Sherrine watched the brown, sere grasslands of Wisconsin slide past the windows of the van. It seemed as if she had spent half her life in Bob's vehicle. First, the drive to Fargo; now this. The gentle shaking of the suspension; the lullaby hum of the tires. And another two days out of her life.
Bruce and Mike had flown to Chicago. She could have gone with them. There were still flights from Minneapolis to Chicago every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and the ticket prices were not completely out of her range. But . . .
She turned and looked into the back, where Alex and Gordon lay on air mattresses, practicing their yoga under Steve's guidance. Flying the Angels on a commercial flight would be risky. Eye-catching. Two gaunt, skinny beanpoles who couldn't walk . . . Bob had suggested splitting them up to make them less conspicuous, but Gordon had gone into a panic at the idea and Alex had said no, definitely not, out of the question. Sherrine wondered at that. The Angels hadn't seemed to be on friendly terms.
At least they were speaking to each other again. But Gordon tended to slip into morose silences that needed all of Steve's cheery prodding to dissipate. Alex was no help there. Gordon's silences seemed to disgust him. There was a hardness to Alex, a kind of intolerance for failure that was almost Darwinian.
She turned forward and resumed her study of the dreary Wisconsin countryside. Oh, well. At least this time she got to sit in the shotgun seat; and the van was not quite so crowded. Just Steve and the Angels and Thor and Fang. And the running motor kept them warm.
Wooden rail fences topped by barbed wire paralleled both sides of the two-lane blacktop road. Beyond the fences, a jumble of kames, eskers, and moraines; and nine thousand lakes strewn carelessly behind by yesteryear's glaciers; soon to be gathered and scoured by today's. Sparse, wilted grass sagged against the rolling dells of farm pastures. A corporal's guard of bony cattle, rib-bound and yellow-faced, chewed with half a heart. Someone had brought in a strain of Highland cattle, more ox than cow, hairy like the yak, with huge horns. Their fur gave them advantages, but they didn't look happy either. Their hooves kicked up dust from the bare spots. Her eyes locked with one; and they stared at each other, human to bovine, until the van had rolled past.
The road was draftsman straight. The rural roads of Wisconsin had been laid out by a maniac armed with T squares and straight edges. It stretched toward the vanishing point on the horizon, where it converged with the fence lines on either side. Sherrine had the sudden, disorienting notion that it was the road that was fenced in, and they drove along a long, thin, blacktopped pasture.
A weathered sign dangled at the roadside. JUNCTION, COUNTY ROADS F AND CC. Wisconsin county roads bore letters. A, B, C; AA, BB, CC. Steve had joked that if they found Route KKK he'd just as soon turn back.
They came on the intersection, right-angled as she had known it would be, and Bob spun the wheel and they turned right, leaving the Interstate farther behind.
It made sense to assume that the Interstate Highways out of Minneapolis would be watched; sure it made sense to take back roads. But she was tired of watching the richest dairylands in the world turning into desert; she was tired of watching patiently starving milch cows convert the last of the northern prairie into cow pats and methane. Every year, more and more water was locked into the Ice. The prairie lands at the foot of the glaciers were becoming scrub desert. Like West Texas, only cold.
"Cornish game hens," Fang said suddenly.
Her head came up. "What?"
"Alex! How about Cornish game hens? For the ship. They're small, but they're great eating."
The Angel grunted. "They sound delicious."
"They taste like chicken."
Sherrine heard the wistful humor in the older man's voice. "I'm sure they do."
"Say, Alex," said Thor. "Don't just take female animals up with you. Take pregnant female animals. Embryos don't weigh anything and you get two critters for the mass of one."
Bob braked suddenly and Sherrine jerked into her harness and then bounced against the headrest. Steve, who had been sitting lotus-fashion in the back, caught himself on the back of her seat. "What the hell?"
"What happened?" asked Alex.
Sherrine turned. "Are you guys all right?"
"I'm sorry," said Bob. "The bridge is out."
Sherrine followed his finger. The road bed crossed a crumbling concrete slab. Holes gaped in the paving and corroded reinforcing bars showed through. The bridge abutments looked as if they had come loose from the earth embankment. Off to the left the dirt had been chewed into muddy ruts by truck tires. Matching ruts corrugated the farther bank. "Doesn't look like anyone has used that bridge for a while," Sherrine said.
Bob hopped from the van and walked to the edge of the creek bank. "Ford over here. Doesn't look deep."
Sherrine left the van and joined Bob at the bridge. Where was the county road crew? How bad had the infrastructure gone that they hadn't had the time or resources to fix this bridge? She ran her glove along the crumbling masonry. Not for a long time.
Thor and Fang joined them.
"I think the van can make it across," Bob said.
Fang walked out onto the bridge span. "Slab bridge," he commented. He crouched with his hands on his knees peering at the cracks and holes. Then he jumped across one gaping hole to the other side, and Sherrine held her breath, afraid that he might fall through.
Thor said, "It looks bombed. Maybe we've driven into a war?"
"No. Spalling," Fang called back. "Worst case of spalling I ever saw."
"What causes it?"
"Water and salt get down cracks in the concrete. The salt corrodes the steel reinforcing rods. Then the water freezes and expands. Concrete chunks pop right out of the road surface."
And the freezing season has grown a lot longer, Sherrine thought, and they salt the roads a lot more.
Fang danced back to the bank where Thor waited. "So what do we do?" asked Thor. Fang looked at Bob.
Bob said, "Drive across the ford."
Fang ran one of his outsize fingers along his nose. "Maybe. But if we try to cross and get stuck, we won't be up the creek, we'll be in it."
Bob worked his lips; then he sighed. "Yeah, you're right. Jesus, can you imagine being stuck out here in, the middle of nowhere? It's so empty. I haven't seen a soul for the last score of miles."
"Don't you believe it," said Thor. "There were eyes in every one of those farmhouses watching us as we went past. They don't like or trust strangers out here. If you ain't white and Protestant, you ain't shit. Sorry, Steve."
Stephen Mews was standing by the opened side door of the van. He shrugged. "It isn't exactly news to me."
Sherrine waited, shivering. It was worse than that. This was Proxmire country. These were the people who had elected and reelected the nation's premier technophobe to the Senate, where he could give his Golden Fleece Award every month to some especially vulnerable example of scientific research.
Most of the targets he had drawn bead on had cost less than a single Washington bureaucrat. So how would these people react to a band of technophiles travelling in their midst? The Senator had always voted for dairy price supports. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. She supposed that if she had been a Wisconsin farmer she might have voted for him, too. Farm subsidies never won the Golden Fleece.
Bob nodded. "Okay. We'll look for a detour. Maybe the next road over goes across." He patted his jacket. "At least we can't get lost while we have the transponder. We know which way we want to go. It's just a matter of finding a road that will cooperate."
They trudged back toward the vehicle. "Sure hope so," said Fang.
"Yeah," said Bob. "I'm tired of zigzagging all over Pierce County."
Sherrine took hold of the handle to hoist herself back into the van. Fang shook his head. "Ah, sightseeing, I don't mind. It's the blizzard that bothers me." He pointed skyward with his chin.
Sherrine jerked her eyes upward. Black clouds huddled on the northern horizon. The wind blew cold and from the north. There was a taste of ice in the air.
Yeah, she thought. Thor and Fang have no jobs. They didn't have to call in and take vacation days. They could have trucked the Angels themselves, if Bob would lend them his van. But that sunuvabitch, Bob, he had to go and volunteer to do the driving. She dropped into her seat and pulled the door shut with a slam. Was she in a contest with Bob to see who would take the most risks?
She stole another glance at the northern clouds while Bob made a U-turn on the county road. Risky business, she thought. I sure hope I'mback at my desk next week. Not that she didn't have more vacation days coming, but . . . Risky business, she thought again, but at least they don't know I'm involved with the Angels.
* * *
The INS was late for the meeting and Lee Arteria spent the time waiting by doodling on the scratch pad. All the seats around the table had scratch pads and pencils in front of them. Arteria had never seen anything useful recorded on one. The pencil traced a light circle, slightly oblate. Arteria studied it, grinned and added two smaller circles on the sides. Chipmunk cheeks. A tiny pout of a mouth. Two large, little kid eyes, with eyebrows twisted to give the caricature a credulous look. Not too bad for a quick sketch. Sometimes Arteria missed the art world.
"Not bad," said Jheri Moorkith over her shoulder. He stole a glance at Shirley Johnson, then whispered, "But maybe make her a trifle plumper."
And you're next. Moorkith was a good-looking man, square-jawed, square-shouldered. Arteria would have sketched him as a Flash Gordon-style hero . . . but her sketches never came out flattering, somehow. She changed her mind and tossed the pencil to the table. "Where's Redden? I don't have time to waste in these meetings."
Moorkith shrugged. "None of us do. But this is INS's way of reminding us who's in charge." He leaned closer and whispered, "I checked your Air Force file."
"Ah. That is illegal, isn't it?"
Another shrug. "I was curious. I like to know who I'm working with."
"Whatever. Didn't do any good, though. Couldn't get access. You must have some good codesmiths on your team. But I was able to look at your credit report."
"That's illegal, too." But he wants me to know he can do it.
"Yeah. The box where it asked for sex. You wrote 'Yes.' "
Arteria grunted and half-swiveled the chair to get a better look at Moorkith. "So?"
"So, why didn't you put down the right answer?"
"Think about it."
He frowned. "Oh. But did you mean Yes, Ihave a sex. Or, Yes, Iwant sex?"
"Whichever way you want to take it."
Moorkith paused and stepped back. He licked his lip. Arteria knew what he was thinking: Do Imake the pass? What if I guesswrong and she's a he? Or he's a she. Arteia had no idea which way Moorkith swung, and so had no idea which alternative intimidated him.
Which way would he jump? Lee Arteria sent no signals; but she never bluffed.
He hadn't made his move when INS arrived. Ah, well. He who hesitates is lost.
"We don't even know if the spacemen were in Minneapolis," Ike Redden insisted. "All you did Captain Arteria, was bust a few sci-fi crazies holding an illegal meeting."
"Strictly speaking, Mr. Redden," Arteria responded, "the meeting itself was not illegal. The warrant was for harboring fugitives."
"Sci-fi nuts," said Moorkith. "Technophiles. It should be illegal."
"Nevertheless, there is the First Amendment."
"You tell him," said the Army rep.
"Maybe we need another exception. After all, Flag-burning and disrespectful singing of the Anthem are not covered by the First. The destruction of Mother Earth is at least as important as those issues." Moorkith smiled thinly. "Got a couple of technophiles to volunteer for reeducation, anyway."
Arteria hid a wry smile. And from what I could see of those two fans, its going to be interesting as to who educates whom.
Redden rapped the table. "Please. That is not the business of this task force." He ran a hand through his hair. "We are searching for two aliens who entered the country illegally. If we don't locate them quickly, we willall look very foolish."
Translation, thought Arteria: You will look very foolish.
What must it be like to mold your entire life around bureaucratic ladder climbing? To interpret every issue in terms of attaboys and awshits on your performance appraisal? Couldn't Redden see that there were principles at stake here? At least Moorkith had principles. Wrongheaded, but principles.
"The spacemen must be in Minneapolis," insisted the State Police commander. "It's the only big city reachable from the crash site. They had to head there. They would be too conspicuous in a small town. Our man at Fargo Gap told us that a van from Minneapolis drove through there the night of the crash, and they were asking about the air scooper."
Army frowned. "The same night? How did they know about it?"
"There was a girl with them. She claimed that her grandparents lived nearby. They'd seen it come down and phoned her."
"You think they were technophile subversives going to pick up the spacemen?"
State Police hesitated. "It seems likely," he admitted and hastily added: "In hindsight."
"Got an ID on the girl?" Arteria asked.
"No. We might have, but it wasn't our detail. One of your people was in charge."
"An engineer captain named Scithers."
Scithers. That explains some things.
"Didn't you search the van," asked Moorkith, "when they came back? You had roadblocks up by then, surely."
State Police bristled at the implied insult. "Once we were informed that the spacemen were not in their vessel, we had to take that into account, yes. A maroon van did leave North Dakota, but there was just one man in it. It may not have been the same van."
Redden looked at the ceiling. "Two maroon vans travelling Fargo Gap in opposite directions the same night," he said to no one in particular.
"Then the others in the van must have gone west," said Shirley Johnson. "Or north, to Winnipeg."
Army grunted. "The Winnies would shelter them, all right."
"No," said State Police. "The tracks across the glacier were headed east. That's why we checked out all known technophiles in Minneapolis." He looked at Arteria. "With that sci-fi outfit meeting it looked good. Damn it, it still looks good."
"Agreed. We didn't find them though," Arteria said. They were there, though. I wonder how they worked it?
Redden waved a hand in dismissal. "The tracks were Eskimos. Illegals who crossed over from Canada. We found them in Brandon, looting." He turned to State Police. "But this van. You claim that a whole load of them went west through the Gap but only one came back?"
"That's what the trooper remembers. He was almost sure it was the same van."
"Almost sure," said Moorkith with a smirk.
Redden held up a hand to forestall any argument. "And they asked about the air scooper. We should follow up on it. Lord knows, we have few enough leads. Have you identified the van, yet?"
The State Police captain shook his head. "Just the color-—maroon. The license plate was a fake. Belonged to a car registered in Brandon."
"Fake. Why didn't you arrest him, then?" Moorkith demanded.
"The computer was down. No way to check it until too late."
"Computer was down," Arteria mused. But lots of citizens switched plates. Too many nitpicking regulations, like an eternal swarm of mosquitos. The police had nearly stopped noticing.
"What about the girl?" Redden asked.
"Okay, what about the girl?"
Redden gave an exasperated sigh, and looked again at the ceiling, as if he expected to find allies there. "Are you checking for grandparents near the crash site?"
State Police set his jaw. "No, sir. That's in North Dakota."
"Fuck North Dakota. What is this, a state's rights convention? This is a national security matter. If we don't show some results soon, the task will be taken out of our hands."
And that won't look good on your record, will it? Whoever found the downed spacemen would shine like a star in this crowd.
Not the Minnesota State Police. The search would be outside his balliwick. It probably was already, but these fools didn't see it yet . . .
Wait, now. Army, across the table from Arteria, was smiling like the cat that ate the 500 pound canary. He's on to something; or he thinks he is. And he's got a national writ, like the Air Force; so state borders don't bother him. And Johnson, she would try to track their quarries by channeling to some two-million-year-old avatar.
Where was the FBI? Was Redden keeping them out for jurisdictional reasons; or were they running their own search? Or both. Wouldn't that be a hell of a note, if the FBI found them first! There wouldn't be any interdepartmental squabbles to hold them up.
"We can make a request to the North Dakota State Police," said the state cop. "We can ask them to run a cross-check of local residents against Minnesota van owners. If we find a last name match . . ."
"Better check it, against all residents of Minneapolis," said Moorkith. "Its a granddaughter, rememberAnd she wasn't driving the van."
Redden shook his head. "I've got a better idea. Our people will cross-check Fargo residents against the 'suspicious background' files."
He gave them a superior smile. "Someone passed the word to Minneapolis about the air scooper crashing. Why would a good citizen leak a national security issue."
"Maybe they didn't know it was national security?" suggested Army.
"It was out of the ordinary. It's always safest to assume that such things involve national security unless the government says otherwise."
"Say," State Police brightened. "Why not check long-distance telephone calls between Fargo and Minneapolis?"
Arteria listened passively and continued doodling. Everyone had a channel to try. Everyone had an angle that might give results. Hell, who knew? Maybe Shirley Johnson's avatar would pass the word. They would find out who had the spacemen. And everyone would try to keep it a secret from everyone else, so they would not have to share credit. That's what teamwork was all about.
Redden would try to hunt from his desk. He would wait for printouts and summaries to be brought to him. No one ever found anything by tracking paperwork but more paper. He would only find the "Angels" by piggy-backing on someone else. Someone who did the grunt work of questioning witnesses and following clues.
That'll be me. Or the FBI.
The Worldcon had seemed a good bet. Hell, it was a good bet. The spacemen were there; they were smuggled out under our noses. That man, Tremont Fielding, he knew. I could see it in the way he looked at me. But where had they gone?
Not west; not back to the crash site. There was no percentage in that. Not north, either. Fans were bright, if feckless. So, east? Into Wisconsin? Maybe. They'd have to take the back roads. The Wisconsin Glacier had eaten the Interstate past Eau Claire. So: where could they find shelter in Wisconsin?
Arteria smiled. Of course.
* * *
The snowflakes impacting the windshield were no longer melting. They built into fluffy white masses shoved aside by the impatient, ice-encrusted wiper blades. The blacktop ahead of them was turning as gray as the heavens. Gravid snow clouds piled up above them. Flickers of static electricity played along and within them as they rubbed against the sky. Bob was hunched over his wheel, peering into the gathering gloom.
They were in the hill country below Prairie du Chien now, after hours of racing the snow clouds south. The snow clouds were winning. The roads in this part of the state were twistier; the farms were tucked into dells and hollows. Property values had boomed after it became known that this corner of Wisconsin had been free of glaciers the last time around.
Steve and the Angels were staring delightedly out the side window. Steve had never seen a storm like this in California; and the Angels had never seen snow falling. Sherrine chatted brightly with them, as if there were nothing to worry about.
Thor leaned over the seat between her and Bob. "Turn right up ahead," he said. "There's a farm down that road where I did some work last spring."
"So what? You want to make a social call? The Interstate's to the left."
"The hell with you, Bob. I want us to get to shelter, now. "
"Yeah. It's snowing. Or haven't you noticed?"
"So. Do you know what a plains blizzard can be like when the black clouds roll down from the northlands? They call it a 'norther' around here. Temperatures can crash forty degrees in the blink of an eye; snow drifts man-high in heartbeats. Damn it, Bob, you know what a blizzard can be like in Minneapolis; imagine what can happen out here in the country, beyond the heat sink. I've heard tales about cattle suffocated when the wind blew the snow up their nostrils so hard and fast they couldn't breathe. Farmers don't joke about shit like that."
Bob rubbed the steering wheel with his mittens. He glanced at Sherrine. Then he looked back at Thor. "Are you trying to scare me?"
He nodded. "Which way is this farm? And how do you know they'll take us in?"
Thor shrugged. "I don't. But it's our best chance. Sherrine, let me take your seat so I can navigate."
Bob stopped the van while they exchanged seats. Sherrine unbuckled. "You have the comm, Mr. Sulu." She crawled into the back-—her familiar seat-—and Bob put the van back in gear.
"Is it really as bad as Thor said?" asked Alex. Sherrine twisted and looked at him. He looked concerned; Gordon, frankly frightened. Steve, sitting lotus between them, was using yoga techniques to calm himself.
She nodded. "It could be." Never pull your punches; never sugarcoat the truth. What you don't know can hurt you bad. "It could blow over, too; but it's better to play it safe and find a way station where we can hole up."
"Is that safe? The authorities are hunting Angels . . ."
"Look, Alex. Gordon. A blizzard can be fatal. We used to have weather satellites that gave us advance warning. Now, folks get caught by surprise. Like Thor said, you don't want to get caught outdoors in a norther. And neither do the cops!"
The snow began falling faster, piling up on the windshield, melting from the heat of the van, and freezing into an impenetrable slush faster than the wipers could handle. The countryside was a blur in the icy lens. Bob turned right and Sherrine felt the wheels go off the road. Bob put a van into first and recovered. He rolled down his window and scraped at the ice with his glove. The wind spray-painted his beard with snow.
If we can make it in time, she thought. And if they'll take us in.
* * *
Ike Redden held the telephone away from his head and stared at it. Then he put it back against his ear. "What do you mean, you can't get north of Lancaster? A blizzard? Impossible. This is September. How do you know? I see. A truck pulled into Patch Grove with snow on its roof. No, you can't argue with evidence like that." Wherever the hell Patch Grove is. He glanced at the Air Force Intelligence captain fiddling with a pen on the other side of the desk and shrugged helplessly.
"Yes, I understand," he said into the phone. "But we received a report about a maroon van with Minnesota plates somewhere in your vicinity, and we thought-—No, I'm afraid I can't. Yes, we're asking all the counties, on both sides of the River. Certainly. I'm sure you will do your best. Thank you." He hung up and leaned back in his seat. "County sheriffs," he said to no one in particular.
"Do you plan to check out every van in Minnesota and Wisconsin?" Lee Arteria asked idly.
"I suppose you have a better lead, Captain?" Arteria smiled but said nothing and Redden made a steeple of his fingers. Does that mean the Air Force has a lead and they're not going to tell me? Or does it mean the Air Force wants me to think they have a lead?
"You could wait for the information from the DMV," Arteria suggested. "At least, it would narrow the list of vans."
Redden waved a disparaging hand. "Ahh. It's been three days already. Some sort of bug in the computer. They're still trying to straighten it out. Goddamn DMV can't find its own asshole if they used both hands."
Arteria considered that in silence, then nodded. "Any word on possible contacts in the Fargo area?"
"Not yet. That moron, Moorkith, is supposed to be running a cross-check through the technophile file . . ." Reden blinked and looked puzzled. "Techno-—phile-—file," he repeated slowly. "The Greens are supposed to keep it up to date for the House Un-American Activities Committee, but . . . It's just an alphabetical listing of names. They have to re-sort it by addresses and then merge it with another file or something. I don't know anything about computers." He waved his hand airily, as if he were bragging about an accomplishment. "A team of GS-5's could have gone through the list by hand by now." He took another report from his in-basket and studied it. Another goddamned van. This one on US 52 near Rochester. But it was blue and its occupants had checked out.
Arteria grunted humorlessly, stood and stretched. The side wall of the office was taken up by a large-scale map of the upper Midwest. Arteria studied it carefully, running a finger from Fargo to Minneapolis and beyond. "Where was that van spotted?"
"Which one? We've had two dozen reports."
"The last one; where you put a bug up that badger sheriff's ass."
"Oh. Crawford County."
Arteria traced a route. "And heading southeast?"
Redden frowned. "On 18. Is that significant?"
Arteria straightened. "Probably not."
Meaning it probably is, Redden thought. What was Arteria's lead? Damn it, didn't the Air Force believe in teamwork? Everyone was concerned about getting credit for the arrest. That Army colonel, he had something going on the side, too. Some connection with Winnipeg. This was supposed to be a Team effort; the Team would share the credit. And Redden was chairman of the Team.
Well, Ms. Arteria, we'll see just how smart you think you are. "If they went that direction," he said, "they drove straight into a blizzard. If we can believe the hicks. Probably just a light dusting. You know how the squareheads like to yank our chains."
"I don't know. Weather is something farmers don't joke about; especially nowadays. A blizzard, out in the country; that's a life or death issue."
"Well, if the van Wilson spotted was our quarry, there's no rush."
"It's been three days since the blizzard hit. They'll be froze dead by now."
* * *
Deputy Andy Atwood kicked at the back end of the van with his snowshoe. The crusted, half-melted snow slid off into a pile on the ground. "Minnesota plates, all right," he said to his partner. He straightened and looked around. There were several vans and trucks clustered around the white, clapboard church. St. Olaf in the Fields. He turned up his fur collar. "Come on. Let's check this out."
The snow was two-, three-feet deep. Even with the snowshoes he found it rough going. His feet broke through the crust and he sank several inches into the cold, wet powder beneath. It must have been a hell of a storm this end of the county. It was melting now; but it would never melt all the way. Not 'till spring. If then. He glanced behind to see his partner following in his footsteps.
They were met at the door of the church by a crusty old man in a red-checkered lumberman's cap. He was racking a pair of cross-country skis against the side of the church. "Yes, deputies," he said. "Can I help you?"
"We'll see, old timer." Atwood nodded toward the church. "What's going on in there? It isn't Sunday."
"Nope. Funeral. We hold a few of those after it snows." He worked his jaws, as if he were chewing tobacco and was wondering where to spit. "We don't get much heating oil in these parts anymore," he went on. "Not like you folks in the cities, where the newspapers and teevee cameras are. So when it freezes here . . ." And again there was a drawn out, introspective silence and when he resumed speaking, it was in a lower, quieter voice. "When it freezes hereabouts, why we've all got to huddle right quick. Some folks don't make it in time. This time it was a feller did some chores for me. He and a couple of his friends."
"I see. Do you mind if we check it out, Mr . . . ?"
"Wallace. Enoch Wallace." The old man held out a heavily bundled mitt and the deputy touched it briefly with his own. "It's God's house, aina? All are welcome." He held the door open for them.
The deputies stamped the snow off their snowshoes in the narthex. There was a thin layer of snow on the wooden floor, unmelted and trod hard by a great many boots. They unstrapped their snowshoes and hung them on pegs on the wall. Atwood noticed several other pairs of snowshoes, as well as a few more skis. One pair of skis he recognized as the high-tech fiber glass Alpine type. A family heirloom, no doubt, from the days when people skied for fun.
"Huddle," he said. It was not quite a question. He had heard stories. In Grant County, you heard stories.
Wallace tugged off his mittens and stuffed them in his heavy wool jacket. "For the warmth, deputy. For the warmth. Every farmstead hereabout has a huddle room or a shut bed where folks can gather when the cold hits. Folks lie in, under the blankets, hugging each other until it gets warm again outdoors. Those on the outside of the huddle are generally a bit colder; and those on the inside have got to be mighty tolerant of body odor. You don't get much sleep, but you don't freeze, neither."
"Jesus Christ. What do you do during the winter?" Atwood's partner was a young kid new to the force. A town boy. He would see enough before the winter was over.
Wallace seemed not to mind the swearing, even standing in the narthex of a church. "We huddle all winter, deputy," he said with flint in his voice. "Every man-jack, woman and child in the township. We come right here t' St. Olaf's and we huddle."
"Like hibernating bears?"
The old man's eyes were hard as coal. "We don't quite hibernate. Come spring we're mighty thin. And some of us are ready to do murder and some are ready to get married, but mostly we're still alive." He opened the door to the nave. "Mostly," he repeated. "My handyman and some friends of his got caught in the open by Friday's storm. They didn't all make it."
Wallace preceded them into the church. Atwood grabbed his partner's arm before following. "Look, Bill. About huddling all winter. You don't have to say anything back in town. It would only get folks distressed. The townies complain about the thermostat law; but these farm folk, they would be glad to turn their thermostats up to fifty-five."
"But, Jesus, Andy. We should do something for them."
"There's one thing we could do."
"Drill for oil."
Bill waited to see if he were joking. Then he blurted, "But that's inappropriate technology."
Atwood followed Wallace into the church. "Yeah."
There were three coffins, one of them supported by six bearers. A dozen or so mourners were scattered through the pews. Atwood walked slowly up the aisle, looking left, then right. He didn't see any seven-foot supermen. Spectrally thin, the flyer had said. No one present fit that description. There was one woman, tall and skinny, though not seven feet by any stretch. How did the government know if the aliens were men or women?
The woman locked gazes with him. Her eyes were red-rimmed and wet with tears. Her nose was running and her cheeks were puffy. Embarrassed, Atwood let his gaze drop. He turned to his partner. "Come on, they aren't here."
"What about the van with the Minnesota plates?" Bill whispered.
"Heh. The border isn't that far. You can see Minnesota from the bluffs. Families have got relatives on both sides of the river. You see anybody here who's seven feet tall?"
Atwood winced as Bill gripped his arm tight. He saw his partner pointing surreptitiously at belt level so the mourners could not see. Pointing at the coffins. Atwood sucked in his breath. One of the coffins was easily long enough to hold a seven footer. He stepped over to it and ran his hand along the plain pine wood top. Looking up, he located Wallace.
"Look, I really hate to ask you this, Mr. Wallace; but I'm afraid you'll have to open this up. National security."
"National security?" The old man seemed amused. Atwood wondered if he would ask to see a warrant. Folks seldom did anymore.
"I can't tell you any more than that, sir." He smiled apologetically and scratched his beard. "They didn't tell me much more. This one isn't your handyman, is it?"
Wallace shook his head. "One of his friends, from out of state."
Atwood nodded. "Then you can't vouch for his identity."
Wallace gazed silently at the coffin. "The lumber of the world," he said.
The old man looked at him. "The dead are the lumber of the world. Their bones are the ribbing and shoring that hold it up."
Atwood waited while Wallace located a claw hammer. He could feel the eyes of the mourners on his back. Watching with a dull anger. Atwood gritted his teeth. It was a lousy duty to pull.
The nails groaned as they came out of the coffin lid. Atwood remembered tales of elaborate, plush-lined coffins of shiny mahogany. There were special people, funeral directors, whose sole job was to manage an elaborate and impressive funeral display. Today there were just too many funerals. Sometimes the coffin was a canvas bag. Sometimes, not even that.
The lid came off and Atwood gazed into the box. The light was bad; the angle, wrong. He stood aside to get a better view.
A tall man, but not seven feet. So thin he looked almost wasted. He had the skin of a youngish man, yet with the hint of age around the eyes. Atwood glanced at the hands folded across the breast. Long, bony fingers, blackened with frostbite at the end, as were the nose and ears. He sniffed. The corpse had been washed, but the smell of death was there.
Atwood stepped back. "All right." A wave of the hand. "Nail it back up." He brushed his hands vigorously, although he hadn't touched anything. "Come on, Bill. We've bothered these people enough."
Wallace did not follow them out. In the narthex, they pulled on their outdoor gear, strapped the snowshoes to their feet. "Was that one of them?" Bill asked. "The corpse?"
Atwood shrugged. "He was tall enough and skinny enough to fit the profile."
"Aren't there supposed to be two of them? And what about the people who are supposed to be helping them escape?"
Escape to where? he wondered. "We'll pass the van's VIN along and let Minnesota check it out. But you heard what Wallace said. His handyman and a couple of friends. You saw the frostbite, didn't you? Jesus. No heating oil. No gas. They've been written off by the government. They've got to move south or die, and they're too stubborn to move. You wanted to do something for them, Bill? Then let them bury each other in peace."
* * *
The six pallbearers watched the deputies leave. The whole time the long coffin had been searched, they had held the shorter coffin aloft. Alex was growing tired. His arms ached from hanging onto the coffin handles and he was sure the four men holding the corners were just as tired. After all, they were bearing his weight and Gordon's and the coffin's, too.
"They're gone," said Wallace's wife at the back of the church.
Alex sighed and relaxed. He slumped gratefully to the floor. Thor, Bob, Fang and Steve lowered the coffin to its cart. Bob groaned and rubbed his shoulders. "I thought they'd never leave."
Gordon, leaning on the middle handle on the other side, had to be pried loose, his grip had grown so tight. They led him to one of the pews and let him stretch out.
Alex pushed himself to a crawling position. Sherrine left her pew and helped him back upright. Then he walked in slow, careful steps to the nearest pew and dropped into the hard, wooden seat. He kneaded his thigh muscles. One thing about being snowed in for three days at Wallace's farm-—he and Gordon could now stand upright and walk, at least for short periods. Like Steve said, practice every day. Still, what if the security officer had noticed him hanging onto the coffin instead of lifting it?
Enoch leaned over him. "You all right, Gabe?"
"I'll be fine. That's the longest I've stood up in . . ." In thirty-odd years, he realized.
Sherrine patted his shoulder. "Before you, know it, you'll be walking across the room on your own."
Alex laughed. Who would have thought that walking required the mastery of such complex skills? He had walked as a child, but could not remember the learning of it. He would look on pedestrians in the future with a certain amount of awe.
"It was good of you to take us in like that," Alex told the farmer.
Wallace grunted. "Seven warm bodies during a norther? My wife and I would have froze to death without you. Like poor Jed and his friends."
Alex glanced at the coffins. "Yeah."
Enoch had been waiting for the handyman and his friends to come to his huddling place when Thor appeared on his front porch. After the storm had subsided, they had all gone out looking and found the bodies only a few hundred meters from the farmhouse. Judging from the tracks that had not filled in with snow it appeared that the three had been walking in a circle. "It happens," Enoch had said. "When the wind blows the snow up, everything whites out and you lose all your sense of direction. Thor, who had known the handyman, had insisted on staying for the funeral.
"What next?" asked Alex.
"On to Chicago," Bob told him.
Wallace shook his head. "That deputy copied down your license plate. Just routine, I suppose. But, if I were engaged in anything a shade less than perfectly normal-—not that I am, mind you, or that I suggest that anyone else is-—I might be a touch wary of driving that vehicle over the roads. Folks don't travel so much these days, what with fuel so hard to get. So anyone far enough from home might strike the government as suspicious."
Bob frowned and ran a hand though his beard. "You're right." He looked at Sherrine, then back at Wallace. "What should we do?"
Wallace smiled. "Why don't you folks follow me over to Hiram's shop. We'll see if he can tinker something up.
They followed him outside into the brut, frozen sunlight. Alex found himself walking beside Wallace. Sherri supported him on one side, but mostly he carried his own mass. He walked like a two-year old and felt like two hundred; but he was moving under his own power. "Hiram's shop," he said. "Your friend is not a farmer, then?"
"Heh. No, he's a tinker. He fixes things. It's a knack he has. Snowblowers, radios, TV's." He gave Alex a sly wink. "Maybe even a computer or two, if anyone owned such a thing, which I'm not saying they do."
Alex raised his eyebrows. He exchanged glances with Sherri. "You don't tally like a technophobe," he ventured.
Wallace laughed without humor. "You ever try farming without technology? It's a lot more charming in those old woodcuts than it is in the flesh. In a good year, we get nothing to eat but cheese and beef. Cook the beef good. No antibiotics. If you could lay your hands on a supply of good medicine for cows it would be worth its weight in cheese."
Alex chuckled politely. But why would cheese be valuable in Wisconsin? He would have felt stupid asking. Instead he asked, "What do you do in a bad year?"
Wallace grunted and his voice hardened. "In a bad year we starve."
* * *
Sherrine found she could not let go of her suspicions. Granted, Wallace had saved them from the storm, and he had helped them fool the sheriff's deputies, too; but that might have been from a sense of duty. After all, their body heat had helped save Wallace and his wife, as well; and the country folk had no great love for a government that had effectively abandoned them. Still . . .
They followed Wallace's pickup down the country lanes behind Millville. Sherrine sat in the back with Alex and the others. The road undulated through the rumpled hills, whose trees, fooled by the glaciers, were rusted and yellow. An oddly disorienting layer of fallen leaves lay atop the snow, as if the seasons had gotten jumbled by the storm. Some trees stood blizzard-stripped, stark and wintry against the sky. They came out onto a high bluff from which she could see the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. The rivers sparkled in the sunlight. They flowed sluggishly, with so many of their sources locked into ice.
It was only when Wallace honked and pointed to the driveway of the ramshackle building that Sherrine relaxed. There was a hand-painted sign nailed to a post by the roadside. Bright red letters on a large plywood panel:
BIG FRONT YARD SALE
HIRAM TAINE, TINKER
Of course, she thought. Ofcourse. They were among friends. She saw Fang grin and nudge Thor with his elbow. Thor smiled quietly, as if at a well-orchestrated surprise. Sherrine started to laugh, earning an odd glance from Alex.
All that time she had been worried about being in Proxmire country. She had forgotten they were in Clifford Simak country, too.