To my ear, I sound about as dangerous as Pooh, but he seems to take me seriously. “All right, whatever you say.”
“I’m sorry about this, sir.”
He shrugs. “Stuff happens, son. You must have your reasons.”
“One more thing. What kind of load are you hauling?”
“There aren’t any people in the trailer?”
He frowns. “Why would there be people?”
“I just need to ask.”
“This rig is a reefer,” he says, pointing to the refrigeration unit on the front of the trailer. “Frozen turkeys.”
“So any people in there would be frozen dead.”
“That’s my point.”
“Okay, start walking north.”
“You won’t shoot me in the back?”
“I’m not that type, sir.”
“No offense, son.”
He walks away, looking forlorn, Santa stripped of his sleigh and reindeer. As he passes the end of the trailer, without glancing back, he says, “Won’t be easy to fence frozen turkeys, son.”
“I know just what to do with them,” I assure him.
When he’s about eighty feet past the rig, I climb into the tractor and pull the door shut.
This is really bad. I’m embarrassed to have to write about this. I’ve killed people, sure, but they were vicious people who wanted to kill me. I never before stole anything from an innocent person—or from a wicked person, either, come to think of it, unless you count taking a gun away from a bad guy in order to shoot him with it, which I’d argue is more self-defense than theft or, at the worst, unapproved borrowing.
Taped to the storage ledge above the windshield is a group photo of my victim with an elderly couple who might be his parents, a nice-looking woman of about fifty, who is probably his sister Berniece, and a boy who can be no one but the orphan Timmy. Clipped to the flap door of the storage space above the overhead CB radio is a photo of my victim with a cute golden retriever that he clearly adores, and beside that is clipped a reminder card that in fancy script says JESUS LOVES ME.
I feel like crap. What I’ve done so far is bad, but I’m about to do even worse.
Some guy with a cold smooth voice says, “Jolie Ann Harmony,” like he wants to spook me.
So here I am in a dimly lighted room with six dead people in hazmat suits or space suits, or something, with their faces melted and collapsed and grinning like psycho clowns, their teeth kind of glowing green behind their faceplates. When I hear my name, I pretty much expect one of the six, maybe all of them, to clamber to their feet and lurch toward me, living-dead hazmat guys, zombie astronauts, but none of them moves, which doesn’t prove they’re harmless because the living dead are always trying to fake you out and then catch you unaware.
Some girls, I guess, would turn back at this point. I don’t know much about other girls. Being a hostage to Hiskott and all that for five years, I haven’t been able to cultivate like eight or ten best friends forever. And even if I had some friends my age, I can’t slip out of the Corner and go on cool sleepovers without him torturing and killing half my family for spite. Even if right now I feel like scurrying back to wait for Harry exactly where he left me, which I’m not saying I do, there’s no reason to think that I’d be safer there. Whatever might kill me here could come there and rip out my eyes to fry them with onions and eggs for breakfast. So it’s just as dumb to go on as to go back, and no less dumb to stay here, and if you don’t have anything but dumb choices, you might as well go with the most interesting one.
“Jolie Ann Harmony,” the guy repeats, and maybe he’s invisible, because his voice seems to come out of nowhere.
“Yeah, what do you want?”
He doesn’t answer me. Maybe he’s disappointed that his cold smooth spooky voice doesn’t seem to scare me. When you’ve had Norris Hiskott in your head making you do all kinds of rotten things, let me tell you, it takes a lot more to frighten you than some stupid feeb doing one version or another of Boo!
“You have something to say to me?” I ask.
“Jolie Ann Harmony.”
“Here. Present. Je suis Jolie.”
“Jolie Ann Harmony.”
“What am I, talking to a parrot or something?”
He gives me the silent treatment again.
If I’ve got to be honest, I’ll admit I’m sort of scared. After all, I’m not an idiot. But I swallow it like a wad of phlegm, which is how fear feels when it comes into your throat from somewhere, and I walk past those six dead people to another one of those ginormous round moongate-type doors. That yellow light I keep following seems to be yet another room away, and maybe it’s like the Pied Piper who lures all the children to their doom because the townsfolk won’t pay him what they promised for leading the rats away to drown in the river. But what am I going to do, you know? All the choices are dumb again, which is beginning to be annoying. So I let the big old gummy amoeba or whatever swallow me and spit me straight into the next chamber. I feel so like, yuck, I should be covered in icky gunk and reek like spoiled milk or something, but I’m dry and I don’t stink.
The yellow light winks out, and I’m blind, which doesn’t bother me as much as you might think it would, because everything bad that’s ever happened to me happened in light, not in the dark, and at least in the dark, if there’s something horrible about to go down, the thing is you don’t have to see it. Then a soft, shimmering, silvery radiance appears in the blackness, very ghosty at first, but it grows a little brighter and brighter. It’s a huge sphere, hard to tell how big in this gloom, because it mostly contains its light and doesn’t brighten anything more than a few feet beyond it.
Well, I can stand here until my knees buckle or move toward it, so I do, being careful not to fall into some pit if there is a pit. The floor is hard rubberlike stuff again, and I go at least forty feet from the weird door before I’m standing next to the sphere. It’s maybe fifty feet in diameter, as high as a five-story building. Unless it’s suspended from the ceiling, the sphere is just floating there like the biggest bubble ever, its silver light reflected dimly on the black floor three feet under it. I can’t tell is it heavy or is it light like a bubble, but my suspicion is it’s so heavy that if it wasn’t levitating, if it was resting on the floor, it would crush the foundation, drop through to the earth underneath, and crumple the entire building into a pit on top of it.
This isn’t the most unique thing I’ve ever seen, because the word unique is an absolute, there can’t be degrees of it. A thing is unique or it isn’t. It’s not very unique or pretty unique or more unique. Just unique. That’s one of the sixty million facts you have to learn when you’re homeschooled by parents who’ve read a library’s worth of books and think about just everything. But this sphere is unique for sure.
The thing is silent, but it gives off this ominous vibe that makes me feel like I would be the world’s biggest idiot if I touched it. Maybe I’ve made myself out to be the Indiana Jones of the seventh grade, but the truth is that I get the phlegm of fear in my throat again, thicker than before, and I have to keep swallowing hard to be able to breathe right. Don’t ask about my heart. It’s just thudding like some pneumatic hammer.
Out of the almost-liquid pooling darkness comes that cold smooth voice again, just as pompous as ever. I want to smack him, I swear I do. “Jolie Ann Harmony does not have project clearance.”
“Who are you?”
“Jolie Ann Harmony does not have project clearance.”
“Where are you?”
He clams up.
Whoever this guy is, I’m sure he’s just as dangerous as any axe murderer and I should pussyfoot around him and be polite, but he really annoys me. He’s judgmental. He’s bossy. He won’t engage in a conversation.
“You’re judgmental,” I tell him, “bossy, and just generally impossible.”
He’s silent so long I don’t expect a reply, but then he says, “Nevertheless, you do not have project clearance.”
“Well, I think I do.”
“No, you do not.”
“That is incorrect.”
“What’s the name of your project?”
“That is classified information.”
For a minute, I stand listening to the silence and watching the glowing sphere, which now looks like a giant crystal ball, though I’m pretty sure it’s metallic. Then I give him a little what-for: “If you really want to know, I don’t even think you have a project. The whole thing’s a silly load of cow dung. It’s just something you made up so you’d feel important.”
“Jolie Ann Harmony does not have project clearance.”
“Has anyone ever told you how tedious you are?”
If I’ve wounded him, he’s not going to admit it.
“So if you have a project, where are the workers and all? Projects have workers of one kind or another, you know, guys in overalls or uniforms, or lab jackets, or some other getup. I don’t see anyone. This whole place is deserted.”
He gives me the silent treatment again. I’m supposed to be intimidated, but it doesn’t work.
“In the room before this one, there’s six dead guys wearing airtight suits, look like they’ve been dead for years. All I’ve seen are gross dead people, and you can’t have a project with just dead people.”
Finally Mr. Mystery speaks: “I am authorized to terminate intruders.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“If you were, you’d already have terminated me.”
He seems to have to brood about that one.
I’m not sure that was the smartest thing I could have said, so I give it another shot: “Anyway, I’m not an intruder. I’m like an explorer. A refugee and an explorer. Where is this stupid place—somewhere on the southern edge of Fort Wyvern? Wyvern’s been closed since before I was born.”
After a hesitation, he says, “Then you must be a child.”
“What a staggering feat of deduction. I’m overwhelmed. I really am. Genius. Here’s the thing—your project was abandoned a long time ago, and you’re just like some watchman who makes sure nobody steals the expensive equipment and sells it for scrap.”
“That is incorrect. The project was never abandoned. It was mothballed pending a new approach to the problem, which apparently has taken some time to devise.”
“That is classified information.”
“You make me want to spit, you really do.”
Embedded in the floor, a series of small yellow path lamps comes on, beginning directly in front of my feet and leading away from the floating sphere. It’s not a very subtle suggestion, in spite of the fact they aren’t very bright lights, they’re like a procession of little luminous sea creatures laboriously making their way along the bottom of a deep, deep ocean trench so far from the sun that the surrounding water is as black as petroleum. At the end of this line of lights, a curving set of metal stairs suddenly appears out of the blackness when tube lighting, also dim, barely brightens the face of each tread and glows wanly under the handrail. In fact, the stairs and all are so softly lighted, they seem almost to be a mirage that might dissolve before my eyes at any moment, like something you’d have to climb in a fairy tale to get to the cloud city where the all the fairies live.
Path lighting, stair lighting, any kind of safety lighting is meant to be bright enough so that you don’t trip and fall. There must be a reason these are stingy with the wattage, so I wonder if maybe the sphere, which is beautiful but creepy, might have to be kept in heavy darkness for some reason.
I follow the path lights, but then I’m not totally convinced the stairs are a swell idea. I’m getting pretty far away from Orc and all that.
Out of the pooled darkness, Mr. Mystery says, “When you were talking to Harry, you mentioned a name that I recognized—Hiskott.”
“What a piece of work you are—eavesdropping, snooping. That’s pretty scummy, you know.”
“This is my dominion. You were trespassing.”
“Well, whether or not that’s true—”
“It is true.”
“—whether or not it is, you’re still scummy.”
“Come up the stairs, and talk with me about Norris Hiskott.”
The truck is equipped with a flat mirror and a convex mirror on each side of the cab, and a spot mirror on each front fender, all automatically adjustable, but the only thing I’m going to need them for is to be sure that the driver is still hiking away from his rig. And he is, clearly not tempted to come running back as soon as he hears me slam the cab door.
The big-bore engine is idling as I settle behind the wheel, but a well-integrated sound-dampening system isolates the engine noise so effectively that I’ve been in cars that are louder. It’s a cozy cab; and if I were going to drive it any distance, I would need yet another NoDoz to keep from being lulled to sleep by the low and comforting sound of the 15-liter engine filtering through the insulation.
I put the pistol between my legs—muzzle forward.
From the face of the overhead storage shelf and the flap door above the citizens-band radio, I remove the family photograph, the picture of the driver and his golden retriever, and the JESUS LOVES ME reminder card. I tuck them in my wallet and return the wallet to my hip pocket.
There’s GPS navigation, but as I am not driving even half a mile, I don’t need to enter an address. I release the brakes, put this big boy in gear, and head south on the county road toward the entrance to Harmony Corner. I haven’t driven one of these often and not for some time, but I don’t need to build up speed and take any chances, because it isn’t my intention to use the eighteen-wheeler as a ram or anything like that. I’m Odd but I’m not nuts.
Between the service station and the diner lies the large graveled area where truckers are directed to park. Last night, when Annamaria and I arrived, three rigs were tucked in there. The space can handle a dozen of these behemoths. At the moment, just before the breakfast rush starts to accelerate, five eighteen-wheelers are lined up like prehistoric beasts at a watering hole.
Passing the service station, I glimpse a couple of guys in there, but I’m too far away to see their faces. If one of them isn’t Donny, I wouldn’t know either of them, anyway. They don’t react as I sail by. To them I’m just another customer of the diner.