“He’s waiting for another look at it,” I said. “Is he nuts? Give him the horn.”
Knuckles pumped the horn, and the brake lights on Romanovich’s SUV fluttered, and Knuckles used the horn again, and the Russian began to coast forward, but then braked once more.
Out of the north came the monster, harrowing the field of snow, moving less quickly than before, a sense of ominous intention in its more measured approach.
Amazement, fear, curiosity, disbelief: Whatever had immobilized Romanovich, he broke free of its hold. The SUV rolled forward.
Before Romanovich could build any speed, the creature arrived, reared up, extruded intricately pincered arms, seized its prey, and tipped the vehicle on its side.
THE SUV LAY ON ITS STARBOARD SIDE. THE slowly turning tires on the port side uselessly sought traction in the snow-shot air.
The Russian and the eight monks could exit only by the back hatch or by the doors turned to the sky, but not with ease and not with haste.
I assumed the beast would either pry open the doors and reach inside for the nine men or pluck them as they tried to escape. How it would do to them what it had done to Brother Timothy, I didn’t know, but I was certain that it would methodically gather them to itself, one by one.
When they were harvested, it would carry them away to crucify them on a wall as it had done with Timothy, transforming their mortal forms into nine chrysalises. Or it would then come after us, here in the second truck, and later in the day, the cooling tower would be crowded with eighteen chrysalises.
Instead of proceeding with its usual mechanical insistence, the thing retreated from the overturned SUV and waited, retaining its basic form but continuously folding in upon itself and blooming out new vaned and petaled patterns.
With the nerveless aplomb of an experienced getaway driver, Brother Knuckles engaged his safety harness, raised the steel plow off the pavement, shifted gears, and reversed up the driveway.
“We can’t leave them trapped,” I said, and the brothers behind me were in vociferous agreement.
“We ain’t leavin’ nobody,” Knuckles assured me. “I just hope they’re scared enough to stay put.”
Like a macabre motorized sculpture crafted by graverobbers, the bone heap stood sentinel by the side of the road, perhaps waiting for the doors on the overturned SUV to open.
When we had reversed fifty yards, the tipped truck became a blur on the road below, and the sheeting snow almost entirely camouflaged the bony specter.
I strapped myself into the shoulder harness — and heard the brothers buckling up behind me. Even when God is your co-pilot, it pays to pack a parachute.
Brother Knuckles slowed to a stop. With one foot on the brake, he shifted into drive.
Except for the sound of their breathing, the monks had fallen silent.
Then Brother Alfonse said, “Libera nos a malo.”
Deliver us from evil.
Knuckles traded the brake pedal for the accelerator. The engine growled, the tire chains rang rhythms from the pavement, and we raced downhill, aiming to sweep past the overturned SUV and take out the fiend.
Our target seemed oblivious of us until the penultimate moment, or perhaps it had no fear.
Plow-first we slammed into the thing and instantly lost most of our forward momentum.
A furious hail crashed down. The windshield crazed, dissolved, fell in upon us, and with it came both loose bones and articulated structures.
An elaborately jointed array of bones landed in my lap, spasming like a broken crab. My cry was every bit as manly as that of a young schoolgirl surprised by a hairy spider. I knocked the thing off me, onto the floor.
It felt cold and slick, yet not greasy or wet, and seemed to harbor no warmth of life.
The castoff scrabbled at my feet, not with intent to harm but as the decapitated body of a snake lashes mindlessly. Nevertheless, I quickly pulled my feet onto the seat and would have gathered my petticoats tightly around me if I had been wearing any.
After coming to a stop ten yards past the overturned vehicle, we reversed until we were beside it once more, things snapping and crunching loudly under the tires.
When I got out of the truck, I found the pavement littered with twitching constructs of bones, splintered remnants of the beast’s fragmented anatomy. Some were as large as vacuum cleaners, many the size of kitchen appliances — flexing, irising, folding, unfolding as if striving to obey the conjuring call of a sorcerer.
Thousands of single bones of all shapes and sizes were also scattered on the roadway. These rattled in place as if the ground were shaking under them, but I could not feel any earth tremors through the soles of my ski boots.
Kicking the debris aside, I cleared a path to the overturned SUV and climbed onto the flank of it. Inside, tumbled brothers looked up at me, wide-eyed and blinking, through the side windows.
I pulled open a door, and Brother Rupert clambered up to assist. Soon we had pulled the Russian and the monks from the vehicle.
Some were bruised and all were shaken; but none of them had sustained a serious injury.
Every tire on the second SUV had been punctured by broken shafts of bone. The vehicle sat on flat rubber. We would have to walk the remaining hundred yards to the school.
No one needed to express the opinion that if one impossible ambulatory kaleidoscope of bones could exist, others might follow. In fact, whether because of shock or fear, few words were exchanged, and those were spoken in the softest voices.
Everyone worked urgently to unload all the tools and the other gear that had been brought to defend and fortify the school.
The rattling skeletal debris slowly grew quieter, and some bones began to break down into cubes in a variety of sizes, as though they had not been bones, after all, but structures formed from smaller interlocking pieces.
As we were setting out for the school, Rodion Romanovich took off his hat, stooped, and with one gloved hand scooped some of the cubes into that bearskin sack.
He looked up and saw me watching him. Clutching the hat in one hand as if it were a purse filled with treasure, he picked up what appeared to be a large attaché case, rather than a toolbox, and turned toward the school.
Around us, the wind seemed to be full of words, all angry and growing rapidly angrier, in a brutal language ideal for imprecation, malediction, blasphemy, and threat.
The veiled sky folded down to meet the hidden land, and the vanishment of the horizon was swiftly followed by the disappearance of every structure of man and nature. A perfect consistency of light throughout the bleak day, allowing no shadow, did not illuminate but blinded. In that white obscurity, all contours of the land faded from sight, except those directly underfoot, and we were plunged into a total whiteout.
With psychic magnetism, I am never lost. But at least a couple of the brothers might have wandered off forever, within mere yards of the school, if they had not stayed close to one another and had not received some guidance from the rapidly vanishing patches of blacktop exposed earlier by the plows.
More walking boneyards might be near, and I suspected that they would not be blinded by the whiteout, as we were. Whatever senses they possessed were not analogous — but perhaps superior — to ours.
Two steps before blundering into the segmented roll-up garage door, I saw it and halted. When the others had gathered around me, I did a count to be sure that all sixteen monks were present. They numbered seventeen. The Russian was there, but I had not mistakenly included him in the count.
I led them past the large door to a smaller, man-size entrance. With my universal key, I let us into the garage.
When everyone had passed safely inside, I closed and dead-bolted the door.
The brothers dropped their burdens on the floor, brushed snow from themselves, and pulled back their hoods.
The seventeenth monk proved to be Brother Leopold, the novice who often came and went with the stealth of a ghost. His freckled face looked less wholesome than it had always been before, and his usual sunny smile was not in evidence.
Leopold stood next to the Russian, and there was an ineffable quality to their attitudes and postures that suggested they were in some way allied.
ROMANOVICH WENT TO ONE KNEE ON THE garage floor, and from his bearskin hat, he spilled a collection of the white cubes onto the concrete.
The larger specimens were about an inch and a half square, the smaller perhaps half an inch. They were so polished and smooth that they might have been dice without spots, and looked not like natural objects but like manufactured items.
They twitched and rattled against one another, as though life yet existed in them. Perhaps they were agitated by the memory of the bone they had been, were programmed to reconstitute that structure but lacked the power.
I was reminded of jumping beans, those seeds of Mexican spurge that are animated by the movements of the moth larvae living in them.
Although I didn’t believe that the agitation of these cubes was caused by the equivalent of moth larvae, I wasn’t going to try to bite one open to confirm my opinion.
As the brothers gathered around to observe the blank dice, one of the larger specimens shook more violently — and rattled into four smaller, identical cubes.
Perhaps triggered by that action, a smaller cube turned end over end and rendered itself into four diminished replicas.
Glancing up from the self-dividing geometries, Romanovich locked eyes with Brother Leopold.
“Quantumizing,” the novice said.
The Russian nodded in agreement.
I said, “What’s going on here?”
Instead of answering me, Romanovich returned his attention to the dice and said, almost to himself, “Incredible. But where’s the heat?”
As if this question alarmed him, Leopold took two steps back.
“You would want to be twenty miles from here,” Romanovich told the novice. “A bit late for that.”
“You knew each other before coming here,” I said.
With increasing rapidity, the cubes were breaking down into ever-smaller units.
Turning my attention to the brothers, expecting them to support my demand for answers from the Russian, I discovered their attention fixed not on Romanovich or Leopold, but instead half on me and half on the strange — and ever-tinier — objects on the floor.
Brother Alfonse said, “Odd, in the SUV, when we saw that thing come out of the snow, you didn’t seem stunned by the sight of it like the rest of us were.”
“I was … just speechless,” I said.
“There’s that eye-twitch tell,” said Brother Quentin, pointing at me, frowning as he must have frowned at numerous suspects in the homicide-division interrogation room.
As the cubes continued dividing, growing dramatically in number, the collective mass of them should have remained the same. Cube an apple, and the pieces will weigh as much as the whole fruit. But mass was disappearing here.
This suggested that, after all, the beast had been supernatural, manifesting in a material with more apparent substance — but no more real physical existence — than ectoplasm.
The problems with that theory were many. For one thing, Brother Timothy was dead, and no mere spirit had killed him. The SUV had not been overturned by the anger of a poltergeist.
Judging by the ghastly expression that had drained all the sunny Iowan charm from his boyish face, Brother Leopold was clearly focused on an explanation different from — and far more terrifying than — any supernatural manifestation.
On the floor, the cubes had become so numerous and tiny that they appeared to be only a spill of salt. And then … the concrete was bare again, as though the Russian had never emptied anything out of his hat.
Color began to seep back into Brother Leopold’s face, and he shuddered with relief.
Masterfully deflecting curiosity that might have been directed at him, Romanovich rose to his feet and, to reinforce the brothers’ intuitive belief that I knew more about this situation than they did, he said, “Mr. Thomas, what was that thing out there?”
All the brothers were staring at me, and I realized that I — with my universal key and sometimes enigmatic behavior — had always been a more mysterious figure to them than was either the Russian or Brother Leopold.
“I don’t know what it was,” I said. “I wish I did.”
Brother Quentin said, “No eye-twitch tell. Have you learned to suppress it or are you really not being evasive?”
Before I could respond, Abbot Bernard said, “Odd, I would like you to tell these brothers about your exceptional abilities.”
Surveying the faces of the monks, each shining with curiosity, I said, “In all the world, sir, there aren’t half this many people who know my secret. It feels like … going public.”
“I am instructing them herewith,” the abbot said, “to regard your revelations as a confession. As your confessors, your secrets are to them a sacred trust.”
“Not to all of them,” I said, not bothering to accuse Brother Leopold of being insincere in his postulancy and in the profession of his vows as a novice, but addressing myself solely to Romanovich.
“I am not leaving,” the Russian said, returning the bearskin hat to his head as if to punctuate his declaration.
I had known that he would insist on hearing what I had to tell the others, but I said, “Don’t you have a couple of poisoned cakes to decorate?”
“No, Mr. Thomas, I have finished all ten.”
After once more surveying the earnest faces of the monks, I said, “I see the lingering dead.”
“This guy,” said Brother Knuckles, “maybe he evades a question when he’s gotta, but he don’t know how to lie any better than a two-year-old.”
I said, “Thanks. I think.”
“In my other life, before God called me,” Knuckles continued, “I lived in a filthy sea of liars and lies, and I swam as good as any of those mugs. Odd — he ain’t like them, ain’t like I once was. Fact is, he ain’t like nobody I ever known before.”
After that sweet and heartfelt endorsement, I told my story as succinctly as possible, including that I had for years worked with the chief of police in Pico Mundo, who had vouched for me with Abbot Bernard.
The brothers listened, rapt, and expressed no doubts. Although ghosts and bodachs were not included in the doctrines of their faith, they were men who had given their lives to an absolute conviction that the universe was God-created and that it had a vertical sacred order. Having found a way to understand the existence of the monster in the storm — by defining it as a demon — they would not now be cast into spiritual or intellectual turmoil merely by being asked to believe that a nobody smart-ass fry cook was visited by the restless dead and tried to bring them justice as best he could.