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Chapter 2

The flash was almost blinding. For an instant, the room seemed filled by sunlight. The accompanying thunder rattled the windows.

Mike ducked, hunched. James Nichols' reaction was more dramatic. "Incoming!" he yelped, flinging himself to the floor and covering his head with his arms. He seemed utterly oblivious to any possible damage to his expensive suit.

Half-dazed, Mike stared through the plate-glass windows of the cafeteria. The afterimage was still glowing in his eyes, as if the greatest lightning bolt ever heard of had just struck right next to the school. But, blurrily, he couldn't see any actual damage. The windows hadn't even been cracked. None of the multitude of cars and trucks in the parking lot seemed damaged. And if the people in the parking lot seemed like a bunch of squawking chickens, none of them seemed to have been hurt.

The men in the parking lot were mostly coal miners from his local, who had come in from all over the area for his sister's wedding. Partly, that was because the United Mine Workers of America never missed a chance to flaunt their solidarity. The UMWA sticks together. Mike thought that almost every single member of his local had shown up for the wedding, with their families in tow.

The sight of the startled men in the parking lot almost caused Mike to laugh, despite the sudden shock of that incredible—sheet lightning? What the hell did happen? The men were clustered at the back of several pickups, making precious little attempt to hide the fact that they were sneaking a drink in clear and flagrant violation of the high school's firm policy against alcoholic beverages anywhere on the premises.

A motion in the corner of his eye caught Mike's attention.

Ed Piazza was scurrying toward him, frowning like Jupiter. For a half second, Mike thought the high-school principal was about to lecture him on the unseemly behavior of the coal miners in the parking lot. He choked down another laugh.

No, he's just wondering what happened too. Waiting for Ed to reach him, Mike felt a moment's warmth for the man. Wish he'd been the principal when I was in school. Might not have gotten into so much trouble. Good-humored, Ed is.

"I know they're gonna drink in the parking lot, Mike," Piazza had told him the day before. Snort. "Bunch of coal miners at a wedding reception? But puh-leese keep 'em from waving the bottles under my nose. I'd feel downright stupid, all five and a half feet of me, marching out there to whack 'em with a ruler."

Ed was at his side now. "What happened?" The principal glanced at the ceiling. "The lights are out too."

Mike hadn't noticed until Ed mentioned it. It was still broad daylight, and the plate-glass windows lining the entire side of the cafeteria made the room's fluorescent lighting almost redundant.

"I don't know, Ed." Mike set his cup of punch—unspiked; he hadn't felt he could break the rules himself—on the table nearby. Dr. Nichols was starting to rise. Mike lent him a hand.

"Lord, do I feel stupid," muttered the doctor, brushing his clothes. Fortunately for his finery, the cafeteria floor had been mopped and waxed to a shine. "For a moment there, I thought I was back at Khe Sanh." He, too, asked the inevitable question. "What the hell was that?"

The large and crowded room was now in a muted uproar, everyone asking the same thing. But there was no panic. Whatever that was, nothing immediately disastrous seemed to have occurred.

"Let's get outside," said Mike, heading toward the cafeteria's door. "Maybe we'll get a better idea." He glanced around the room, looking for his sister. He spotted Rita almost at once, clutching Tom's arm. She seemed a bit alarmed, but was obviously unhurt.

By the time Mike reached the door, Frank Jackson had pushed his way through the babbling crowd. Seeing the stocky, gray-haired form of the union's secretary-treasurer, followed by five other miners from the local, Mike felt a flash of pride. UMWA. Solidarity forever.

Meeting Frank's eyes, Mike shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know what happened either. Let's go outside and check around."

A few seconds later, the little group of men was passing through the entrance to the high school and making their way onto the parking lot. Seeing him come, dozens of Mike's local union members started moving in his direction. Most of them even had enough self-possession to leave their drinks behind in the vehicles.

Mike's first concern was for the high school itself. His eyes ranged up and down the long row of buildings, looking for any signs of damage. But none of the beige and white structures seemed to have been harmed at all.

"Everything looks okay," muttered Ed with heartfelt relief. The relatively new consolidated high school—built not much more than two decades ago, using a lot of voluntary labor—was the pride and joy of the rural area. For no one was that more true than its principal.

Mike looked to the west, toward Grantville. The town itself, two miles away, was hidden behind the hills which gave northern West Virginia its distinctive landscape. But Mike couldn't detect any obvious indications of trouble in that direction either.

His eyes moved to the south. The high school had been built on a gentle slope north of Buffalo Creek. At the bottom of that slope, just beyond the end of the parking lot, U.S. Route 250 ran parallel to the small river. The hills on the other side of the little valley were steep, covered with trees, and uninhabited except for a handful of trailers.

Nothing. His eyes began following the highway at the bottom of the slope, toward the large town of Fairmont some fifteen miles to the east.

Stop. There was a hint of smoke . . . 

He pointed to the hills southeast of the school. "Something's burning. Over there."

Everyone followed his finger. "Sure enough," muttered Frank. "C'mon, Ed. Let's call the fire brigade." The union's secretary-treasurer and the high-school principal started moving toward the double doors leading into the school. Then, seeing the man coming through those doors, they stopped.

"Hey, Dan!" Frank pointed to the thin columns of smoke rising in the distance. "See if you can get hold of the Volunteers. We've got trouble here!"


Grantville's police chief didn't waste more than two seconds staring at the smoke. Then he was hurrying toward his vehicle and its radio.

The radio wasn't working, for some reason. Nothing but static. Cursing under his breath, Dan looked up and spotted Piazza.

"You'll have to use the phones, Ed!" he shouted. "The radio isn't working."

"The phones aren't working either!" responded Piazza. "I'll send someone down there in a car!"

The principal hurried back toward the school. "And get hold of Doc Adams while you're at it!" the police chief shouted to his retreating form. "We might need medical help!" Piazza waved his acknowledgment.

By then, Mike and Frank and several other coal miners had already started up their trucks. Dan Frost was not surprised at their instant assumption that they would be accompanying him to see what the problem was. In truth, he took it for granted.

Dan had once been offered a position in a large city's police force, at a considerably larger salary. He hadn't thought for more than three seconds before turning it down. Dan Frost had seen police work in big cities. He'd rather stay in his little town, thank you, where he could be a cop instead of an occupying army.

As he climbed into his Cherokee and started the engine, Dan checked the interior of the vehicle quickly. The shotgun was in its gun case in the back, and there was extra ammunition for his pistol in the glove compartment. Satisfied everything was in place, he leaned out of the window. Mike Stearns pulled his truck alongside. Dan was surprised to see a black man riding in the passenger seat.

"Dr. Nichols here is a surgeon," Mike explained, half-shouting. "He volunteered to come along." Mike hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "His daughter Sharon will ride with Frank. Turns out she's a trained paramedic."

Dan nodded. An instant later, he was driving the Cherokee down the asphalt road leading to Route 250. Three pickups and a van followed, carrying eight coal miners along with James and Sharon Nichols. Behind them, in his rearview mirror, Dan could see a mob of people pouring out of the high school. There was something slightly comical about the scene. Squawking chickens, wearing their Sunday best for the wedding.

Once he reached the road, Dan turned left. Route 250 was a well-built two-lane highway. Even winding through the hills and hollows, it was easily possible to drive fifty miles an hour at many stretches. But Dan took it more slowly than usual. He was still uncertain what was happening. That flash had been truly incredible. For a fleeting instant, Frost had been certain that a nuclear war had started.

Everything seemed normal, though, as far as he could see. He was driving alongside Buffalo Creek now. On the other side of the creek, at the foot of the hills, railroad tracks ran parallel to the road. He caught a glimpse of two house trailers nestled away in the woods. They were old, weather-beaten, ramshackle—but otherwise unharmed.

Coming around a bend, Dan threw on the brakes. The highway ended abruptly in a shiny wall, perhaps six feet tall. A small car had skidded sideways into the wall, caving part of it—dirt, Dan realized—over the hood. Dan could see a woman's face staring at him through the driver's side window. The woman was wide-eyed.

"That's Jenny Lynch," he muttered. He stared at the wall across the road. "What in the hell is going on?"

Dan got out of the Cherokee. Behind him, he could hear the miners' trucks coming to a halt and doors opening. When he reached the car, he tapped on the window. Slowly, Jenny rolled it down.

"Are you okay?" The youngish, plump-faced woman nodded hesitantly.

"I—I think so, Dan." She reached a shaky hand toward her face. "Did I kill anybody? I don't know what happened." The words started coming out in a rush. "There was a flash—some kind of explosion—I don't know . . . Then this wall, where did it come from? I hit the brakes, car started skidding—I . . . I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened."

Dan patted her on the shoulder. "Relax, Jenny. You didn't hurt anybody. I think you're just a little shaken up." He remembered Nichols. "We've got a doctor with us. Hold on just—"

He started to turn, but Nichols was already there. The doctor gently shouldered Dan aside and gave Jenny a quick examination.

"I don't think there's anything serious," he said. "Let's get her out of the car." He opened the door. A moment later, he and Dan were helping Jenny. Other than being shaky and pale, the woman didn't seemed harmed.

"Come here a second, will you Dan?" said Mike. The union president was squatting by the strange wall, digging into it with a pocket knife. The police chief walked over.

"This thing is just dirt," Mike stated. "Nothing but plain old dirt." He spilled another scoop out of the wall. As soon as the cohesion was broken, the shiny substance turned into nothing but a pile of soil. "The only reason it looks shiny is because—" Mike groped for words. "It's as if the dirt's been cut by a perfect razor." He poked at the wall again. "See? As soon as you break through the surface, it's nothing but dirt. What the hell could have done that? And where did it come from?"

Mike glanced right and left. The "wall" continued on both sides of the road. It was as if two completely different landscapes had suddenly been jammed together. He could see the side of a typical West Virginia hill to the south—except the side was now like a perpendicular cliff. Just as shiny as the wall across the road, except where pockets of soil were falling loose.

Dan shrugged. He started to say something when he heard a sudden shriek. Startled, he rose and stared at the wall. An instant later, a body hurtled over the top and crashed into him.

The impact sent Dan sprawling on the pavement. The body—a young girl, he realized dimly, a raggedly dressed teenager—landed on top of him, still shrieking. The girl bounced off him and scrambled down the bank, heading for the creek. Still screaming.

Half-dazed, Dan started to rise. Mike was at his side, extending a hand. Dan took it and got back on his feet.

Everything was happening too fast. He had just started to turn, looking for the girl, when he saw two new figures appear on top of the wall.

Men. Armed.

Mike's back was toward them, half-blocking Dan's view. Dan pushed him off and reached for his pistol. One of the men—then the other—began raising his rifle. Rifle? What was that strange-looking weapon?

Dan's pistol was clear of the holster. Coming up. "Halt!" he shouted. "Drop your weapons!"

The first rifle went off. The gun made a strange, booming sound. Dan heard the bullet ricochet off the pavement. He caught a glimpse of Mike throwing himself down. Dan had his pistol up—levered the slide—two-handed grip—

The round from the second rifle slammed into his left shoulder, knocking him sideways.

His mind felt suspended. Dan had never actually fired his weapon in a live situation. But he was an instructor in police combat tactics, and had spent uncounted hours on the firing range and in simulated drills. His training took over. Using his right hand, he brought the pistol back on target.

Detached, his mind recognized that the man was wearing some kind of armor. And a helmet. Dan was an expert shot. The range wasn't more than thirty feet. He fired. Fired again. The .40-caliber rounds practically severed the man's neck. He flopped backward, out of sight.

Dan swung his pistol to the left. The other man was still standing on the wall, doing something with his weapon. He, too, was wearing armor. But he had no helmet. Dan fired. Fired again. Fired again. Three shots, in less than two seconds. The head which absorbed those rounds was nothing but a ruptured ruin. The man collapsed to his knees, dropping his weapon. A second later, both the man and his firearm were sliding over the wall. The firearm landed on the pavement with a clatter. The body landed with a sodden thump.

Dan felt himself slumping. He sensed that his arm—his whole body—was soaked with blood. Mike caught him and lowered him to the ground.

He was fading out now. Shock, he realized. I'm losing a lot of blood. Dimly, he recognized the face of the black doctor, looming over him. His vision was getting blurred.

There was something he had to do. Urgent.

Oh, yeah. "Mike," he whispered. "I'm deputizing you. You and your guys. Find out what the hell—" He faded out, back in. "Just do whatever you've got to . . ."

Faded out.


"How is he?" Mike asked.

Nichols shook his head. The doctor had pulled out a handkerchief and was trying to staunch the wound. The cloth was already soaking through.

"I think it's just a flesh wound," he muttered. "But—Jesus—what did that bastard shoot him with, anyway? A shotgun slug? Damned near ripped his shoulder off. Sharon—come here. Quick!"

As his daughter hurried up, Nichols was relieved to see she was carrying a first-aid kit. Frank Jackson must have had one in his truck. The doctor spotted another miner hauling a first-aid kit out of his own vehicle. Thank God for country boys, came the whimsical thought.

While Nichols and his daughter started tending to Dan Frost, one of the other miners picked up his assailant's weapon. Ken Hobbs, that was. He was in his early sixties and, like many of the men in the area, was an enthusiast for antique black-powder guns.

"Will you look at this thing, Mike?" he demanded, holding up the firearm. "I swear to God—this is a fucking matchlock!"

Noticing Sharon working at her father's side, Hobbs flushed. "Sorry, ma'am. 'Bout the bad language."

Sharon ignored him. She was too preoccupied helping her father. Dan's eyes were closed. His face was as pale as a sheet.

Mike turned away. Hobbs came up to him, extending the captured weapon. His wizened face, scrunched up with puzzlement, was a mass of wrinkles. "I swear, Mike. It's a matchlock. There's pictures of them in one of my books at home."

Another miner, Hank Jones, came up. "You oughta be careful handling that," he muttered. "You know. Mess up the fingerprints."

Hobbs started to make some vulgar retort. Then, remembering Sharon, turned profanity into a simple hiss. "For what, Hank? So we can nab the culprit?" He gestured at the corpse lying at the foot of the peculiar embankment. "Case you didn't notice, Dan already blew the SOB's head off."

Another miner had scrambled onto the wall, and was studying the corpse of the other man. He barked a harsh laugh. "Same here! Two rounds, right through the neck."

Darryl McCarthy was in his early twenties. He had none of Hobbs' old-fashioned qualms about using bad language in front of a woman. Not under these circumstances, anyway. "Only thing holding this asshole's head to his body," he announced loudly, "is maybe three little strips of meat."

McCarthy rose. Standing on the lip of the wall, he stared down at Dan Frost's unconscious form. His look was full of approval. "Both rounds hit the bastard right in the throat. Blew his fucking neck all to hell."

All the coal miners were gathered at the scene, now. All of them were staring down at Frost. All of them with approval.

"Remind me not to lip off to him at the Happy Trails, next time he says I've had enough," murmured Frank Jackson. "Always heard he was a hell of a shot."

Mike straightened up, remembering the girl. His eyes ranged down the creek where she had fled.

"She's probably half a mile away, by now," said Hank. He pointed southwest, across the creek. "I saw her scramble over to the other side. Creek must be low. She went up somewhere into the trees."

Hank's face twisted into a ferocious scowl. "The whole back of her dress had been ripped off, Mike." He glared at the corpse lying on the pavement. "I think those guys were trying to rape her."

Mike's eyes went to the corpse. Then looked at the wall and the unseen territory beyond. Thin columns of smoke were still rising.

"Something bad is happening here, guys," he stated. "I don't know what it is. But it's bad." He pointed at the corpse. "I don't think this is all of it."

Frank stalked over to the corpse and stooped over it. "Look at this weird armor. What do you think, Mike? Some kind of crazy survivalists or something?"

Mike shrugged. "I've got no idea, Frank. But if there were two of them, there's no reason can't be more." He gestured at Dan. Dr. Nichols seemed to have the blood flow stanched. "You heard the chief, guys. He deputized us, and told us to do whatever's got to be done."

The miners nodded, and crowded a little closer.

"So get your guns, boys. I know damn well you've all got something stashed in your vehicles. We're going hunting."

As the men started moving toward their trucks, Mike reconsidered. "Except you, Ken. You've got to get Dan back to the high school. They've got a clinic."

Seeing the elderly Hobbs' look of suspicion, Mike elaborated curtly. "Don't argue with me! It's not your age, dammit. You've got the only van here." He pointed at Frost. "Better than tossing him into the bed of a pickup."

Mollified, Hobbs nodded. "I'll get my gun. Leave it with you guys."

Mike heard Nichols murmur something to his daughter. A moment later the doctor was rising.

"Sharon can do as much for him right now as I can," he said. "It's just a flesh wound. Big one, but nothing worse. She'll go back with him to the clinic."

Mike cocked an eyebrow. Nichols smiled thinly. "I'm coming with you." Nichols nodded toward the wall. "Like you said, something bad's going down here. I suspect you'll need me down the road a ways."

Mike hesitated. Then, studying the hard, rough face—a very thin smile that was—he nodded. "Okay with me, Doc." He looked down at Frost. "Can you get that holster off him? You better have a weapon yourself."

While Nichols occupied himself with that task, Mike went over to his own pickup. It was the work of a few seconds to haul his gun from its place of concealment behind the seat. And a box of ammunition. He hefted the big .357 magnum. The weapon was a Smith & Wesson Model 28 Highway Patrolman fixed-sight revolver, tucked into a clip holster. Fortunately, Mike had insisted on dress pants using a belt instead of suspenders. He attached the holster to the belt and shoved the ammunition in the rented tuxedo's deep pockets.

Then he went over to Dan's Cherokee and took out the shotgun. He also found two boxes of ammunition. One of them contained rounds for the .40 caliber. The other held double-ought buckshot. The same rounds would be in the shotgun's magazine. He pried out a half dozen shotgun shells and stuffed them in his pants pockets. The box of .40-caliber ammunition he kept in his hand. Between the revolver and all the ammunition, he felt like a waddling duck.

Screw it. I'd rather be a well-armed duck than a sitting one.

By now, Sharon and Hobbs had gotten Dan into the back of the van. Jenny Lynch had recovered enough to lend them a hand. Less than a minute later, the van was turning around and heading back to the high school.

Mike's union members were gathered around him. All of them were armed. Most of them with pistols, except Frank's beloved lever-action Winchester and Harry Lefferts'—

"For Christ's sake, Harry," Mike snapped, "don't ever let Dan catch you with that."

Harry grinned. He was the same age as Darryl—they were best friends, in fact—and shared Darryl's carefree youthful attitudes. "And what's wrong with a sawed-off shotgun?" he demanded. He jerked his head around, pointing to everyone else with his chin. "It's not as if every damn one of these guns isn't illegal, when you get right down to it. So what's another concealed weapon—among friends?"

A little chuckle swept the group. Mike made a face. "Yeah, well—you better be damn close, with that thing. Don't forget these guys were wearing armor."

He turned now to the doctor, and handed him the box of .40-caliber ammunition he'd found in the glove compartment. Nichols put down the first-aid kit he was carrying. Mike was not particularly surprised to see the quick and expert way in which Nichols reloaded the automatic pistol.

"Well-trained, you Marines," he murmured.

Nichols snorted. "Marines, my ass. I knew what to do with one of these before I was twelve." He hefted the automatic. "This is Blackstone Rangers' training. I grew up within spitting distance of Sixty-third and Cottage Grove."

Suddenly, the black doctor was beaming wickedly at the white men around him. "Gentlemen," he said, "the Marines are at your side. Not to mention Chicago's worst ghetto. Let's deal."

The miners grinned back. "Nice to have you along, Doc," announced Frank.

Mike turned, and strode toward the embankment. "Like you said. Let's deal."


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