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Neal Barrett, Jr.

Here's a chilling examination of what an alien-dominated Earth would feel like to the people who would have to live in it, told with a hard-edged, hard-eyed, unsentimental intelligence rare to the genre.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Neal Barrett, Jr. grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, spent several years in Austin, hobnobbing with the likes of Lewis Shiner and Howard Waldrop, and now makes his home with his family in Fort Worth, Texas. He made his first sale in 1959, and has been a full-time freelancer for the past twelve years. Barrett became one of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine's most popular writers in the last half of the '80s, and gained wide critical acclaim with a string of pungent, funny, and unclassifiably weird stories like "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus," "Stairs," "Highbrow," and "Class of '61," as well as publishing great stories such as "Diner," "Sallie C," and "Winter on the Belle Fourche" in markets as diverse as Omni, The Best of the West, and The New Frontier. His books include Stress Pattern, Karma Corps, the four-volume Aldair series, the critically acclaimed novel Through Darkest America and its sequel Dawn's Uncertain Light, and the very strange novel, The Hereafter Gang, which the Washington Post referred to as "the Great American Novel." His most recent books are the comic Mafia novel Pink Vodka Blues, which has just been optioned for a big-budget Hollywood movie, and a collection of some of his shorter work, Slightly Off Center.

With the glasses, lying on the flat gravel roof across the street, he could follow ant dramatics on the worn brick facing of the center. The place looked thoroughly abandoned. Dry summer grass followed cracks along the broad parking lot, sprouting in small explosions. Wild azalea had taken hold in rusted cars. He slipped the binoculars into his pack and out of the heat. The South Texas sun bleached the sky of any color and there was no shade at all on the roof. He thought about beer in sweaty bottles. He'd tried making beer but it was flat, both in chemistry and emotion. Fruit jars lacked the ambiance of TV taverns.

What the Snakes had done was set up their operation in an old shopping mall on the far edge of Beaumont, close to the Port Arthur road. There was a K-mart and a Safeway and a discount appliance store, and a dozen smaller shops all connected by an inside mall. Josh was sure they weren't using the whole place. The real operation would be hidden in some inaccessible corner, past a wall that had crumbled on its own or gotten help. You could walk through rubble all day and satisfy yourself there was nothing to see. Proper measures would be taken.

A noise from the street brought him about and he bellied across the roof and parted a tangle of dead vines. A one-wheeler took the corner fast, raising white dust and heading south. The motor was strangely flat in humid air. The Snake sat high on his perch, awkward as Orville Wright. The sun glanced off copper scales. His whip-tail snapped in the breeze. A moment later, the convoy followed. Nine boxy shapes painted the familiar vomit yellow. They made no sound and rode meters above the road.

There was nothing else to see. He backed off and dropped through a hole in the roof. The store was dark and cool. He laid on his pack and slept amid the ghosts of plumbing supplies. He dreamed that a dog came in and saw him. When it was dark he slipped out and walked back to the Neches River. The black gelding was hobbled in a thick grove of willows near the water. The mount jerked away when he approached; he held its nose and spoke to it quietly. A few miles north he turned west and followed Black Creek into the Thicket. A big magnolia grew near the creek, as broad as three men. He stepped down and allowed himself a smoke.

That was how they worked it, then; the convoy turning right past the mall had shown him the answer. The Snakes had a small repair base out past the Eastex Freeway. He had no idea what they repaired. The fact that it was there had gotten him thinking about how his buddy Howard Johnson ran his scam. Traffic came off the base and past the mall. All Howard had to do was bring his goods out the mall's back door, circle around and edge in a convoy going south. The Snakes had a setup over east of Sabine Pass, a fair-sized town and a landing pad for the big space freighters that took everything in and out of the Gulf Coast. Howard would grease some palms and his stuff would go out clean with everything else. Someone would pick up the goods at the other end. Fucking larceny among the lizards. So much for advanced civilizations.

He mounted up again and took a long pull from the bottle he kept in his pack. The moon was nearly full. He could see flat water, a dense stand of thick-boled cypress. The mosquitoes found him out and he kicked the gelding into a trot.

He was up and out back splashing his face with cold water out of the bucket before the sun came over the trees, regretting the fact that he'd ridden in late and finished off the whiskey on the way. One of the men was chopping wood and the sound rang sharply over the clearing. The smell of breakfast led him into the cabin.

"Dry off before you sit," Ellie told him. She didn't turn from the stove. He wiped his dark beard on a cloth and filled his plate with fried fish and biscuits and sorghum. The hands had already eaten. He'd seen their plates stacked on a stump.

"You had to go and see," Ellie said. "That's what this is all about."

"Don't start on me now."

Ellie faced him, a big wooden spoon in her hand. She was a long-limbed girl with a country-strong jaw and yellow hair. "What good did it do. Will you just tell me that?"

"I know old Howard's a crook."

"Big surprise."

"Ellie. I wanted to see how he does it."

Ellie turned back to the stove.

"He's got a slick operation which is how he better do it. They ever catch him at it, they'll make him into eighty dollar shoes and a belt."

"And what'll they do to you?"

"Commerce is a risk."

"The way you do it it is."

He got up and pushed back his chair and walked up behind her and touched her waist. She stiffened slightly under his hands.

"You didn't bathe this morning. You smell like whiskey and horses."

"You smell pretty good. Like flour and a woman in heat."

"That last part's wishing." She squirmed out of his grasp. Josh saw her flush and knew evening would find her content. He drank down his coffee and walked out into the yard. The land below the cabin sloped down to a narrow inlet, the water there still and dark as slate. The wind had picked up right at dawn and the fog had burned off early. Moss bearded tall oak trees at the edge of the water. The world came to an end twenty yards into the swamp, choked off in dense vegetation. When the sun broke through, the feeble light was pale as butter.

Sol and Jim and the two new hands were waiting in the shade of the live oak that spread its branches over the cabin and the barn, the smokehouse and the hands' quarters back past the corral. The red flag was down; Ellie had taken breakfast out to the men and disarmed the traps. Still, they waited past the last white line. They seldom came closer unless they were asked.

Josh didn't much care for the new hands but Sol said they were all right. They came from up past Votaw and Sol was vaguely related to them both. Which said nothing at all, as everyone in the Thicket was somebody's cousin. The two would bear watching. They both had the tallow-colored skin and spare frames of back country men who were never more than a day this side of hungry. They knew who Josh was and what he had, and they wouldn't stop thinking about that.

Sol and Jim stood as Josh appeared. The new men followed their lead, one deliberately slower than the other.

"We got a lot to do," Josh said without greeting. "I want those horses fit and clean. Jim, you see the trading stock gets some extra feed." He turned to the new hands. "You all get started on those stumps past the barn. I want that patch flat as a table."

One of the men looked down at his feet. The other faced Josh for an instant and scratched at his chin. He didn't want to chop out stumps. It was backbreaking work in the heat of summer.

Sol stayed on when the others left. "Anything special you want me to do today, Josh?"

It was part of their morning rite. Josh would give him paper and a pinch of tobacco in acknowledgment of his status as top hand. Sol would roll a smoke and carefully put it away. Josh had never seen him light up. Sol took his pleasure in private, or did a little trading of his own.

"That storm last week took some cedar shakes off the barn," Josh said. "You can see it from right here. In the unlikely event it ever rains again we'll have a ton of sour feed to fork out."

Sol looked down at his hands. It was something he should have noticed and he knew it. "I'll get right to that, Josh. I sure will."

"I found a bee tree yesterday evening coming back. Two miles down past that stand of palmetto. You might take a look at that."

"Right after I get to that roof," said Sol. "You have any luck out in the bush? See anything at all?" He pretended the question had suddenly struck him, but it wasn't a thing he did well at all.

"A little sign, maybe," Josh told him. "There's wild porkers out there. One day I'll get 'em."

"You take me out I'll find them. I got a good nose for game."

"I might do that," said Josh. Sol knew it was a lie. He hadn't gone out three days looking for pigs that didn't exist.

Josh stood and Sol sprang up like his shadow. He showed Josh an open cheerful grin. A dog eager to fetch. "All right, get to it," Josh told him. Sol trotted off and Josh rolled a smoke. You couldn't help but like Sol and it was better to have a snoop on the property who was easy than one who wasn't. It had to be Sol that told everything he knew to Martin Bregger. Jim was too dumb. Nobody could act that ignorant unless he was.

Josh sighed and walked back to the house. The sun was up strong, the air already too thick to breathe. On one side he had Martin Bregger, who ran everything clear up to the Red River and over east to Louisiana. Martin was too smart to try and kill the golden goose, but he wouldn't mind at all if the goose was his own man instead of Josh. And on the other end he had the Snakes, Howard Johnson and whoever else was in it. He wasn't sure which he trusted the least. If either one got foolish he was standing in the middle. He tossed down the smoke and stubbed it out. Maybe he was getting too old for this business. Except the only other business was going hungry, and he was sure as hell too old for that.

It seemed like a night for a treat; no good reason except Beaumont had left him feeling edgy. That, and Ellie's disapproval. When he finished up his rounds and locked up he ran the patch of red cloth above the roof. The flag told the hands and whoever might decide to wander in that he'd armed the traps again and it wouldn't be smart to poke around. No one had since the boys from Liberty County had decided to come in and try for the horses. Martin Bregger said it wouldn't happen again and had come down himself to look at the bodies. Josh knew Bregger had likely sent them himself to see what the traps could do.

He went to the cellar and got the Herradura Añejo tequila, ninety-two proof and still in the bottle, that and two good joints, and then climbed to the bedroom upstairs. Ellie was moving about fluffing pillows. She slept in the raw year round, as he did himself, there being little need for bedclothes in the Thicket. The lamp was out but there was a candle. He liked the way the light kissed her skin. She turned and saw the bottle and the joints and gave him a curious smile.

"What's the occasion, something special?"

"Make one up if you want."

She got a single glass from beside the bed and watched him pour, then waited while he lit up the joints, closing her eyes and drawing smoke into her lungs.

"God, it isn't going to take much of that."

"It's all right, is it?"

"Better than all right."

Josh tasted the tequila on his tongue. Quick picture of a fountain, red-tiled roof and bright color.

"I'm sorry my leaving upset you."

"I don't ever like you going. Specially if it's got to do with a town. That wasn't something you really had to do."

"Maybe not."

"I don't like staying here, Josh. Making a little circle around the house."

"Isn't any other way I know to do it."

"I still don't have to like it." She flipped ash on the floor, using her whole arm in the motion. He gave her the glass again and she held it in both hands, bringing it to her mouth like a child. Her eyes came up and she caught him checking her out.

"You didn't need to get out the goodies. I can be had."

"Isn't what it was for."

"Well, then. Let's pretend it was." She touched his chest and smiled. "I'll fight you off a little."

"Not if you finish that toke."

"Then I guess I finish the toke. I can get you whenever I want."

"That's true."

"While you were gone Sol acted real funny."

"Funny how?"

"Walking around the yard all the time, stopping to get a rock out of his shoe. That kind of thing."

Josh grinned. "He's trying to map out the traps. I've caught him at it before."

"You think it's funny?"

"Ellie, you know how to find the traps? Step on 'em. That's not a practical solution." There were two trap perimeters around the cabin. When he was gone, Ellie armed the outside perimeter day and night, and shut off the inside perimeter during the day. It left her a little room to walk around, and was better than being shut up in the house.

"You're not going again soon, are you?" she asked.

"No, you know I'm not."

"Good. Just don't." She pinched out the candle and came in close against his shoulder. The loving was good and they surprised each other with their needs. When Ellie was asleep he looked up at the ceiling and thought about Sol. He was getting a little cocky. He never did anything he wasn't told to do so Martin was egging him on. Pushing him into something or maybe nothing at all. The whole idea was to keep Josh from getting any sleep and sometimes it worked better than others.

He spent his days mostly in the cellar, getting his goods in order for Howard Johnson's next visit, the squares on his homemade calendar diminishing much faster than he liked. The cellar was as large as the cabin space above, lined with concrete blocks Josh had hauled in from Batson by team and wagon three summers before. It was caulked, painted and generally proof against the wet ground pressing on every side, and had the virtue of being twenty degrees cooler in the summer. Ellie was from northern Minnesota and had no tolerance for hot and humid weather. More than once he'd been tempted to bring her down, when her skin flushed red and she could hardly get a breath. He hated to see her suffer but it was a rule he couldn't break. He'd made it clear to Martin that no one but himself had ever been in the cellar or knew how to get in or what was there. It was the only way he had of protecting Ellie. After the boys from Liberty County had taken the short course in fragmentation mines and other surprises, Josh had broken his rule about no one in the cabin. He had brought Martin in and shown him the heavy steel door to the cellar, which was really the front half of a safe, and let him read the sign he'd painted just above the combination:





Martin had seemed impressed. He had stopped looking crazed for several moments. Of course the flaw in all this was if Martin somehow got past the traps outside and got to Ellie he could make Josh open up the door. If things ever went that far it was over anyway and wouldn't matter. The best guarantee against trouble was that Martin was a businessman first and a looney-tune second. That, and the fact that he was scared to death of the Snakes. Josh knew this for certain. It was easier just to let him keep dealing with Howard Johnson than try to cut him out and learn what he traded to the Snakes. Sol's little capers simply reflected Martin's feeling that Josh ought to worry a little more. It was a sound corporate tactic. One that told him Martin was probably only marginally unhinged.

The flyer dipped low over the swamp, scaring up bright-colored birds from the trees. The craft was a dull mustard yellow, shaped like half a melon, its power source vaguely asthmatic, a man sucking air through his teeth. It settled on runners in the clearing where Josh had whitewashed a circle. A blister set asymmetrically forward was tinted against the sun. It slid back to reveal the four Snakes. Pilot. Two armed guards. Howard Johnson stepped out and came quickly toward Josh, walking in the springy deliberate manner that make Snakes appear to move in slow-motion—even when they ran as fast as deer, which Josh had watched them do from a distance.

Josh differed from Martin in that he feared them for what they were, and not for the way they looked. Reasonably they were no more alien than upright chameleons. Seven-foot lizards that talked. Rust-sienna skin, salmon under-belly. Whip tail and apparently no use for any clothing. Howard Johnson wore a weapon, slung from a decorative webbing about his throat. To Josh, it looked like a lubricating tool, but would likely prove effective.

The Snake came to a stop. Forty-weight eyes found Josh. "Have a nice day," said Howard.

"Right, Coke is it," said Josh. "Hang on, I'll get the stuff." He left the Snake standing in the yard and went in and got his goods, packed on a dolly and covered with a tarp. Ellie didn't come out of the kitchen. Howard Johnson made her nervous. Josh wheeled the dolly across the yard and into the barn, waited until Howard was inside and shut the door. Sol and Jim and the new hands were off in the woods. They had left before sunup with no urging. In the hot, heavy air of the barn, Howard smelled musty and slightly sweet. Dead leaves and pollen. Josh pulled back the tarp and set his wares on a weathered plank table. Light from the slanted window was slightly muted.

"Some real good items this time," he told Howard. "You're lucky. First-rate stuff isn't all that easy to find. Rats get to the canvas. They take to that pigment like candy." As he talked he fooled with the paintings, turning one a little to the light, brushing at the frame of another.

"I like the people dancing," said Howard.

"Well sure," said Josh, "that's a Degas."

"Degas is good, I think."

"Degas is good." He knew Howard really didn't care about names. While he talked about dancers his eyes were flicking over the other paintings. It irritated the hell out of Josh that the Snake had a fine critical eye. Bluebonnets and moon-eyed children wouldn't cut it. Howard knew better. Josh had only tried it on him once.

"Just five, Josh?" Howard shook his head sadly in human imitation. "This is all?"

Not unexpected, but a direction Josh had hoped they might avoid. "We're talking masterpieces, Howard. These are first-rate goods."

"I know that, Josh."

"Then what are we saying here?"

"Last time there were nine."

"It can't be the same every time," Josh said patiently. "You know that. It depends on what I find."

"Five is not enough, Josh." His voice was slightly nasal, the words faintly musical and extended, as if he might have learned English from a Chinese waiter.

Josh studied the paintings while he thought about what to do next. He couldn't tell Howard he had only found two the last trip, that the others were from his hold-back stash. Besides the Degas he had the Miro and the Klee and the Andrew Wyeth, and a Lennart Anderson that looked as good as Gauguin. Back in the cellar he had the Freilicher landscape and the Cezanne and what he thought was maybe a Titian. And that was it. He wanted to tell Howard Johnson that it hadn't been his idea to flatten Houston. That devastation hindered the earnest collector. He was fast running out of museums, concentrating now on well-to-do residential rubble. This last avenue hit or miss, wealth not always reflecting taste.

He showed Howard the other stuff he had, the Kazak carpet and the three good Téotihuacán heads and a Minoan beaker jug, a salesman winding up his pitch and saving a little kicker for the last. Howard had a weakness for good glass, and he brought out the Baccarat crystal and held it up to the light, flipping the rim so Howard could hear it ring. A tulip-shaped glass, clear as air and whisper-thin.

"Oh yes very nice," said Howard. He took the piece carefully from Josh. Their hands didn't touch. He held the crystal by its base, fingers long and spatulate at the tips. Needles of light flecked his skin, for a moment a disco lizard.

"I would like more of these. In other shapes as well."

"So would I," Josh said carefully. Howard had an ear for human inflection. "I found this item in a shop that handled fine crystal and china. Spode and Waterford, Steuben, everything the best. Two floors of it. I never saw so much broken glass in my life. This was the only piece intact."

"You should find other shops such as that."

"That's a real good idea. As a matter of fact I'm working on another site now. There might be something, I can't promise."

The other site was pure fiction and maybe Howard knew it. If there was a Mason jar left in Houston Josh couldn't find it. In the cellar he had a single, exquisite Lalique, a crystal piece with a frosted satin finish that would knock the Snake on his tail. Howard would expect something big next time and he'd have to bring it out.

The Snakes came in from the flyer and loaded everything up, packing the items carefully under Howard's watchful eye. Josh handed Howard the envelope with his samples for next time, then loaded up the goods Howard had brought him and wheeled the dolly into the house.

Howard was waiting in the yard.

"Bring Ellie outside," he told Josh.

"Ellie? What for?"

It shook Josh badly and Howard caught his concern. "I'm not going to hurt her, Josh. I am going to take her up in the flyer. I will bring her back safely. She can look at the countryside and see the Gulf from great heights."

"Howard, I don't think Ellie'd like to do that."

"Bring her out, Josh."

He was overcome by a terrible fear, a helpless rage. There was nothing he could do and there was no use asking the Snake what he wanted. He turned and went inside. Ellie looked up from the kitchen table and read his face. She stood quickly and Josh held her shoulders and sat her down and told her.

"Oh Jesus . . ." She looked like a bird caught in a trap.

"You'll be all right," he said. "If he was going to do something he'd just do it. That's his way. I can't stop him, Ellie."

She pulled away and stood and walked out of the cabin, past Howard without looking. Howard nodded to Josh and followed Ellie. Josh watched the flyer lift from the clearing and bank out of sight above the trees. He went inside and found the Remington 12-gauge which he wasn't supposed to have and leaned it by the door. Howard was trying to tell him something. He didn't much care what it was. If he didn't bring Ellie back safe he'd try to kill him. Pointless. But the only gesture he could imagine.

It was a full two hours before he heard the flyer again. It settled in afternoon shadow and Howard got out and then Ellie. Josh ran out to meet her. Her face looked pale and unfinished. She'd thrown up and stained the front of her dress.

"Ellie . . ."

"Just leave me the fuck alone, all right?" She pushed him off and walked shakily to the cabin.

"She became ill," said Howard.

"Yeah, I can see that. You want to tell me what this is all about?"

"Let's walk," said Howard. He left the front of the house and started past the barn to the corral. The horses shied and trotted away at his approach, bunching up at the far side of the pen, afraid of the unfamiliar smell. There were six pack animals and nine riding horses. Howard drew his weapon and began firing methodically into the pens. Josh stared in dismay, certain this was something he only imagined. A big sorrel mare went down heavily and thrashed in the dust. The other animals went crazy with fear. They shrieked and kicked out at each other and ran blindly into the fence. Howard killed five of the riding horses. He left the pack animals alone, a point not wasted on Josh. Finally, he put the weapon away. Josh couldn't take his eyes from the corral.

"It was not a good idea to approach my place of business," said Howard. "I am greatly concerned about this, Josh."

Josh made no attempt to deny it, or ask Howard how he'd found him out. That's what it was all about, then. Ellie and the horses. Things could be taken from him. Returned or not returned.

"All right, you made your point," said Josh. "Here's one you maybe didn't consider. People see you and me having trouble, that isn't good for business. It gives them ideas."

"You'd better take care of that."

"You got any suggestions?"

Howard nodded toward the corral. "Fresh meat is scarce. Give some to Martin Bregger." He had never mentioned Bregger before. He was letting Josh know something else.

"I will be back in one month," Howard announced. "One instead of four. Have more goods ready."

"Now Christ, that doesn't make sense!" Josh was tired of holding back his anger. "I can't make a run that fast and you know it. What are you trying to do?"

"If the canvases are difficult to find you may substitute crystal for some of the paintings. One good piece will equal three paintings."

"It doesn't work like that. The glass is just as scarce."

"Try harder, Josh."

"All right, I don't know. I'll do what I can."

"I know you will. Goodbye, Josh."

He waited until the flyer disappeared and then turned and stomped back into the cabin and armed the traps, not even bothering to raise the flag. Maybe Sol would come back and blow off his ass. Ellie was upstairs. She had changed clothes and washed herself off. The bedroom smelled sour.

"You all right?" He knew it was a useless thing to say.

"I got sick and threw up and passed out. I've never been so scared in my life. I'm fine, Josh."

"I'm sorry, Ellie."

"He shoot all the horses?"

"Just the ones I don't need for business."

"Beaumont. Your goddamn adventure."

"How do you know that?"

"He told me."

"If you want I can get you something to eat. Some soup or I'll fry up those potatoes."

"No thanks. You want you can bring me the rest of the Herradura."

"I wish this hadn't of happened."

"So do I." She looked at him for the first time and he saw less anger there than despair. "I'll be okay. Just leave me alone for awhile."

Sol and Jim and the new hands came in before dark. The new man took one look at the corral and ran off into the woods. Josh got Sol and Jim butchering before the flies could do more damage. Sol knew better than to ask any questions. Martin would know something had happened here before morning.

Josh took his goods off the dolly and into the cellar, lit a lamp and locked himself in. The way the operation worked, Josh would give Howard a few grams of what he wanted and Howard would work it up. The goods came back in square plastic containers. Some standard Snake measure that came out to roughly four and a half gallons. The Snakes were clearly hotshot chemists; anything Josh had in mind they could make it. Howard never seemed concerned with the sample packets. All he told Josh was the process was risky and expensive; Josh had to take his word for that.

The Snakes leveled the cities with sonic disaster, some weapon that shattered buildings and fine crystal. The best casualty figures Josh had heard were eighty percent. Maybe more, and the same for other countries. The Snakes went away and let pestilence take its course. Disease and famine took another hefty percent. Survivors looted shopping centers and homes and grocery stores. Cattle and pigs quickly vanished. Cats and dogs. Nine years later, the Snakes came again, quashing feeble resistance and settling in to stay. They left people alone and went about doing whatever they did. Howard Johnson caught Josh looting a 7-11 ruin and made him a deal. Supply determined trade. Most items were spoiled or lost forever. Canned goods, Hershey bars and Sprite. Josh concentrated his efforts on items that had lasted. Salt. Sugar. Tea. Coffee. Tobacco. Isolated pockets of whiskey and wine. Seeds that would still come up. Occasional caches of gasoline. Marijuana, and selected recreational and medicinal drugs. Some of the food items had gone stale but nobody cared. Josh gave samples to Howard Johnson and Howard brought the goods back in bulk. There was never very much. Maybe seven hundred pounds each trip.

So Josh traded art to Howard Johnson, which Howard smuggled out to distant worlds. Howard made formerly staple items which Josh traded off to Martin Bregger. Martin stayed in power through control of rare goods. He gave Josh vegetables and fruit, flour and clothing and nails, axe handles and protection from Martin Bregger. Howard Johnson got paid in some measure; Josh had never even thought about that. All he needed to know was that Howard would never let him out of the business. If he couldn't get out, he had to make certain he stayed in. An indispensable link in the chain of commerce and trade. Why was Howard suddenly making that difficult to do? It could be the Beaumont thing or something else. Maybe lizards thought like Martin Bregger. Keep Josh from getting any sleep. It had a perverse sense of logic, the ring of truth.

Martin appeared in the yard with the morning fog. Four men, a wagon and a team were in the clearing. One man held Martin's reins while he stood under the trees and waited for Josh. Josh had the goods ready and waiting, stacked on wooden pallets a few yards past his inside perimeter of traps. The goods had been transferred from the Snakes' plastic containers to canvas sacks, Josh having skimmed off portions for personal use.

Josh appeared in the door and Martin nodded. "Morning, friend. It's going to be a scorcher."

"Martin . . ."

Bregger was tall and stringy, a man with possum eyes. His height seemed wrong, as if something might have stretched him out of shape. One leg was shorter than the other, causing him to stand like a tree grown up in the wind. This didn't bother Martin; other men found themselves leaning off balance to catch his eye.

"Josh, my boys blow up if they get those goods?"

"Not now they won't, Martin."

Martin smiled in appreciation. He nodded and his crew brought over the wagon and loaded up. As soon as the pallets were empty, they filled them with the goods they'd brought along. Sweet corn and tomatoes, sacks of onions, strips of metal strapping and bolts of cloth. The men worked quickly. They didn't like walking in Josh's yard. Once they were clear, Josh ducked inside and armed the perimeter again, making a big show of raising the flag. Martin was still standing in his spot.

"Understand you had some trouble," he said to Josh.

"Nothing I can't handle."

"That's good to know."

"I got you some fresh meat. Be a good idea to start it smoking or eat it fast."

"Sure kind of you. Hate to see you shoot prime horses just for me." Josh waited for Bregger to get to it. "Your trouble with the Snakes goin' to interfere with business?"

"I can handle the Snakes just fine."

A wide possum grin. "I know you can, Josh."

He decided there was no use putting it off. "I'll need a couple of escorts, Martin. Sunup four days from now. I'm going back to Houston."

Martin smiled. "Did put the screws to you, didn't he?"

"The business that doesn't grow stands still."

"Uh-huh." Martin picked at a tooth. "I'll have the boys here. Pleasant trip to you." He turned back to the wagon, listing to the right. A man handed over the reins and he mounted up. Sol and Jim brought meat out of the barn and slung it off their shoulders into the wagon. Blood had soaked the sacking and left stains along their arms. Sol pretended he didn't know Martin or the others.

Ellie seemed better. There was still a distance between them. Maybe that would change with time. She walked through her days like a woman coming back from a sickness, brushing against life out of habit. Josh would find her standing in the kitchen in a pool of morning light, clutching a spoon or teacup to her breast. He sensed she was drawing some strength from the familiar.

She was reconciled to the trip; that, or too much within herself to show concern. "I'll be all right," she told him. "Don't worry about me."

"I do worry, Ellie."

"Worry about yourself. And come back safe." She rested her hands on his shoulders. The action seemed an effort. When she kissed him, her lips were dry as paper.

Sol and Jim had the packhorses ready. Josh had decided on three. He'd likely find goods to warrant one, but no use advertising that. Martin Bregger's two men were waiting under the big stand of cypress by the road. The older of the two reached up and flicked at moss with his knife. Josh had worked with the pair before. Sol brought over the black gelding and told Josh he'd hold down the fort. Sol's open, boyish grin irritated Josh more than usual.

By early mid-morning they had passed the marshy lake with its forest of skeletal trees. Yellow iris dotted the shore. The way south snaked through willows and sharp-leaved holly. Farther, the willows gave way to a steep hammock of pine and welcome shade. A sound like applause startled Josh and he turned to see hundreds of white herons overhead. Birds reassured him. Wildlife was apparently holding its own, the hunger less intense across the land. Creatures mating and reproducing, faster than people could eat them. He kept a running tally of survivors. Grey squirrels. Swamp rabbits. No more deer or wild turkey, but now and then a possum or a coon. Coons were as sly as people. He told himself the Thicket was no place to take a poll. Wildlife had always gathered here and what he saw didn't reflect true conditions.

He didn't talk to Martin's riders. There was nothing he had to say. They were there to protect him, make sure he and the horses got to Houston and back safe. Raiders were always about; protecting Josh was essential to Martin's business. The men carried pistols but never showed them. It wasn't smart to let another see you owned something of such great value.

Josh picked up the pace and led them through a tricky piece of swamp. Gnats followed the men and the horses. The trip was settling down in his head. Going back this soon wouldn't hurt. He was running out of goods; Howard had simply nudged him into action, a little sooner than he liked. The Beaumont business or something else entirely—it didn't matter. Motives here were futile. A lizard mind was razorblade jelly.

Just after noon he called a halt and stepped out of the saddle. He ate biscuits and honey and sat down under a tree and listened to the lazy sound of cicadas. The riders ate and kept to themselves. Branches crowded in overhead; the air itself was lemony yellow. Cinnamon fern grew thickly under the trees. Josh saw a canebrake rattler slip through the grass. There were still plenty of snakes—the other kind. Snapping turtles and frogs, and 'gators back in the worst parts of the swamp. He wondered how Snakes viewed the reptile population. Probably the same way people thought of apes.

A hundred years before, black bear had roamed the Thicket. Bears couldn't run as fast as hogs. They tracked the razorbacks and caught them when they bedded down for the night. Bit the back of the neck and started eating. Wild hogs feared nothing in the world except bears. Josh remembered the taste of bacon. Pleasures now extinct seemed all the sweeter.

He was coming to his feet when the unmistakable sound reached his ears. He looked at Martin's riders. They led the animals quickly back in the trees, held the reins and squatted on their heels. Josh crawled up through the brush. He'd come due south through the Thicket, intending to skirt 90 and cross over past the Liberty County line. The Snakes kept 90 open for their convenience. Now there was traffic on the road. Four landcars and three flyers overhead. The striped cursive symbol was one everyone knew. Lizard law and order. They'd have to hole up or go back. Travel was out of the question.

The direction of the traffic worried Josh. East, into Beaumont or past it, and past it wasn't likely. He could tell himself it had nothing to do with Howard Johnson but making himself believe it was something else. Avoidance seemed a temperate solution. Reptile fuzz was the worst kind of trouble you could find.

He walked back and squatted by the riders. "I'll catch up with you later," he told them. "Don't expect me till noon maybe tomorrow. Take the horses back up Jackson Creek and wait for me there."

The older of the two looked at Josh. "We're supposed to stay with you."

"You're supposed to stay with me if I go to Houston. We can't go to Houston right now."

The man wore a straw hat frayed at the edges. "Where is it you're going?"

"That's not your business. You don't want to go."

The man thought about that, putting together the Snakes' appearance and Josh's sudden change of plans. Coming up with indeterminate answers. Each possibility worse than the last.

"We'll be at the creek," he said finally.

"Don't get attached to those horses," Josh told him. "They don't belong to you."

The shopping center was no longer deserted. A flyer sat untended near the rows of rusted cars. The three squat sedans reminded Josh of boll weevils. Three at the Safeway, one farther down at the K-Mart entrance. Winking yellow lights illumined Snakes on official errands. There was no more room for question. Howard Johnson was busted. Which meant, essentially, that Josh was busted too. They'd want to know connections and Howard would tell them. There was no way to guess whether they had him—Josh had to assume they didn't, that he still had time to get Ellie out of the cabin and into the Thicket. He backed away from the broken fence. The gelding was in an alley, two blocks away and to his right. He stood and started back across the street. Light stabbed out of the dark, nearly catching him in the open. He leaped for the cover of tall weeds. The one-wheelers drew tight circles on the road, came to a stop in a line. Josh guessed four, maybe five. They made Snake-talk and purred their engines. They weren't looking for him but they clearly didn't intend to go away. Someone had told them to keep everyone clear of the center.

Josh considered. There was no way to get across the street. Ahead, a warehouse wall blocked the way. He would have to follow the ditch to the back of the mall. Go all the way around and hope for no Snakes on the other side. It would take a good hour. He needed to be heading for the Thicket.

A building had collapsed leaving a mountain of broken brick. Debris lapped the rear of the center. Box-like carriers nosed the concrete dock where K-Mart shoppers had loaded their goods. The carriers floated just above the ground. Bright cones of light illumined the dock, the reef-like strands of rubble. Josh viewed the scene without pleasure. He could easily break his neck if he climbed the rubble. The area near the docks was bright as day. Josh watched the procedure.

Workers wheeled dollies out of the mall, loaded them into carriers, turned and went back for more. More what? Josh wondered. The Snake cops were hauling off a hell of a lot of goods. What else was Howard into besides art?

One way out. If he kept to the shadow below the dock, worked his way under the carriers past the rubble to the other end of the center. He watched the routine once more. There were maybe four minutes when all the Snakes were gone. Loading up inside or going back with empty dollies. Check it out again. He saw he was losing his nerve, waiting for intercession. He took a deep breath and bolted from cover.

The Snakes loaded a dolly directly above. The carrier dipped slightly under the weight. When they left, he made for the next carrier in line. A barrier of rubble intervened. For a moment he was level with the floor of the dock itself. He hesitated, checked quickly for Snakes. Poked his head inside the carrier for a look. The space was packed with long rectangular containers. Pressure-sealed in plastic, accordion ridges along the sides. They reminded Josh of crackers. Individual packs for locked-in flavor. The packs were different sizes. Two feet square on up. It was a bad idea but he knew he was going to do it. Pulling himself up, he slipped inside and moved to the far back wall. With his knife, he cut through the translucent plastic. Stretching the ridges apart, he got a glimpse of a very nice Utrillo. He'd traded it to Howard in March. Behind the Utrillo was another. Not really another, the same one. And after that another, the same painting. Josh tried another, slightly larger container. Grant Wood. All identical down to a wavy scratch on the frame.

He didn't picture for a moment a roomful of busy Snake forgers. The little bastards had a duplicating device. Something that could stamp out paintings like cookies. Josh ran a gallery operation; Howard had dime-store distribution. The egg-shaped containers to his left would be Pre-Columbian jars. Aztec culture by the gross. So much for hard-working chemists, miserly portions of pot. Howard could turn it out by the ton.

He heard them coming and knew he couldn't make it to the front. Crouching behind Utrillo, he waited until they wheeled the new load inside. They had to jockey things around to make room. For a moment, the containers hid him from view. He moved up as the load moved back. The dolly was flush against the carrier, stacked high with containers. No way to drop back to the ground. He went to his knees and crawled through the stacks, waited, then darted into the mall.

The mall was a mess. Storefronts gutted and crowded with rubble. Dark except for lights set up farther down. He ducked inside a store. Hickory Farms, the shelves stripped for more than twenty years. He guessed the big lights were where Howard had stored his goods. The lizard cops were looking it over. Part of the roof had collapsed. A cavern hung with rusted steel vines. It allowed Josh to move through stores without going back to the mall. Discount shoes, Doubleday. A shop for skiers and divers. Loaded dollies passed in the mall. The stench hit him at Penney's. Something was recently dead; it would be deader tomorrow in the heat.

He could hear Snake voices and see the lights in the mall. He was right next door or close to it, much too bright and he moved to the back of the store. Clothing, he decided, from the jungle of empty racks. Light cast a narrow dusty beam on the floor. It came from a fist-sized puncture in the wall. The hole sprouted old electric wiring. The smell here was bad. He held his breath and went to his knees, turning his head to see in the hole. He backed off fast, throwing up in one violent constriction after another. His body was helpless to stop. Cries of alarm reached his ears and he knew the Snakes had heard him. He tried to crawl away. The Snake poked him with something hard. Josh turned and saw a muzzle that resembled a garden hose. Two more Snakes arrived quickly. Josh wiped his face with his shirt. The Snakes gave way to another; he wore ornamental webbing around his throat. He turned a flash on Josh, then bent to study him closer. Standing, he gave quick instructions to the others and walked away.

The Snakes pulled him roughly to his feet, took his knife and his belongings and hustled him out of the store into the mall. Outside, they opened the rear door of a landcar, tossed him in and shut him up in the dark.

Josh tried not to think, a process that only served to sharpen mental pictures. The store was full of Ellies. Hundreds of dead Ellies under a white hot light. The Snakes were dragging them by the legs and tossing them in mustard-colored dumpsters. The Ellies wore blue cotton dresses and jogging shoes . . .

"Jesus!" The image was too sharp, too bright. His stomach lurched again. There was nothing left to give. He took off his shirt and tossed it away. His hands were shaking and wouldn't stop. The landcar started up smoothly. He felt it turn left, leave the lot and go north. The Ellies wouldn't go away. Dead Ellies in the store. One back at the cabin, but which one? He saw her in light. Sunlight finding her in the kitchen. A candle by the bed. If he looked at her now, touched her again, would she be the same? Ellie, Ellie . . . His throat tightened just short of closing. He shut his eyes and tried to push the image aside. He wasn't sure he wanted the answer. Maybe that wasn't a problem. The way things were going it probably wasn't a question he'd ever get to ask.

The ride seemed to last half an hour. When the landcar stopped, the Snakes came back and let him out. Dark pines shadowed the rutted dirt road. Josh smelled stagnant water. A flash shined in his eyes and the Snakes motioned him forward. One brought up the rear. He watched the other spring along in an awkward, peculiarly graceful manner. Finally, he stopped and motioned Josh to a halt. A square boxy light sat on the ground. It illuminated two more Snakes. They were digging a shallow grave.

Josh felt a quick little motion under his heart. Breaking glass. He'd guessed where they were going, but a guess is a speculation. A hole is to the point.

When the grave was complete, the guards and the digger left. Josh heard steps, turned and saw the official-looking Snake from the mall.

"You are the one named Josh," he said abruptly. "You worked with Howard Johnson. You gathered artifacts and traded them for goods. Howard Johnson produced the goods."

"Yes. I did." Josh saw no reason to deny it.

"The female. She came from your place? She left at some time with Howard Johnson?"


"And Howard Johnson brought her back."


"You'd like to know if she is real, or if Howard left a copy."

"The thought occurred."

" 'Real' is a personal observation."

"Is that supposed to be an answer?"

"An answer is not a solution. That was a very foolish decision on Howard's part. Smuggling is one thing. Duplicating a being is something else. This is why I put him out of business."

"A humanitarian gesture."

"A contradiction in terms."

"Look. What was Howard going to do with them?"

"Do with what?"

"With the Ellies."

"Trust me. You don't want to know." The Snake drew his weapon. "This is your burial spot. No one will see you again."

Josh felt himself unravel. The Snake pointed the weapon in the hole and fired twice.

Josh looked at him.

"Take a shovel and fill it up."

Josh did. The Snake held the light. Josh was wet all over when he finished. The Snake tossed him his knife and his belongings.

"Baskin Robbins. Is that a name?"

"I guess it is."

"Then you will call me Baskin Robbins. Don't go back and get your horse. Walk home. Tomorrow afternoon, I will officially discover your cabin and destroy it from a flyer. Don't take anything with you. Sol will guide you and the female to a place where someone will meet you and pick you up."

"Sol will?"

"Sol worked for the Bregger person. But mostly he worked for Howard Johnson. Now he works for me. Basically, we start all over from scratch. I have to burn those goods we took from the mall. I still have Howard's originals. I think. Doesn't matter. You can't work in Houston anymore. I want you out of the district. We'll set you up somewhere else. Maybe San Francisco. Denver."

"You're going to keep the operation like it is?"

"Yes, of course. Why not?"

Josh sat down on his grave and made a smoke. "All right," he said, "let's talk business. There are some things you got to know about art . . ."

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