscript. Worlds might perish but, in her view, never the written word.

Gathering courage to depart, she and Neil stood side by side in the family room, watching TV.

Channel by channel, chaos had expanded its domain. More than half of the microwave highways were clogged with snow, scintillation, flare, woomp, and third-generation ghosts of people and objects unidentifiable.

Another third carried the pulsing, serpentine, kaleidoscopic patterns of intense color. These were accompanied by the humming, hissing, blurping, wow-wows, squeals, whistles, and birdies that also rendered the telephone useless.

They could find no news, no meaningful information.

A handful of channels continued to broadcast clear signals: sharp pictures, surprisingly pristine sound. Every one of these was devoted to entertainment programming.

For a minute, they watched an old episode of
Seinfeld.
An audience, real or virtual, laughed and laughed.

Neil changed channels, found a game show. For a quarter of a million dollars and a chance to go on for half a million, name the author of
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

“T. S. Eliot,” Molly said.

She was right, but she suspected that one week from now a quarter of a million dollars might have no more value than last week’s newspaper.

On another channel, in the black-and-white Casablanca night, Bogart said good-bye to Ingrid Bergman as total war descended on the world.

Neil knew the dialogue so well that he could recite it word for word. His lips moved to match those of the actors, though he made no sound.

He switched channels: Here, Cary Grant, with exquisite comic timing, grew increasingly flustered in the face of Katharine Hepburn’s nonstop screwball patter.

And here, Jimmy Stewart wisecracked with an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit.

At first Molly didn’t understand why Neil watched these old films with such shining-eyed intensity. Only moments ago he’d been determined to seek out the company of their neighbors as quickly as possible.

Soon she realized that he expected never to have the opportunity to enjoy these movies again, or any other, if all of Earth fell under the rule of an alien people clutching their new gods.

Greedily, then, she watched Gary Cooper walk the dusty streets of a Western town under the high-noon sun. Watched Tom Hanks gumping his way through a life charmed by virtue of simplicity. Watched John Wayne sweep Maureen O’Hara off her feet.

Repeatedly she found herself holding her breath, a sweet pain in her breast. What had once been mere time-filling entertainment now seemed inexpressibly beautiful and profound.

Neil surfed out of old movies and into a contemporary program—one of those orchestrated geek fests mislabeled “reality TV,” which celebrated cruelty, championed ignorance, lured viewers with the promise of degradation, and never quite faded from popularity. A female contestant was eating a plateful of pale, squirming slugs.

Here, a more recent film. A beautiful, lithe blonde executed impossible martial-arts maneuvers, wielding a sword, beheading a series of adversaries, stabbing them in the eyes, eviscerating them with delight, prettier than a Barbie doll and just as heartless.

Suddenly the remote control seemed no longer to be an instrument allowing random selection, seemed instead to be programmed to seek out atrocities. Channel after channel, blood burst, blood sprayed, blood spattered across the screen.

Pay-per-view pornography—to which they had not subscribed, and which therefore they should not be able to receive—filled the screen with an explicit scene of violent gang rape. The victim was shown to be enjoying her vicious brutalization.

Shrill comedians telling mean jokes drew meaner laughter from braying audiences.

No crafted piece of propaganda could have mocked the pretensions of humanity more effectively than this apparently random selection of cruel entertainment.

Neil pressed the
POWER
button on the remote, but the TV did not switch off. He tried again, without success.

Under the control of some taunting entity, the screen swarmed with rapidly changing scenes of violent sex and horrendous murder. Here unspooled a chilling montage of humanity in its most debased and savage condition.

“This is a lie,” Neil said through half-clenched teeth. “This isn’t what we are. It isn’t
all
we are.”

The unseen master of the airwaves chose to disagree, and the images of primitive lust and blood hunger surged across the screen, tides of cinematic sewage.

Molly remembered reading about one of the Nazi death camps—Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, or Dachau—in which the Jewish prisoners had been subjected to propaganda that portrayed their heritage as a deformed tree watered with lies, feeding on the labor of others, its branches twisted by greed. Their tormentors wanted them first to embrace this false history of their people and then to renounce it before accepting execution as their proper reward.

Even the architects of genocide, their hearts sold to Evil and their souls already held in the portfolio of Hell, feel the need to justify their abuse of power. They wish to believe that their victims, at the penultimate moment, acknowledge guilt and recognize the justice of mass murder—which suggests that, even if unconsciously, the executioners know how far they themselves have fallen.

Molly turned from the hideous spectacle on the TV. She glanced anxiously at the blinded windows, at the ceiling that seemed to press lower under a roof-crushing weight of roaring rain.

She sensed that death trains, or their equivalent, were being marshaled now in railroad yards. Long chains of cattle cars were waiting to be packed with human cargo and hauled to mass graves where the remains of millions, plowed over, would eventually fertilize vast, lush meadows for the pleasure of creatures that were deaf and blind to the beauties wrought by untold human generations.

High in the house, something thumped loudly. Rattled. Then subsided into silence.

Perhaps a broken tree branch had dropped onto the roof. A loose chimney stone, sluiced from its mortar bed by the rain, might have rolled along the shingles.

Or some unimaginably strange visitor had entered by the attic, and now explored the space under those cobwebbed rafters, searching for the trapdoor and spring-loaded ladder that would give it access to the second floor.

“Time to go,” Neil said.

PART TWO

“Waste and void. Waste and void. And darkness on the face of the deep.”

—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from
“The Rock”

9

FOR ONCE UNCONCERNED ABOUT NEXT MONTH’S electrical bill, they left lights on rather than allow darkness to take up residence in the house during their absence.

In the utility room, they quickly donned rubber boots and black raincoats. The deep tread of the rubber soles squeaked on the tile floor.

Beyond the utility room, the garage was chillier than the house. The humid air smelled of damp wood, moist Sheetrock; but as yet the rain had not worn a leak in the roof.

The Ford Explorer stood ready, loaded. Although worried about the size of the monthly payments, they had recently traded up from their ten-year-old Suburban. Now Molly was glad to have this newer and more reliable vehicle.

She took two steps toward the SUV before Neil drew her attention to his workbench. Thirty or forty mice had gathered on that surface. Because the rodents were silent and for the most part as still as ceramic figurines, Molly had not at once noticed the infestation.

Field and forest mice, some brown, some gray, had fled their natural habitat for the refuge of this garage. As many of them congregated under the workbench as perched on top of it.

In groups, mice huddled in the corners and along the walls. On the lids of the two trash cans. Atop a row of storage cabinets.

They numbered more than a hundred, perhaps over two hundred. Many stood on their hind feet, alert, trembling, whiskers quivering, pink noses testing the air.

Under ordinary circumstances, the mice would have scattered when Molly and Neil entered. These didn’t react. The cause of their fear lay outside, in the storm.

Although Molly had always been squeamish about rodents and had taken more than the usual precautions to keep them out of the house, she didn’t recoil at the sight of these timid invaders. As with the coyotes, she recognized that men and mice lived under a common threat in this perilous night.

When she and Neil got into the Explorer and closed the doors, Molly said, “If their instinct is to come inside, should we be going out?”

“Paul and his neighbors are gathered in that courthouse on Maui because its architecture makes it more defensible. Our house, with all the windows, the simple locks…it can’t be defended.”

“Maybe no place can be.”

“Maybe,” he agreed.

He started the SUV.

The mice did not react to the noise of the engine. Their eyes shone red and silver in the blaze of headlights.

Neil locked the doors of the Explorer with the master switch. Only then did he use the remote to raise the garage door.

Molly realized that she had not locked the house. Keys and deadbolts no longer seemed to offer much security.

Behind the Explorer, the segmented garage door rolled upward. She could barely differentiate the rumble of its ascent from the unrelenting voice of the rain.

She was overcome by the urge to bolt from the vehicle and return to the house before the crouching night could be entirely let into the garage.

A desperate domestic fantasy gripped her. She would make hot tea and serve it in a mug. Oolong, with its distinctive fragrance, grown in the distant Wu-I Mountains of China.

She would drink it in the cozy parlor, eating butter cookies. Warmed by an afghan. Reading a love story of eternal passion and timeless suffering.

When she turned the last tear-stained page, the rain would have stopped. The morning would have come. The future would no longer be bleak and impenetrable, would instead be revealed by an invisible light too bright for mortal eyes.

But she did not open the passenger door and pursue that fantasy of tea and cookies and easy happy endings. Dared not.

Neil popped the brake, shifted into reverse, and backed out of the garage, into the windless storm. The rain fell straight down with such judgmental force that the Explorer seemed to quiver in every joint, to strain at every weld, from the impact.

Less out of concern for their property than in consideration of the frightened mice, Molly pressed the remote and closed the garage door.

In the headlights, the formerly muted fluorescence of the rain brightened, seething with scintillating reflections.

The cedar siding of the house, quaintly silvered by time, was more brightly silvered by the luminous wet. Along the roof line, from long lengths of overflowing rain gutters spilled shimmering sheets that veiled whole aspects of the structure.

Neil turned the Explorer around and drove uphill toward the two-lane county road. The ascending driveway funneled a descending stream through which slithered great swarms of false serpents, more sinuous luminosities.

When the SUV reached the top of the driveway, Molly peered back and down, through the rush of rain and the steadfast trees. All lights aglow, their house looked welcoming—and forever beyond reach.

         

The shortest route into town was south on the county road.

The two-lane blacktop remained passable because it followed the ridge crest around the lake, shedding rain from both shoulders. Here and there the pavement was mantled with a thick slippery mush of dead pine needles beaten from the overhanging trees by the storm, but the SUV had all the traction needed to proceed unimpeded.

Even at high speed, the windshield wipers couldn’t cope with the downpour. Sluicing rain blurred their view. Neil drove slowly and with caution.

To the east, the forest—portions burned out in the previous autumn’s fire—descended toward treeless but grassy hills, which in turn gave way to more-arid land and eventually to the Mojave. Only a few houses had been built in that territory.

On the west face of the ridge, residences were numerous, though widely separated. The nearest neighbors to the south were Jose and Serena Sanchez, who had two children, Danny and Joey, and a dog named Semper Fidelis.

Neil turned right at their mailbox and halted at the top of the driveway, headlights focused on the house below.

“Wake them?” he wondered.

An indefinable quality of the house, something other than the lack of lights, troubled Molly.

If the Sanchez family had been home, surely the unprecedented power of this rain would have awakened them. Curiosity stirred, they would have risen from bed, turned on the TV, and thereby discovered the fate of the world.

Molly recognized the monotonous drone of the rain as the voice of Death, and now it seemed to speak to her not from the heavens but from the house at the foot of the driveway.

“They’re gone,” she said.

“Gone where?”

“Or dead.”

“Not them,” Neil hoped. “Not Jose, Serena…not the boys.”

Molly was a mystic only to the extent that she was a writer, not to the extent that she suffered visions or premonitions. Yet she spoke with the certainty of unwanted intuition: “Dead. All dead.”

The house blurred, clarified, blurred, clarified. Perhaps she saw movement behind the lightless windows; perhaps she did not.

She imagined a sinuous and winged figure, like the mysterious thing they had glimpsed beyond the mirror, flitting now through the rooms of the Sanchez house, from corpse to corpse, capering with dark delight.

Though she spoke in a tremulous whisper, her voice carried to Neil above the chanting rain. “Let’s get out of here. Now. Quickly.”

BOOK: The Taking
2.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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