5

After delivering the Geiger counter—the recipient took it willingly, even eagerly, and promised to begin prospecting with it early on Tuesday—Julia headed for Burpee’s Department Store with Horace on his leash. Romeo had told her he had a pair of brand-new Kyocera photocopiers in storage, both still in their original shipping cartons. She was welcome to both.

“I also got a little propane tucked away,” he said, giving Horace a pat. “I’ll see you get what you need—for as long as I can, at least. We gotta keep that newspaper running, am I right? More important than ever, don’t you t’ink?”

It was exactly what she t’ought, and Julia had told him so. She had also planted a kiss on his cheek. “I owe you for this, Rommie.”

“I’ll be expectin a big discount on my weekly advertising circular when this is over.” He had then tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger, as if they had a great big secret. Maybe they did.

As she left, her cell phone chirruped. She pulled it out of her pants pocket. “Hello, this is Julia.”

“Good evening, Ms. Shumway.”

“Oh, Colonel Cox, how wonderful to hear your voice,” she said brightly. “You can’t imagine how thrilled we country mice are to get out-of-town calls. How’s life outside the Dome?”

“Life in general is probably fine,” he said. “Where I am, it’s on the shabby side. You know about the missiles?”

“Watched them hit. And bounce off. They lit a fine fire on your side—”

“It’s not my—”

“—and a fairly good one on ours.”

“I’m calling for Colonel Barbara,” Cox said. “Who should be carrying his own goddam phone by now.”

“Goddam right!” she cried, still in her brightest tone. “And people in goddam hell should have goddam icewater!” She stopped in front of the Gas & Grocery, now shut up tight. The hand-lettered sign in the window read HRS OF OP TOMORROW 11 AM–2 PM GET HERE EARLY!

“Ms. Shumway—”

“We’ll discuss Colonel Barbara in a minute,” Julia said. “Right now I want to know two things. First, when is the press going to be allowed at the Dome? Because the people of America deserve more than the government’s spin on this, don’t you think?”

She expected him to say he did not think, that there would be no New York Times or CNN at the Dome in the foreseeable future, but Cox surprised her. “Probably by Friday if none of the other tricks up our sleeve work. What’s the other thing you want to know, Ms. Shumway? Make it brief, because I’m not a press officer. That’s another pay grade.”

“You called me, so you’re stuck with me. Suck it up, Colonel.”

“Ms. Shumway, with all due respect, yours is not the only cell phone in Chester’s Mill I can reach out and touch.”

“I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think Barbie will talk to you if you shine me on. He’s not particularly happy with his new position as prospective stockade commandant.”

Cox sighed. “What’s your question?”

“I want to know the temperature on the south or east side of the Dome—a true temperature, meaning away from the fire you guys set.”

“Why—”

“Do you have that information or not? I think you do, or can get it. I think you’re sitting in front of a computer screen right now, and you have access to everything, probably including my underwear size.” She paused. “And if you say sixteen, this call is over.”

“Are you exhibiting your sense of humor, Ms. Shumway, or are you always this way?”

“I’m tired and scared. Chalk it up to that.”

There was a pause on Cox’s end. She thought she heard the click of computer keys. Then he said, “It’s forty-seven Fahrenheit in Castle Rock. Will that do?”

“Yes.” The disparity wasn’t as bad as she had feared, but still considerable. “I’m looking at the thermometer in the window of the Mill Gas and Grocery. It says fifty-eight. That’s an eleven-degree difference between locations less than twenty miles apart. Unless there’s a hell of a big warm front pushing through western Maine this evening, I’d say something’s going on here. Do you agree?”

He didn’t answer her question, but what he did say took her mind off it. “We’re going to try something else. Around nine this evening. It’s what I wanted to tell Barbie.”

“One hopes Plan B will work better than Plan A. At this moment, I believe the President’s appointee is feeding the multitudes at Sweetbriar Rose. Chicken ? la king is the rumor.” She could see the lights down the street, and her belly rumbled.

“Will you listen and pass on a message?” And she heard what he did not add: You contentious bitch?

“Happy to,” she said. Smiling. Because she was a contentious bitch. When she had to be.

“We’re going to try an experimental acid. A hydrofluoric compound, man-made. Nine times as corrosive as the ordinary stuff.”

“Living better through chemistry.”

“I’m told you could theoretically burn a hole two miles deep in the bedrock with it.”

“What highly amusing people you work for, Colonel.”

“We’re going to try where Motton Road crosses—” There was a rustle of paper. “Where it crosses into Harlow. I expect to be there.”

“Then I’ll tell Barbie to have someone else wash up.”

“Will you also be favoring us with your company, Ms. Shumway?”

She opened her mouth to say I wouldn’t miss it, and that was when all hell broke loose up the street.

“What’s going on there?” Cox asked.

Julia didn’t reply. She closed her phone and stuck it in her pocket, already running toward the sound of yelling voices. And something else. Something that sounded like snarling.

The gunshot came while she was still half a block away.

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