CHAPTER TEN

The tenth of June was not a day in which to be cooped up inside. The sky was delft blue, the temperature hovered around eighty degrees, and the meadows were still a dazzling green because the heat of summer had not yet seared the grass… Eduardo spent most of the balmy afternoon in a bentwood hickory rocking chair on the front porch. A new video camera, loaded with tape and fully charged batteries, lay on the porch floor beside the rocker.

Next to the camera was a shotgun. He got up a couple of times to fetch a fresh bottle of beer or to use the bathroom. And once he went for a half-hour walk around the nearer fields, carrying the camera. For the most part, however, he remained in the chair-waiting.

It was in the woods.

Eduardo knew in his bones that something had come through the black doorway in the first hour of May third, over five weeks ago. Knew it, felt it. He had no idea what it was or where it had begun its journey, but he knew it had traveled from some strange world into that Montana night.

Thereafter, it must have found a hiding place, into which it had crawled. No other analysis of the situation made sense. Hiding. If it had wanted its presence to be known, it would have revealed itself to him that night or later. The woods, vast and dense, offered an infinite number of places to go to ground.

Although the doorway had been enormous, that didn’t mean the traveler-or the vessel carrying it, if a vessel existed-was also large. Eduardo had once been to New York City and driven through the Holland Tunnel, which had been a lot bigger than any car that used it.

Whatever had come out of that death-black portal might be no larger than a man, perhaps even smaller, and able to hide almost anywhere among those timbered vales and ridges.

The doorway indicated nothing about the traveler, in fact, except that it was undoubtedly intelligent. Sophisticated science and engineering lay behind the creation of that gate.

He had read enough Heinlein and Clarke-and selected others in their vein-to have exercised his imagination, and he had realized that the intruder might have a variety of origins. More likely than not, it was extraterrestrial.

However, it might also be something from another dimension or from a parallel world. It might even be a human being, opening a passage into this age from the far future.

The numerous possibilities were dizzying, and he no longer felt like a fool when he speculated about them. He also had ceased being embarrassed about borrowing fantastical literature from the library-though the cover art was often trashy even when well drawn-and his appetite for it had become voracious.

Indeed, he found that he no longer had the patience to read the realist writers who had been his lifelong favorites. Their work simply wasn’t as realistic as it had seemed before. Hell, it wasn’t realistic at all to him any longer. Now, when he was just a few pages into a book or story by one of them, Eduardo got the distinct feeling that their point.of view consisted of an extremely narrow slice of reality, as if they looked at life through the slit of a welder’s hood. They wrote well, certainly, but they were writing about only the tiniest sliver of the human experience in a big world and an infinite universe.

He now preferred writers who could look beyond this horizon, who knew that humanity would one day reach childhood’s end, who believed intellect could triumph over superstition and ignorance, and who dared to dream.

He was also thinking about buying a second Discman and giving Wormheart another try.

He finished a beer, put the bottle on the porch beside the rocker, and wished he could believe the thing that had come through the doorway was just a person from the distant future, or at least something benign.

But it had gone into hiding for more than five weeks, and its secretiveness did not seem to indicate benevolent intentions. He was trying not to be xenophobic. But instinct told him that he’d had a brush with something not merely different from humanity but inherently hostile to it.

Although his attention was focused, more often than not, on the lower woods to the east, at the edge of which the doorway had opened, Eduardo wasn’t comfortable venturing near the northern and western woods, either, because the evergreen wilderness on three sides of the ranch house was contiguous, broken only by the fields to the south. Whatever had entered the lower woods could easily make its way under the cover of the trees into any arm of the forest.

He supposed it was possible that the traveler had not chosen to hide anywhere nearby but had circled into the pines on the western foothills and from there into the mountains. It might long ago have retreated into some high redoubt, secluded ravine, or cavern in the remote reaches of the Rocky Mountains, many miles from Quartermass Ranch.

But he didn’t think that was the case.

Sometimes, when he was walking near the forest, studying the shadows under the trees, looking for anything out of the ordinary, he was aware of? a presence. Simple as that. Inexplicable as that. A presence.

On those occasions, though he neither saw nor heard anything unusual, he was aware that he was no longer alone. So he waited.

Sooner or later something new would happen.

On those days when he grew impatient, he reminded himself of two things.

First, he was well accustomed to waiting, since Margaret had died three years ago, he hadn’t been doing anything but waiting for the time to come when he could join her again. Second, when at last something did happen, when the traveler finally chose to reveal itself in some fashion, Eduardo more likely than not would wish that it had remained.concealed and secretive.

Now he picked up the empty beer bottle, rose from the rocking chair, intending to get another brew-and saw the raccoon. It was standing in the yard, about eight or ten feet from the porch, staring at him. He hadn’t noticed it before because he’d been focused on the distant trees-the once-luminous trees-at the foot of the meadow.

The woods and fields were heavily populated with wildlife. The frequent appearance of squirrels, rabbits, foxes, possums, deer, horned sheep, and other animals was one of the charms of such a deeply rural life.

Raccoons, perhaps the most adventurous and interesting of all the creatures in the neighborhood, were highly intelligent and rated higher still on any scale of cuteness. However, their intelligence and aggressive scavenging made them a nuisance, and the dexterity of their almost hand-like paws facilitated their mischief. In the days when horses had been kept in the stables, before Stanley Quartermass died, raccoons-although primarily carnivores-had been endlessly inventive in the raids they launched on apples and other equestrian supplies.

Now, as then, trash cans had to be fitted with raccoon-proof lids, though these masked bandits still made an occasional assault on the containers, as if they’d been in their dens, brooding about the situation for weeks, and had devised a new technique they wanted to try out.

The specimen in the front yard was an adult, sleek and fat, with a shiny coat that was somewhat thinner than the thick fur of winter. It sat on its hindquarters, forepaws against its chest, head held high, watching Eduardo. Though raccoons were communal and usually roamed in pairs or groups, no others were visible either in the front yard or along the edge of the meadow.

They were also nocturnal. They were rarely seen in the open in broad daylight.

With no horses in the stables and the trash cans well secured, Eduardo had long ago stopped chasing raccoons away-unless they got onto the roof at night. Engaged in raucous play or mouse chasing across the top of the house, they could make sleeping impossible.

He moved to the head of the porch steps, taking advantage of this uncommon opportunity to study one of the critters in bright sunlight at such close range.

The raccoon moved its head to follow him.

Nature had cursed the rascals with exceptionally beautiful fur, doing them the tragic disservice of making them valuable to the human species, which was ceaselessly engaged in a narcissistic search for materials with which to bedeck and ornament itself. This one had a particularly bushy tail, ringed with black, glossy and glorious.

“What’re you doing out and about on a sunny afternoon?” Eduardo asked… The animal’s anthracite-black eyes regarded him with almost palpable curiosity.

“Must be having an identity crisis, think you’re a squirrel or something.”

With a flurry of paws, the raccoon busily combed its facial fur for maybe half a minute, then froze again and regarded Eduardo intently.

Wild animals-even species as aggressive as raccoons-seldom made such direct eye contact as this fellow. They usually tracked people furtively, with peripheral vision or quick glances. Some said this reluctance to meet a direct gaze for more than a few seconds was an acknowledgment of human superiority, the animal’s way of humbling itself as a commoner might do before a king, while others said it indicated that animals-innocent creatures of God-saw in men’s eyes the stain of sin and were ashamed for humanity. Eduardo had his own theory: animals recognized that people were the most vicious and unrelenting beasts of all, violent and unpredictable, and avoided direct eye contact out of fear and prudence.

Except for this raccoon. It seemed to have no fear whatsoever, to feel no humility in the presence of a human being.

“At least not this particular sorry old human being, huh?”

The raccoon just watched him.

Finally the coon was less compelling than his thirst, and Eduardo went inside to get another beer. The hinge springs sang when he pulled open the screen door- which he’d hung for the season only two weeks before-and again when he eased it shut behind him.

He expected the strange sound to startle the coon and send it scurrying away, but when he looked back through the screen, he saw the critter had come a couple, of feet closer to the porch steps and more directly in line with the door, keeping him in sight.

“Funny little bugger,” he said.

He walked to the kitchen, at the end of the hall, and, first thing, looked at the clock above the double ovens because he wasn’t wearing a watch. Twenty past three.

He had a pleasing buzz on, and he was in the mood to sustain it all the way to bedtime. However, he didn’t want to get downright sloppy. He decided to have dinner an hour early, at six instead of seven, get some food on his stomach.

He might take a book to bed and turn in early as well.

This waiting for something to happen was getting on his nerves.

He took another Corona from the refrigerator. It had a twist-off cap, but he had a touch of arthritis in his hands. The bottle opener was on the cutting board by the sink… As he popped the cap off the bottle, he happened to glance out the window above the sink-and saw the raccoon in the backyard. It was twelve or fourteen feet from the rear porch. Sitting on its hindquarters, forepaws against its chest, head held high. Because the yard rose toward the western woods, the coon was in a position to look over the porch railing, directly at the kitchen window.

It was watching him.

Eduardo went to the back door, unlocked and opened it.

The raccoon moved from its previous position to another from which it could continue to study him.

He pushed open the screen door, which made the same screaky sound as the one at the front of the house. He went onto the porch, hesitated, then descended the three back steps to the yard.

The animal’s dark eyes glittered.

When Eduardo closed half the distance between them, the raccoon dropped to all fours, turned, and scampered twenty feet farther up the slope.

There it stopped, turned to face him again, sat erect on its hindquarters, and regarded him as before.

Until then he had thought it was the same raccoon that had been watching him from the front yard. Suddenly he wondered if, in fact, it was a different beast altogether.

He walked quickly around the north side of the house, cutting a wide enough berth to keep the raccoon at the back in sight. He came to a point, well to the north of the house, from which he could see the front and back yards-and two ring-tailed sentinels.

They were both staring at him.

He proceeded toward the raccoon in front of the house.

When he drew close, the coon put its tail to him and ran across the front yard. At what it evidently regarded as a safe distance, it stopped and sat watching him with its back against the higher, unmown grass of the meadow.

“I’ll be damned,” he said.

He returned to the front porch and sat in the rocker.

The waiting was over. After more than five weeks, things were beginning to happen.

Eventually he realized he’d left his open beer by the kitchen sink. He went inside to retrieve it because, now more than ever, he needed it.

He had left the back door standing open, though the screen door had closed behind him when he’d gone outside. He locked up, got his beer,stood at the window watching the backyard raccoon for a moment, and then returned to the front porch.

The first raccoon had crept forward from the edge of the meadow and was again only ten feet from the porch.

Eduardo picked up the video camera and recorded the critter for a couple of minutes. It wasn’t anything amazing enough to convince skeptics that a doorway from beyond had opened in the early-morning hours of May third, however, it was peculiar for a nocturnal animal to pose so long in broad daylight, making such obviously direct eye contact with the operator of the camcorder, and it might prove to be the first small fragment in a mosaic of evidence.

After he finished with the camera, he sat in the rocker, sipping beer and watching the raccoon as it watched him, waiting to see what would happen next.

Occasionally the ring-tailed sentinel smoothed its whiskers, combed its face fur, scratched behind its ears, or performed some other small act of grooming.

Otherwise, there were no new developments.

At five-thirty he went inside to make dinner, taking his empty beer bottle, camcorder, and shotgun with him. He closed and locked the front door.

Through the oval, beveled-glass window, he saw the coon still on duty.

At the kitchen table, Eduardo enjoyed an early dinner of rigatoni and spicy sausage with thick slabs of heavily buttered Italian bread. He kept the yellow legal-size tablet beside his plate and, while he ate, wrote about the intriguing events of the afternoon.

He had almost brought the account up-to-date when a peculiar clicking noise distracted him. He glanced at the electric stove, then at each of the two windows to see if something was tapping on the glass.

When he turned in his chair, he saw that a raccoon was in the kitchen behind him. Sitting on its hindquarters. Staring at him.

He shoved his chair back from the table and got quickly to his feet.

Evidently the animal had entered the room from the hallway. How it had gotten inside the house in the first place, however, was a mystery.

The clicking he’d heard had been its claws on the pegged-oak floor.

They rattled against the wood again, though it didn’t move.

Eduardo realized it was racked by severe shivers. At first he thought it was frightened of being in the house, feeling threatened and cornered.

He backed away a couple of steps, giving it space… The raccoon made a thin mewling sound that was neither a threat nor an expression of fear, but the unmistakable voice of misery. It was in pain, injured or ill.

His first reaction was: Rabies.

The.22 pistol lay on the table, as he always kept a weapon close at hand these days. He picked it up, though he did not want to have to kill the raccoon in the house.

He saw now that the creature’s eyes were protruding unnaturally and that the fur under them was wet and matted with tears. The small paws clawed at the air, and the black-ringed tail swished back and forth furiously across the oak floor. Gagging, the coon dropped off its haunches, flopped on its side. It twitched convulsively, sides heaving as it struggled to breathe. Abruptly blood bubbled from its nostrils and trickled from its ears. After one final spasm that rattled its claws against the floor again, it lay still, silent.

Dead.

“Dear Jesus,” Eduardo said, and put one trembling hand to his brow to blot away the sudden dew of perspiration that had sprung up along his hairline.

The dead raccoon didn’t seem as large as either of the sentinels he’d seen outside, and he didn’t think that it looked smaller merely because death had diminished it. He was pretty sure it was a third individual, perhaps younger than the other two, or maybe they were males, and this was a female.

He remembered leaving the kitchen door open when he’d walked around the house to see if the front and back sentries were the same animal. The screen door had been closed. But it was light, just a narrow pine frame and screen. The raccoon might have been able to pry it open wide enough to insinuate its snout, its head, and then its body, sneaking into the house before he’d returned to close the inner door.

Where had it hidden in the house when he’d been passing the late afternoon in the rocking chair? What had it been up to while he was cooking dinner?

He went to the window at the sink. Because he had eaten early and because the summer sunset was late, twilight had not yet arrived, so he could clearly see the masked observer. It was in the backyard, sitting on its hindquarters, dutifully watching the house.

Stepping carefully around the pitiful creature on the floor, Eduardo went down the hall, unlocked the front door, and stepped outside to see if the other sentry was still in place. It was not in the front yard, where he’d left it, but on the porch, a few feet from the door. It was lying on its side, blood pooled in the one ear that he could see, blood at its nostrils, eyes wide and glazed.

Eduardo raised his attention from the coon to the lower woods at the bottom of the meadow. The declining sun, balanced on the peaks of the.mountains in the west, threw slanting orange beams between the trunks of those trees but was incapable of dispelling the stubborn shadows.

By the time he returned to the kitchen and looked out the window again, the backyard coon was running frantically in circles. When he went out onto the porch, he could hear it squealing in pain. Within seconds it fell, tumbled. It lay with its sides heaving for a moment, and then it was motionless.

He looked uphill, past the dead raccoon on the grass, to the woods that flanked the fieldstone house where he had lived when he’d been the caretaker.

The darkness among those trees was deeper than in the lower forest because the westering sun illuminated only their highest boughs as it slid slowly behind the Rockies.

Something was in the woods.

Eduardo didn’t think the raccoons’ strange behavior resulted from rabies or, in fact, from an illness of any kind. Something was? controlling them.

Maybe the means by which that control was exerted had proved so physically taxing to the animals that it had resulted in their sudden, spasmodic deaths.

Or maybe the entity in the woods had purposefully killed them to exhibit the extent of its control, to impress Eduardo with its power, and to suggest that it might be able to waste him as easily as it had destroyed the raccoons.

He felt he was being watched-and not just through the eyes of other raccoons.

The bare peaks of the highest mountains loomed like a tidal wave of granite.

The orange sun slowly submerged into that sea of stone.

A steadily inkier darkness rose under the evergreen boughs, but Eduardo didn’t think that even the blackest condition in nature could match the darkness in the heart of the watcher in the woods-if, in fact, it had a heart at all.

Although he was convinced that disease had not played a role in the behavior and death of the raccoons, Eduardo could not be certain of his diagnosis, so he took precautions when handling the bodies. He tied a bandanna over his nose and mouth, and wore a pair of rubber gloves. He didn’t handle the carcasses directly but lifted each with a short-handled shovel and slipped it into its own large plastic trash bag. He twisted the top of each bag, tied a knot in it, and put it in the cargo area of the Cherokee station wagon in the garage. After hosing off the small smears of blood on the front porch, he used several cotton cloths to scrub the kitchen floor with pure Lysol.

Finally he threw the cleaning rags into a bucket, stripped off the.gloves and dropped them on top of the rags, and set the bucket on the back porch to be dealt with later.

He also put a loaded twelve-gauge shotgun and the.22 pistol in the Cherokee.

He took the video camera with him, because he didn’t know when he might need it. Besides, the tape currently in the camera contained the footage of the raccoons, and he didn’t want that to disappear as had the tape he’d taken of the luminous woods and the black doorway. For the same reason, he took the yellow tablet that was half filled with his handwritten account of these recent events.

By the time he was ready to drive into Eagle’s Roost, the long twilight had surrendered to night. He didn’t relish returning to a dark house, though he had never been skittish about that before. He turned on lights in the kitchen and the downstairs hall. After further thought, he switched on lamps in the living room and study.

He locked up, backed the Cherokee out of the garage-and thought too much of the house remained dark. He went back inside to turn on a couple of upstairs lights. By the time he returned to the Cherokee and headed down the half-mile driveway toward the county road to the south, every window on both floors of the house glowed.

The Montana vastness appeared to be emptier than ever before. Mile after mile, up into the black hills on one hand and across the timeless plains on the other, the few tiny clusters of lights that he saw were always in the distance. They seemed adrift on a sea, as if they were the lights of ships moving inexorably away toward one horizon or another.

Though the moon had not yet risen, he didn’t think its glimmer would have made the night seem any less enormous or more welcoming. The sense of isolation that troubled him had more to do with his interior landscape than with the Montana countryside.

He was a widower, childless, and most likely in the last decade of his life, separated from so many of his fellow men and women by age, fate, and inclination. He had never needed anyone but Margaret and Tommy.

After losing them, he had been resigned to living out his years in an almost monkish existence-and had been confident that he could do so without succumbing to boredom or despair. Until recently he’d gotten along well enough. Now, however, he wished that he had reached out to make friends, at least one, and had not so single-mindedly obeyed his hermit heart.

Mile by lonely mile, he waited for the distinctive rustle of plastic in the cargo space behind the back seat.

He was certain the raccoons were dead. He didn’t understand why he should expect them to revive and tear their way out of the bags, but he did.

Worse, he knew that if he heard them ripping at the plastic, sharp little claws busily slicing, they would not be the raccoons he had.shoveled into the bags, not exactly, maybe not much like them at all, but changed.

“Foolish old coot,” he said, trying to shame himself out of such morbid and peculiar contemplations.

Eight miles after leaving his driveway, he finally encountered other traffic on the county route. Thereafter, the closer he drew to Eagle’s Roost, the busier the two-lane blacktop became, though no one would ever have mistaken it for the approach road to New York City-or even Missoula.

He had to drive through town to the far side, where Dr. Lester Yeats maintained his professional offices and his home on the same five-acre property where Eagle’s Roost again met rural fields. Yeats was a veterinarian who, for years, had cared for Stanley Quartermass’ horses-a white-haired, white-bearded, jolly man who would have made a good Santa Claus if he’d been heavy instead of whip-thin.

The house was a rambling gray clapboard structure with blue shutters and a slate roof. Because there were also lights on in the one-story barn-like building that housed Yeats’s offices and in the adjacent stables where four-legged patients were kept, he drove a few hundred feet past the house to the end of the graveled lane.

As Eduardo was getting out of the Cherokee, the front door of the office barn opened, and a man came out in a wash of fluorescent light, leaving the door ajar behind him. He was tall, in his early thirties, rugged-looking, with thick brown hair. He had a broad and easy smile.

“Howdy. What can I do for you?”

“Looking’ for Lester Yeats,” Eduardo said.

“Dr. Yeats?” The smile faded. “You an old friend or something?”

“Business,” Eduardo said. “Got some animals I’d like him to take a look at.”

Clearly puzzled, the stranger said, “Well, sir, I’m afraid Les Yeats isn’t doing business any more.”

“Oh? He retire?”

“Died,” the young man said.

“He did? Yeats?”

“More than six years ago.”

That startled Eduardo. “Sorry to hear it.” He hadn’t quite realized so much time had passed since he’d last seen Yeats.

A warm breeze sprang up, stirring the larches that were grouped at various points around the buildings… The stranger said, “My name’s Travis Potter. I bought the house and practice from Mrs. Yeats. She moved to a smaller place in town.”

They shook hands, and instead of identifying himself, Eduardo said,

“Dr. Yeats took care of our horses out at the ranch.”

“What ranch would that be?”

“Quartermass Ranch.”

“Ah,” Travis Potter said, “then you must be the? Mr. Fernandez, is it?”

“Oh, sorry, yeah, Ed Fernandez,” he replied, and had the uneasy feeling that the vet had been about to say “the one they talk about” or something of the sort, as if he was a local eccentric.

He supposed that might, in fact, be the case. Inheriting his spread from his rich employer, living alone, a recluse with seldom a word for anyone even when he ventured into town on errands, he might have become a minor enigma about whom townspeople were curious. The thought of it made him cringe.

“How many years since you’ve had horses?” Potter asked.

“Eight. Since Mr. Quartermass died.”

He realized how odd it was-not having spoken with Yeats in eight years, then showing up six years after he died, as if only a week had gone by.

They stood in silence a moment. The June night around them was filled with cricket songs.

“Well,” Potter said, “where are these animals?”

“Animals?”

“You said you had some animals for Dr. Yeats to look at.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“He was a good vet, but I assure you I’m his equal.”

“I’m sure you are, Dr. Potter. But these are dead animals.”

“Dead animals?”

“Raccoons.”

“Dead raccoons?”

“Three of them.”

“Three dead raccoons?”

Eduardo realized that if he did have a reputation as a local eccentric,he was only adding to it now. He was so out of practice at conversation that he couldn’t get to the point.

He took a deep breath and said what was necessary without going into the story of the doorway and other oddities: “They were acting funny, out in broad daylight, running in circles. Then one by one they dropped over.” He succinctly described their death throes, the blood in their nostrils and ears.

“What I wondered was’ould they be rabid?”

“You’re up against those foothills,” Potter said. “There’s always a little rabies working its way through the wild populations. That’s natural. But we haven’t seen evidence of it around here for a while.

Blood in the ears? Not a rabies symptom. Were they foaming at the mouth?”

“Not that I saw.”

“Running in a straight line?”

“Circles.”

A pickup truck drove by on the highway, country music so loud on its radio that the tune carried all the way to the back of Potter’s property. Loud or not, it was a mournful song.

“Where are they?” Potter asked.

“Got them bagged in plastic in the Cherokee here.”

“You get bitten?”

“No,” Eduardo said.

“Scratched?”

“No.”

“Any contact with them whatsoever?”

Eduardo explained about the precautions he’d taken: the shovel, bandanna, rubber gloves.

Cocking his head, looking puzzled, Travis Potter said, “You telling me everything?”

“Well, I think so,” he lied. “I mean, their behavior was pretty strange, but I’ve told you everything important, no other symptoms I noticed.”

Potter’s gaze was forthright and penetrating, and for a moment Eduardo considered opening up and revealing the whole bizarre story.

Instead, he said, “If it isn’t rabies, does it sound like maybe it could be plague?”.Potter frowned. “Doubtful. Bleeding from the ears? That’s an uncommon symptom.

You get any flea bites being around them?”

“I’m not itchy.”

The warm breeze pumped itself into a gust of wind, rattling the larches and startling a night bird out of the branches. It flew low over their heads with a shriek that startled them.

Potter said, “Well, why don’t you leave these raccoons with me, and I’ll have a look.”

They removed the three green plastic bags from the Cherokee and carried them inside. The waiting room was deserted, Potter had evidently been doing paperwork in his office. They went through a door and down a short hallway to the white-tiled surgery, where they put the bags on the floor beside a stainless-steel examination table.

The room felt cool and looked cold. Harsh white light fell on the enamel, steel, and glass surfaces. Everything gleamed like snow and ice.

“What’ll you do with them?” Eduardo asked.

“I don’t have the means to test for rabies here. I’ll take tissue samples, send them up to the state lab, and we’ll have the results in a few days.”

“That’s all?”

“What do you mean?”

Poking one of the bags with the toe of his boot, Eduardo said, “You going to dissect one of them?”

“I’ll store them in one of my cold lockers and wait for the state lab’s report. If they’re negative for rabies, then, yeah, I’ll perform an autopsy on one of them.”

“Let me know what you find?”

Potter gave him that penetrating stare again. “You sure you weren’t bitten or scratched? Because if you were, and if there’s any reason at all to suspect rabies, you should get to a doctor now and start the vaccine right away, tonight-“

“I’m no fool,” Eduardo said. “I’d tell you if there was any chance I’d been infected.”

Potter continued to stare at him.

Looking around the surgery, Eduardo said, “You really modernized the place from the way it was.”.”Come on,” the veterinarian said, turning to the door. “I have something I want to give you.”

Eduardo followed him into the hall and through another door into Potter’s private office. The vet rummaged in the drawers of a white, enameled-metal storage cabinet and handed him a pair of pamphlets- one on rabies, one on bubonic plague.

“Read up on the symptoms for both,” Potter said. “You notice anything similar in yourself, even similar, get to your doctor.”

“Don’t like doctors much.”

“That’s not the point. You have a doctor?”

“Never need one.”

“Then you call me, and I’ll get a doctor to you, one way or the other.

Understand?”

“All right.”

“You’ll do it?”

“Sure will.”

Potter said, “You have a telephone out there?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t have a phone these days?”

The question seemed to confirm that he had an image as a hermit and an eccentric. Which maybe he deserved. Because now that he thought about it, he hadn’t used the phone to receive or place a call in at least five or six months. He doubted if it’d rung more than three times in the past year, and one of those was a wrong number.

Potter went to his desk, picked up a pen, pulled a notepad in front of him, and wrote the number down as Eduardo recited it. He tore off another sheet of notepaper and gave it to Eduardo because it was imprinted with his office address and his own phone numbers.

Eduardo folded the paper into his wallet. “What do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” Potter said. “These weren’t your pet raccoons, so why should you pay? Rabies is a community problem.”

Potter accompanied him out to the Cherokee.

The larches rustled in the warm breeze, crickets chirruped, and a frog croaked like a dead man trying to talk.

As he opened the driver’s door, Eduardo turned to the vet and said,

“When you do that autopsy?”

“Yes?”.”Will you look just for signs of known diseases?”

“Disease pathologies, trauma.”

“That’s all?”

“What else would I look for?”

Eduardo hesitated, shrugged, and said, “Anything? strange.”

That stare again. “Well, sir,” Potter said, “I will now.”

All the way home through that dark and forlorn land, Eduardo wondered if he had done the right thing. As far as he could see, there were only two alternatives to the course of action he’d taken, and both were problematic.

He could have disposed of the raccoons on the ranch and waited to see what would happen next. But he might have been destroying important evidence that something not of this earth was hiding in the Montana woods.

Or he could have explained to Travis Potter about the luminous trees, throbbing sounds, waves of pressure, and black doorway. He could have told him about the raccoons keeping him under surveillance-and the sense he’d had that they were serving as surrogate eyes for the unknown watcher in the woods. If he was generally regarded as the old hermit of Quartermass Ranch, however, he wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Worse, once the veterinarian had spread the story, some busybody public official might get it in his head that poor old Ed Fernandez was senile or even flat-out deranged, a danger to himself and others. With all the compassion in the world, sorrowful-eyed and softvoiced, shaking their heads sadly and telling themselves they were doing it for his own good, they might commit him against his will for medical examinations and a psychiatric review.

He was loath to be carted away to a hospital, poked and prodded and spoken to as if he had reverted to infancy. He wouldn’t react well.

He knew himself. He would respond to them with stubbornness and contempt, irritating the do-gooders to such an extent that they might induce a court to take charge of his affairs and order him transferred to a nursing home or some other facility for the rest of his days.

He had lived a long time and had seen how many lives were ntined by people operating with the best intentions and a smug assurance of their own superiority and wisdom. The destruction of one more old man wouldn’t be noticed, and he had no wife or children, no friend or relative, to stand with him against the killing kindness of the state.

Giving the dead animals to Potter to be tested and autopsied was, therefore, as far as Eduardo had dared to go. He only worried that, considering the inhuman nature of the entity that controlled the coons, he might have put Travis Potter at risk in some way he couldn’t.foresee.

Eduardo had hinted at a strangeness, however, and Potter had seemed to have his share of common sense. The vet knew the risks associated with disease. He would take every precaution against contamination, which would probably also be effective against whatever unguessable and unearthly peril the carcasses might pose in addition to microbiotic infection.

Beyond the Cherokee, the home lights of unmet families shone far out on the sea of night. For the first time in his life, Eduardo wished that he knew them, their names and faces, their histories and hopes.

He wondered if some child might be sitting on a distant porch or at a window, staring across the rising plains at the headlights of the Cherokee progressing westward through the June darkness. A young boy or girl, full of plans and dreams, might wonder who was in the vehicle behind those lights, where he was bound, and what his life was like.

The thought of such a child out there in the night gave Eduardo the strangest sense of community, an utterly unexpected feeling that he was part of a family whether he wanted to be or not, the family of humanity, more often than not a frustrating and contentious clan, flawed and often deeply confused, but also periodically noble and admirable, with a common destiny that every member shared.

For him, that was an unusually optimistic and philosophically generous view of his fellow men and women, uncomfortably close to sentimentality. But he was warmed as well as astonished by it.

He was convinced that whatever had come through the doorway was inimical to humankind, and his brush with it had reminded him that all of nature was, in fact, hostile. It was a cold and uncaring universe, either because God had made it that way as a test to determine good souls from bad, or simply because that’s the way it was. No man could survive in civilized comfort without the struggles and hard-won successes of all the people who had gone before him and who shared his time on earth with him. If a new evil had entered the world, one to dwarf the evil of which some men and women were capable, humanity would need a sense of community more desperately than ever before in its long and troubled journey.

The house came into view when he was a third of the way along the half-mile driveway, and he continued uphill, approaching to within sixty or eighty yards of it before realizing that something was wrong.

He braked to a full stop.

Prior to leaving for Eagle’s Roost, he had turned on lights in every room. He clearly remembered all of the glowing windows as he had driven away. He had been embarrassed by his childlike reluctance to return to a dark house.

Well, it was dark now. As black as the inside of the devil’s bowels.

Before he quite realized what he was doing, Eduardo pressed the master.lock switch, simultaneously securing all the doors on the station wagon.

He sat for a while, just staring at the house. The front door was closed, and all the windows he could see were unbroken. Nothing appeared out of order.

Except that every light in every room had been turned off. By whom?

By what?

He supposed a power failure could have been responsible-but he didn’t believe it. Sometimes, a Montana thunderstorm could be a real sternwinder, in the winter, blizzard winds and accumulated ice could play havoc with electrical service. But there had been no bad weather tonight and only the mildest breeze. He hadn’t noticed any downed power lines on the way home.

The house waited.

Couldn’t sit in the car all night. Couldn’t live in it, for God’s sake.

He drove slowly along the last stretch of driveway and stopped in front of the garage. He picked up the remote control and pressed the single button.

The automatic garage door rolled up. Inside the three-vehicle space, the overhead convenience lamp, which was on a three-minute timer, shed enough light to reveal that nothing was amiss in the garage.

So much for the power-failure theory.

Instead of pulling forward ten feet and into the garage, he stayed where he was. He put the Cherokee in Park but didn’t switch off the engine. He left the headlights on too.

He picked up the shotgun from where it was angled muzzle-down in the knee space in front of the passenger seat, and he got out of the station wagon. He left the driver’s door wide open.

Door open, lights on, engine running.

He didn’t like to think that he would cut and run at the first sign of trouble. But if it was run or die, he was sure as hell going to be faster than anything that might be chasing him.

Although the pump-action twelve-gauge shotgun contained only five rounds-one already in the breech and four in the magazine tube-he was unconcerned that he hadn’t brought any spare shells. If he was unlucky enough to encounter something that couldn’t be brought down with five shots at close range, he wouldn’t live long enough to reload, anyway.

He went to the front of the house, climbed the porch steps, and tried the front door. It was locked.

His house key was on a bead chain, separate from the car keys. He.fished it out of his jeans and unlocked the door.

Standing outside, holding the shotgun in his right hand, he reached cross-body with his left, inside the half-open door, fumbling for the light switch. He expected something to rush at him from out of the night. downstairs hallway-or to put its hand over his as he patted the wall in search of the switch plate.

He flipped the switch, and light filled the hall, spilled over him onto the front porch. He crossed the threshold and took a couple of steps inside, leaving the door open behind him.

The house was quiet.

Dark rooms on both sides of the hallway. Study to his left. Living room to his right.

He hated to turn his back on either room, but finally he moved to the right, through the archway, the shotgun held in front of him. When he turned on the overhead light, the expansive living room proved to be deserted. No intruder.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then he noticed a dark clump lying on the white fringe at the edge of the Chinese carpet. At first glance he thought it was feces, that an animal had gotten in the house and done its business right there. But when he stood over it and looked closer, he saw it was only a caked wad of damp earth.

A couple of blades of grass bristled from it.

Back in the hallway, he noticed, for the first time, smaller crumbs of dirt littering the polished oak floor.

He ventured cautiously into the study, where there was no ceiling fixture. The influx of light from the hallway dispelled enough shadows to allow him to find and click on the desk lamp.

Crumbs and smears of dirt, now dry, soiled the blotter on the desk.

More of it on the red leather seat of the chair.

“What the hell?” he wondered softly.

Warily he rolled aside the mirrored doors on the study closet, but no one was hiding in there.

In the hall he checked the foyer closet too. Nobody.

The front door was still standing open. He couldn’t decide what to do about it. He liked it open because it offered an unobstructed exit if he wanted to get out fast. On the other hand, if he searched the house top to bottom and found no one in it, he would have to come back, lock the door, and search every room again to guard against the possibility that someone had slipped in behind his back. Reluctantly he closed it and engaged the dead bolt… The beige wall-to-wall carpet that was used through the upstairs also extended down the inlaid-oak staircase, with its heavy handrail. In the center of a few of the lower treads were crumbled chunks of dry earth, not much, just enough to catch his eye.

He peered up at the second floor.

No. First, the downstairs.

He found nothing in the powder room, in the closet under the stairs, in the large dining room, in the laundry room, in the service bath. But there was dirt again in the kitchen, more than elsewhere.

His unfinished dinner of rigatoni, sausage, and butter bread was on the table, for he’d been interrupted in mid-meal by the intrusion of the raccoon-and by its spasmodic death. Smudges of now dry mud marked the rim of his dinner plate. The table around the plate was littered with pea-size lumps of dry earth, a spadeshaped brown leaf curled into a miniature scroll, and a dead beetle the size of a penny.

The beetle was on its back, six stiff legs in the air. When he flicked it over with one finger, he saw that its shell was iridescent blue-green.

Two flattened wads of dirt, like dollar pancakes, were stuck to the seat of the chair. On the oak floor around the chair was more detritus.

Another concentration of soil lay in front of the refrigerator.

Altogether, it amounted to a couple of tablespoons’ worth, but there were also a few blades of grass, another dead leaf, and an earthworm.

The worm was still alive but curled up on itself, suffering from a lack of moisture.

A crawling sensation along the nape of his neck and a sudden conviction that he was being watched made him clutch the shotgun with both hands and spin toward one window, then the other. No pale, ghastly face was pressed to either pane of glass, as he had imagined.

Only the night.

The chrome handle on the refrigerator was dulled by filth, and he did not touch it. He opened the door by gripping the edge. The food and beverages inside seemed untouched, everything just as he’d left it.

The doors of both double ovens were hanging open. He closed them without touching the handles, which were also smeared in places with unidentifiable crud.

Caught on a sharp edge of the oven door was a torn scrap of fabric, half an inch wide and less than an inch long. It was pale blue, with a fragmentary curve of darker blue that might have been a portion of a repeating pattern against the lighter background… Eduardo stared at the fragment of cloth for a personal eternity. Time seemed to-stop, and the universe hung as still as the pendulum of a broken grandfather clock- until icy spicules of profound fear formed in his blood and made him shudder so violently that his teeth actually chattered. The graveyard? He whipped around again, toward one window, the other, but nothing was there.

Only the night. The night. The blind, featureless, uncaring face of the night.

He searched the upstairs. Telltale chunks, crumbs, and smears of earth-once moist, now dry-could be found in most rooms. Another leaf. Two more dead beetles as dry as ancient papyrus. A pebble the size of a cherry pit, smooth and gray.

He realized that some of the switch plates and light switches were soiled.

Thereafter, he flicked the lights on with his sleeve-covered arm or the shotgun barrel.

When he had examined every chamber, probed to the back of every closet, inspected behind and under every piece of furniture where a hollow space might conceivably offer concealment even to something as large as a seven- or eight-year-old child, and when he was satisfied that nothing was hiding on the second floor, he returned to the end of the upstairs hall and pulled on the dangling release cord that lowered the attic trapdoor.

He pulled down the folding ladder fixed to the back of the trap.

The attic lights could be turned on from the hall, so he didn’t have to ascend into darkness. He searched every shadowed niche in the deep and dusty eaves, where snowflake moths hung in webs like laces of ice and feeding spiders loomed as cold and black as winter shadows.

Downstairs in the kitchen again, he slid aside the brass bolt on the cellar door. It worked only from the kitchen. Nothing could have gone down there and relocked from the far side.

On the other hand, the front and back doors of the house had been bolted when he’d driven into town. No one could have gotten inside-or locked up again upon leaving-without a key, and he had the only keys in existence. Yet the damned bolts were engaged when he’d come home, his search had revealed no broken or unlatched window, yet an intruder definitely had come and gone.

He went into the cellar and searched the two large, windowless rooms.

They were cool, slightly musty, and deserted.

For the moment, the house was secure.

He was the only resident.

He went outside, locking the front entrance after him, and drove the Cherokee into the garage. He put down the door with the remote control.before getting out of the wagon.

For the next several hours, he scrubbed and vacuumed the mess in the house with an urgency and unflagging energy that approached a state of frenzy. He used liquid soap, strong ammonia water, and Lysol spray, determined that every soiled surface should be not merely clean but disinfected, as close to sterile as possible outside of a hospital surgery or laboratory. He broke into a sustained sweat that soaked his shirt and pasted his hair to his scalp. The muscles in his neck, shoulders, and arms began to ache from the repetitive scouring motions.

The mild arthritis in his hands flared up, his knuckles swelled and reddened from gripping the scrub brushes and rags with almost manic ferocity, but his response was to grip them tighter still, until the pain dizzied him and brought tears to his eyes.

Eduardo knew he was striving not merely to sanitize the house but to cleanse himself of certain terrible ideas that he could not tolerate, would not explore, absolutely would not. He made himself into a cleaning machine, an insensate robot, focusing so intently and narrowly on the menial task at hand that he was purged of all unwanted thoughts, breathing deeply of the ammonia fumes as if they could disinfect his mind, seeking to exhaust himself so thoroughly that he would be able to sleep and, perhaps, even forget.

As he cleaned, he disposed of all used paper towels, rags, brushes, and sponges in a large plastic bag. When he was finished, he knotted the top of the bag and deposited it outside in a trash can.

Ordinarily, he would have rinsed and saved sponges and brushes for reuse, but not this time.

Instead of removing the disposable paper bag from the vacuum sweeper, he put the entire machine out with the trash. He didn’t want to think about the origin of the microscopic particles now trapped in its brushes and stuck to the inside of its plastic suction hose, most of them so tiny that he could never be sure they were expunged unless he disassembled the sweeper to scrub every inch and reachable crevice with bleach, and maybe not even then.

From the refrigerator, he removed all the foods and beverages that might have been touched by? the intruder. Anything in plastic wrap or aluminum foil had to go, even if it didn’t appear to have been tampered with: Swiss cheese, cheddar, leftover ham, half a Bermuda onion. Resealable containers had to be tossed: a one-pound tub of soft butter with a snap-on plastic lid, jars of dill and sweet pickles, olives, maraschino cherries, mayonnaise, mustard, and more, bottles with screw-top caps-salad dressing, soy sauce, ketchup. An open box of raisins, an open carton of milk. The thought of anything touching his lips that had first been touched by the intruder made him gag and shudder. By the time he finished with the refrigerator, it held little more than unopened cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer.

But after all, he was dealing with contamination. Couldn’t be too careful. No measure was too extreme… Not merely bacterial contamination, either. If only it was that simple. God, if only. Spiritual contamination. A darkness capable of spreading through the heart, seeping deep into the soul.

Don’t even think about it. Don’t. Don’t.

Too tired to think. Too old to think. Too scared.

From the garage he fetched a blue Styrofoam cooler, into which he emptied the entire contents of the bin under the automatic ice-maker in the freezer. He wedged eight bottles of beer into the ice and stuck a bottle opener in his hip pocket.

Leaving all the lights on, he carried the cooler and the shotgun upstairs to the back bedroom, where he had been sleeping for the past three years. He put the beer and the gun beside the bed.

The bedroom door had only a flimsy privacy latch in the knob, which he engaged by pushing a brass button. All that was needed to break through from the hallway was one good kick, so he tilted a straight-backed chair under the knob and jammed it tightly in place.

Don’t think about what might come through the door.

Shut the mind down. Focus on the arthritis, muscle pain, sore neck, let it blot out thought.

He took a shower, washing himself as assiduously as he had scoured the soiled portions of the house. He finished only when he had used the entire supply of hot water.

He dressed but not for bed. Socks, chinos, a T-shirt. He stood his boots beside the bed, next to the shotgun.

Although the nightstand clock and his watch agreed that it was two-fifty in the morning, Eduardo was not sleepy. He sat on the bed, propped against a pile of pillows and the headboard.

Using the remote control, he switched on the television and checked out the seemingly endless array of channels provided by the satellite dish behind the stables. He found an action movie, cops and drug dealers, lots of running and jumping and shooting, fistfights and car chases and explosions. He turned the volume all the way off because he wanted to be able to hear whatever sounds might arise elsewhere in the house.

He drank the first beer fast, staring at the television. He was not trying to follow the plot of the movie, just letting his mind fill with the abstract whirl of motion and the bright ripple-flare of changing colors. Scrubbing at the dark stains of those terrible thoughts.

Those stubborn stains.

Something ticked against the west-facing window.

He looked at the draperies, which he had drawn tightly shut.

Another tick. Like a pebble thrown against the glass… His heart began to pound.

He forced himself to look at the TV again. Motion. Color. He finished the beer. Opened a second.

Tick. And again, almost at once. Tick.

Perhaps it was just a moth or a scarab beetle trying to reach the light that the closed drapes couldn’t entirely contain.

He could get up, go to the window, discover it was just a flying beetle that was banging against the glass, relieve his mind.

Don’t even think about it.

He took a long swallow of the second beer.

Tick.

Something standing on the dark lawn below, looking up at the window.

Something that knew exactly where he was, wanted to make contact.

But not a raccoon this time.

Don’t, don’t, don’t.

No cute furry face with a little black mask this time. No beautiful coat and black-ringed tail.

Motion, color, beer. Scrub out the diseased thought, purge the contamination.

Tick.

Because if he didn’t rid himself of the monstrous thought that soiled his mind, he would sooner or later lose his grip on sanity. Sooner.

Tick.

If he went to the window and parted the draperies and looked down at the thing on the lawn, even insanity would be no refuge. Once he had seen, once he knew, then there would be only a single way out. Shotgun barrel in his mouth, one toe hooked in the trigger.

Tick.

He turned up the volume control on the television. Loud. Louder.

He finished the second beer. Turned the volume up even louder, until the raucous soundtrack of the violent movie seemed to shake the room.

Popped the cap off a third beer.

Purging his thoughts. Maybe in the morning he would have forgotten the sick, demented considerations that plagued him so persistently tonight,forgotten them or washed them away in tides of alcohol. Or perhaps he would die in his sleep. He almost didn’t care which. He poured down a long swallow of the third beer, seeking one form of oblivion or another.

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