Amelia watched item after item vanish into one or another of the several bags sitting on the counter downstream of the ubiquitous bar-code scanner. She spared a glance at the IKEA employee handling her purchases, and cast another of feigned boredom across the room.
Same beige floor tile. Same warehouse racks stacked with cardboard boxes holding particle-board pieces ready to be assembled into tables, bookshelves, desks, and so on visible through a couple of wide gaps. Same platform carts loaded with those boxes and various and sundry other items like various festively-scented candles and tree ornaments featuring reindeer, snowflakes, and surreptitiously-placed Futhark runes passing through the gaps, pushed by people bundled up against December's chill.
So far, so good.
No, wait. Two...no, three...individuals stood out from the crowd of sale shoppers swarming about the place. Agents, she thought. For reasons none of her people had quite managed to pin down, Agents always had a certain look about them, if one knew how to recognize it. And, of course, Amelia knew.
The checker handed her a slip of paper. “Here's your receipt, have a nice day,” she said cheerily.
“Thank you,” Amelia replied.
Now what? She glanced at the lines of numbers and their corresponding items. Dritt, she thought, this is going to stick out like a sore thumb. How could I have been so sloppy?
She paused despite herself, and caught movement from two of the Agents. Dritt! Time for Plan B: the highly-excitable middle-class bargain-hunter!
Amelia pelted through the automatic door and down the sidewalk, her high-heeled shoes clacking on the concrete like steel on chitin. Her gaze swept the asphalt sea spread out before her, an expanse big enough to hold the three-score longeskippar that would have supplied the IKEA stores of old, ships now reduced to a fleet of tractor-trailer trucks coming and going in a neverending queue on the opposite side of the massive blue-sided steel-and-concrete building behind her.
Her eye settled on the brick-red Volvo a hundred strides away, and in it a single figure in the driver's seat, reading a newspaper.
“Start the car! Start the car!” she yelled.
She tore across the blacktop, barely missing a black SUV, two platform carts loaded with self-assembly furniture, a gaggle of teenagers in matching Members-Only jackets, and a patch of black ice on the northern side of a head-high pile of dirty snow. She slid into the passenger seat just as the car's engine roared to life.
“Go, go, go!” she squealed.
“Hang onto something,” Harold barked.
Tires squealed, customers swore colorfully, and Harold left them all in a cloud of smoke, burning rubber, and scattered ice shards. Amelia shrieked in triumph. At length, she settled into a bosom-heaving grin that Harold returned. He swung erratically onto Interstate 205, weaving through traffic.
“Do you think you got out of there without attracting too much attention?” he asked.
“I think I managed to pull off the excited middle-class shopper ruse with the expected results.”
“And the Agents?”
“Shook 'em. And if you don't slow down a little,” she added, “we're likely to pick up a State Trooper. Not an acceptable trade-off.”
“Can't,” he replied. He nodded toward the paper.
She picked up the issue of The Oregonian he'd been perusing and scanned the headlines. “I'm looking for what, specifically?”
“Page seventeen. Mount Shasta.”
She rifled through the paper and found the article. “And Lassen,” she said at length.
“Dritt!” she breathed.
“Did you get it all?” he asked.
She nodded. “Swedish meatballs...elderberry concentrate...Danish butter cookies...gluhweine...Vintersaga...lingonberry...rhubarb syrup...dark roast coffee...knakebrod...bulk dark chocolate...ludefisk...kafferep oat pastries and ginger thins...almond cake...rhubarb tarts...lingonberry preserves...salmon sauce...mustard...canola oil...horseradish...oat smoothies...groskaksaka...rosti...allemanstratten. And a few other odds and ends.”
“And the Rakshasa Collection?”
“The Rakshasa Collection, ja.”
“Enough to do the job?”
She smiled. “Let's just say it's a good thing my bags are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.”
He flinched. “Do I want to know the damage?”
“Let's just say it's a good thing the state of our bank account won't matter for much longer. Even if we win,” she added.
“Depends on your point of view, I guess.”
“So it does. Time for Phase Five.”
“Where do you want to start?” she asked.
“The nearest Dwfn Bros.”
Harold shot her a look.
“What? They're no more Dutch than you or me.”
“Neither are they Welsh.”
“Details. Now, drive. And try not to get us into a game of Portland Pinball while you're at it.”
“Aw, come on, honey, it's me.”
“I know. That's why I said it.”
Harold grinned. “And it's why we're driving a Volvo.”
Amelia toggled the radio and tuned the FM band to 91.5.
“I'm Ira Flato, and you're listening to NPR Science Friday. Today, we discuss the ongoing global cooling effect and the recent rise of volcanic activity on the West Coast. From confirmed permafrost in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, to the recent eruptions of every volcano from Mount Lassen in California all the way to Alaska's Mount Augustine, what's behind the sudden shift from global warming to global cooling? In this third year of what some experts are calling a new Ice Age, we'll talk to several geophysicists this hour.”
Amelia turned the volume down a little. “The trouble is,” she said, “too few would believe the real reason.”
Harold grunted a reply and skidded across a small patch of ice, nearly missing a boxwood. He rolled to a stop beside a Dutch Bros.
A young, energetic man in a stocking cap leaned out the window. “Harold, man. And Amelia. What can I get started for the two of you?”
Harold leaned out his own window. “Cthulhu sofa R'lyehar.”
The man's face fell. “Now?”
The man cleared his throat. “When my shift is over. Is that soon enough?”
Amelia said, “I don't suppose you have any egg nog left.”
“Small egg nog latte for me,” Harold said.
“Small chai nog, please,” said Amelia.
“Sure thing.” The man retreated inside and began to work.
Harold and Amelia exchanged a look, a veritable oft-repeated discussion passing silently between them. The absence of the usual perky banter usually shared with Dutch Bros employees, the constantly-rising price of coffee along with just about everything else.
Minutes later, the man handed their cups to them. Steam curled through the little holes in the lids.
“Hey, you two watch it on the road, okay? I've heard some nasty things about those passes south of Cottage Grove.”
“That's why there's tripcheck dot com,” said Harold.
“Totally. Hey, I'll see you guys there.”
“Don't be late,” said Amelia.
“Wouldn't dream of it.”
Harold rolled up his window as he nudged the car back onto the street. He took a sip. “We're going to be wired beyond belief before we even get through Tualatin.”
“Who says we have to drink every one?” Amelia asked.
“Save some for later? I like how you think.”
“What, you thought I was suggesting we pour it out?”
“Of course not! We're going to need all the caffeine we can get down there, and then some.”
“Because you can sleep when you're dead, right?”
Two hours, a stack of empty cups, and a nearly-full five-gallon bucket of leftover coffee drinks later, they rolled up to the Dutch Bros in Sherwood.
A perky blonde in a black leather Mad-Bomber hat leaned out the window. “Hey, guys! Long time no see.”
“Afternoon, Jane,” said Amelia.
Harold said, “Cthulhu sofa R'lyehar.”
“Dritt,” Jane said through clenched teeth. She shut her eyes briefly. “I think I can get Joe to close. In the meantime?”
“Blood of our enemies,” said Harold.
“Make it two,” said Amelia.
“Ja,” said Jane, “I think I'll need one, too. But you'll have to add the last bit yourself.”
“Because whatever it takes,” said Harold.
“Never drink and fight,” Jane finished.
Minutes later, she handed over two large, steaming drinks. “Be careful,” she said, “an octo-shot bites back.”
“Thanks,” said Harold.
“I'll be out in a minute,” Jane added. “It's been kinda slow today anyway. Besides, what are they going to do, fire me?”
Harold nodded. “I'll pull up over there,” he said and nodded toward a parking space a few lengths away.
Five minutes later, the rear passenger door opened and Jane slid into the car.
“Dang,” she said, “you two've been busy.”
“Could you put the lid on that?” Amelia asked.
Amelia heard the snap of plastic.
“Saving some for later, I guess,” said Jane.
“We'll need it,” said Harold.
“I don't doubt it.”
“We might have been followed,” said Amelia.
“Are you sure?” Jane asked.
“No, but we suspect.”
“Every third time I check the rear-view mirror,” said Harold, “I spot a black SUV.”
“Could be anyone,” said Jane. “But I guess that's the point. You're ditching the car, aren't you?”
“Messy, or clean?”
“Hmm. Any chance we'll see the news report?”
“I'm sure,” said Amelia, “you can convince Florian to hack the satellite feed.”
“Do you think he'll insist I pay for it in burpees?”
“Do salmon swim upstream?”
Jane sighed. “Then I know a place.”
“Point me to it,” said Harold.
Jane directed Harold through the edge of Old Town and through several abrupt turns that ended at the parking lot of Stella Olsen Memorial Park.
Jane pointed across the parking lot. “Right in here looks good,” Jane said.
At the far end, a Douglas fir blocked a nearby lamppost, plunging several parking spaces into shadow. Harold eased into the darkest one and killed the engine. He sat there for a minute after dousing the lights.
Trees stood out against the falling twilight fading to a band of coral clouds in a pale butter-cream sky to the west. Between the trunks shone the occasional incandescent porch lights of several nearby houses.
“Isn't this cutting it a little close?”
“Trust me,” said Jane, “we'll be long gone before anyone even notices what's left.”
“Would you like to do the honors?”
“Oh! Don't mind if I do!”
“You,” Harold muttered, “are too cheerful about this.”
“Oh, come on. It's what I do. It's been far too long since I've blown anything up.”
Jane sighed. “Sadly, no. That would draw too much immediate attention. Too messy anyway. Kind of a bummer, though. I love a good explosion.”
Harold chuckled. “I hear ya, sister.”
“What are you thinking,” Amelia asked, “implosion charge?”
“Tempting,” Jane said pensively.
“Well, this show isn't going to put itself on the road.”
She opened the door to the chill air and popped the trunk. She shivered despite herself.
“I should have let you talk me out of the skirt and heels,” she said to Harold.
“You were trying to project an image,” he said quietly.
“I still should have let you.”
“You should have told me to tell you.”
“Guys,” said Jane, “scuttle now, spar later.”
Amelia grunted assent and pulled a set of thermal underlayer, a pair of black fleece pants, a PolarTec jacket, and sturdy hiking boots out of an internal-frame pack in the trunk. Minutes later, she'd exchanged her middle-class housewife outfit for what she considered her business-casual attire. Harold, too, had shed his button-shirt and suspenders for similar clothing. She tossed the heels, skirt, and sweater into the trunk and pulled on a pair of black kidskin gloves, and shoved a forest-camo mad bomber hat over her sandy-blonde hair.
She grabbed the first of the IKEA purchases and stuffed them into the pack.
“You want any help with that?” Jane asked.
“I got it, thanks.” She pulled a bundle out of her satchel, stepped up to the trunk, and began to work. After a few moments, she reached in again, rummaged for a few moments, and said, “Harold, do you have any wollastonite, by any chance?”
“Um...hold on.” Harold rummaged in his own pack. At length, he pulled out a small beige stone.
“Oh, thanks,” said Jane. “You're a dear.” She took it and continued her work, muttering to herself. Several more moments later, she stepped back and straightened up. “There,” she said. “All done. We, uh, should step back a little.”
Harold and Amelia dropped back a couple of yards and Jane tossed something into the trunk.
The vehicle began to shake. The car convulsed, bounced up several inches, and slammed hard against the ground. The color bled out of rapidly-flaking paint. It shattered, fell apart in tens of thousands of flakes of rust, then collapsed in on itself in a ball of glowing, smoldering ruin.
“Accelerated Entropic Accretion?” said Amelia.
“Can't beat the classics,” said Jane.
The glow from the lump abruptly brightened. The ground began to vibrate, almost imperceptibly at first.
“Uh-oh,” said Jane.
“I don't like the sound of uh-oh,” said Harold.
“Are you sure that was wollastonite?”
Jane rounded on him. “Pretty sure?” she hissed. “Dangit, Harold, I need more than pretty sure! You know that better than anyone.”
The lump that was the car brightened to a blue-white and began to vibrate.
“Um,” said Amelia, “we should take cover.”
She spun around and pelted toward the nearby creek, Amelia and Harold on her heels. She slid over the bank on a pile of leaves and into the shadow cast by the nearest lamp.
A moment later, a high-pitched shriek split the air, followed by a loud CRACK. A distortion wave rolled overhead. Thousands of flying shards smashed through wood and pinged off of metal. Several large objects crashed to the ground and small debris rained down on the trio. Something else began to hum, then buzz, then BOOM! All the light went out.
Jane groaned in the darkness. “Harold, you idiot,” she hissed, “that was rhyolite!”
“Oops?” said Harold. He sighed. “Too bad about the car. I liked that one.”
“It's why we buy used and pay cash,” said Amelia. “We'll talk about this later. You two remember how to get to my place?”
“Good. I'll meet you there.”
Amelia half-heard Jane slink away along a cottonwood log laying across the creek before fading into the verge.
Moments later, she reached out and squeezed Harold's hand. He leaned close and kissed her firmly. “See you up there,” she said quietly.
She listened to him go. When the sound of his passing had faded from her ear, she made her way along the near side of the creek for a few dozen yards, found an alder log in the dark, and shimmied across it. She emerged from the snowberry and salmonberry brush in the vicinity of what she guessed to be Sherwood High School. She skirted the grounds along the ninebark and osoberry verge and eventually hit concrete and asphalt. She followed the labyrinth of housing developments, navigating by the still-pale western sky, silently cursing city planners who had apparently never in their lives played Sim City.
She somehow found Oberst Rd. and followed the grade until it ended at the foot of a nameless creek trickling through a cleft in the northern flank of Parrett Mt.
She stepped into the shadow of a leafless maple and stood still against its trunk, her breath billowing in a barely-seen cloud into the cold evening air. She waited, the only sound the blood in her ears and a gurgle in her belly that reminded her that the only thing she'd fed it in the last four hours was coffee and egg nog. Not an overly bad thing, in her opinion, despite what her stomach thought. It would have to wait.
She leaned out from the tree and padded along the verge for a dozen paces before hopping to what asphalt remained. That soon gave way to some twenty yards of packed gravel that ended at a wall of shrubbery standing over shreds of patchy snow.
Once through the leafless osoberry, ninebark, and vine maple, the understory opened up beneath bigleaf maple, alder, red-cedar, and Douglas fir. She found the terrain forgiving for the first quarter-mile, until the little draw narrowed and steepened and she thanked the Gods for all that physical training she'd pushed herself through over the last several years.
Every dozen steps, she paused to listen. Only her own breath and the intermittent baying of distant dogs met her ears. At length, the draw opened up a little and Amelia veered right up a snow-choked side drainage. The gradient eased up after a few score yards and finally vanished a few steps from Labrousse Rd. in the heart of a high-end development simply called The Estates.
A right turn took her a couple hundred yards to Huckleberry Ct. The widely-spaced homes on either side of the road reminded her of the ones she'd seen a couple years back during a visit to the Northwest Natural Street of Dreams. In that class, each one had probably sold for upwards of a million dollars.
Porch lamps blazed with the cold light of CFL and LED bulbs and a few windows spilled warm incandescent light onto well-manicured lawns surrounded by bark-dusted beds dotted with boxwood, Rhododendron, and Japanese maples, all buried under a foot of snow. Through an expansive living-room window, a football game flickered across a large flat-screen TV.
She paused at the junction of Huckleberry Ct. in the shadow of a Douglas fir the developer had left alone.
Suburbia, she thought, where they cut down all the trees, and then name all the streets after them.
She let her breathing level out and issued a credible imitation of a great-horned owl. She doubted it would have fooled an owl for an instant, but most humans wouldn't know the difference.
A moment later, an answer floated from a clump of short conifers across the road, then another. A pair of shapes, shadow within shadow, moved out onto the road. Amelia moved to meet them. She recognized her husband more by scent and his distinctive gait.
Wordlessly, they turned into Huckleberry Ct. Two of the large homes showed evidence of life within, the others as dark as the fallen night. The road terminated in a cul-de-sac. Off to the left sat a community garden constructed with a dozen raised beds separated by crushed gravel. Ahead and to the right stood Jane's house. A single light blazed in an upstairs window, the rest of the house all but lost in the night.
Jane made a hand motion half-seen in the darkness, and led the way across an expanse of bark dust dotted with native plants. The trio slunk along the wall, around an air-conditioning unit, and through a head-high cedar-plank fence.
Beyond that lay what Amelia presumed to be a lawn beneath the foot of snow that shrouded the back yard. Jane tip-toed along the rear wall and onto a weather-treated plank deck still burdened with last week's snowfall, and pulled out a small wad of keys.
After a few moments, she slid one into the lock and twisted. The door swung smoothly inward. Amelia and Harold followed Jane inside.
A single light from a central stair cut the darkness inside, just enough to give form to a pale wooden dining table with four chairs and a dark granite counter-top in a kitchen apportioned with darkly-stained cabinetry beneath which sat a knife block and a Kitchen-Aid mixer. The only other light came from a set of blue-green digits on a stove in the kitchen.
“Nice place,” Amelia said once Jane had shut the door.
“Are you packed?” Harold asked.
Jane feigned offense. “What kind of question is that?”
Amelia elbowed her husband in the ribs. “What am I going to do with you?”
“I can think of a few things,” he said.
“I bet you can.”
“Oh, get a room, you two,” said Jane. “I'll be right back.”
Jane trotted across the kitchen, around a corner, then up the beige-carpeted stairs and out of sight.
Amelia crossed the dining room and into an expansive living area. The light from the stairwell illuminated dark leather furniture, a well-stocked bookcase, and an entertainment center. Flame flickered in a gas fireplace. A large wood-fired stoneware platter, an oil painting of migrating salmon, and a pastel drawing of two young girls holding cats hung on the wall.
A few minutes later, Jane returned, holding a large duffel in one hand and a long, narrow padded case in the other, and a large internal-frame pack on her back. She'd exchanged her hipster work attire for dark green cargo pants, hiking boots, a heather-grey T-shirt, and a charcoal parka. She slapped a piece of paper with something hand-written in pen onto the room's coffee table.
“Let's go,” she said. At Harold's cocked head, she added, “A note for my sister. Don't worry, it's suitably vague. I didn't want her to panic.”
“How is a note supposed to help?” he asked.
“Okay, I didn't want her to panic overly much. Wait, what?”
Amelia groaned. “We don't have time for this.”
Jane led the way across the room, through another door, and down a small flight of concrete steps.
Amelia smelled the odors of gasoline, oil, and stale grass clippings.
Jane stepped over to a Jeep Cherokee. She opened a rear door and shoved her gear into the back. “Jump in,” she said.
“That Hummer over there looks pretty good.”
“Yeah, but it's a little conspicuous. We want to reach the Compound without being tailed. Besides, I'll get to drive the Wagon on our way to Site.”
Amelia stuffed her own gear and Harold's into the back alongside Jane's and slid in behind the driver. Harold chose the shotgun position.
“I assumed,” he said to Jane, “you'd be driving.”
“You assumed correctly,” she said from the driver's seat. “Get belted,” she added.
The engine roared to life. A minute later, Jane eased the vehicle out of the garage and down the drive. She made a left, then a right, then another right onto Parrett Mt. Rd., and eventually to Hwy. 99W southbound and down Rex Hill.
Jane pulled off the highway and rolled up beneath the canopy sheltering the drive-up window of Newberg's north-end Dutch Bros.
A perky late-teenager leaned out. “Hi!” she said.
“Greetings and caffeinations,” said Jane.
The girl laughed. “Good one. What can I get ya?”
“Is Taylor on shift?”
She shook her head. “She didn't show today.”
“Did she say why?”
“Didn't call in.”
“Hmm,” said Jane pensively. “That's not like her.”
“I wouldn't know. I'm not really supposed to talk about that anyway. Policy.”
“Ah. Right. Sorry.”
“But an I get anything started?”
“Uh...no, thanks. Have a good evening.”
Jane pulled away and eased back onto the highway.
“That's the seventh one today,” said Harold.
Jane shook her head slowly. “Man, I really wish we could call.”
“So do I,” said Amelia, “but...”
“I know, I know, signal triangulation. Still, it's damned inconvenient.”
“Tell me about it.”
They rolled through town. “That Starbucks looks closed,” said Amelia.
“Yeah,” said Jane. “That's the fourth one this month.”
“Yowsers,” said Harold. “You know things are bad when Starbucks is closing locations.”
“Yeah, well, they're the Evil Empire anyway. At least, that's what Cathy calls them. I think she means it as a joke, mostly.”
Harold chuckled ruefully. “If she only knew how right she is.”
Jane blew air out through her lips.
“She'll be okay,” said Amelia.
Jane shook her head slowly. “No, she won't. I mean, she's an intelligent girl, and resourceful enough. At least, for a teenager who doesn't understand what's really going on. I just wish we could have brought her in on this.”
“But she'll be safe enough at home.”
“Believe it or not, I'd feel better if she were fighting at my side. Then I could at least keep an eye on her.”
“Whilst assailing the Deep Ones? She'd be a distraction.”
“Not if we'd trained her. Do you know how often I've lain awake at night, daydreaming about being sisters-in-arms as well as blood-sisters? I see what some of the others have and I envy them.”
“Families torn asunder,” said Harold. “We all accepted that reality when we signed up.”
Jane sighed again. “Maybe I shouldn't have left that note.”
“She'd have called the police and filed a missing persons report,” said Harold. “That's the last thing we need.”
“He's right,” said Amelia. “We have to reach Vigrid unopposed. The fate of humanity depends on it.”
“Sometimes,” said Jane, “I wonder if it might be better to just let the Deep Ones snuff us out. Maybe whoever takes over after us would do a better job.”
“You don't mean that.”
Jane exhaled heavily. “No, not really. It's just that half the time, we'd deserve it.”
“You're not wrong.”
They pulled into the south-side Dutch Bros. A mid-twenty-year-old guy leaned out of the window.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “What's up?”
Jane said, “Cthulhu sofa R'lyehar.”
“Oh,” he said flatly. “Is morning okay?”
“I think so.”
He nodded. “We were about to close, but, um, if you want anything?”
“I think we're good, thanks.”
“Okay. Drive with purpose.”
Jane pulled back onto the road and continued south out of town.
“Two more,” said Harold.
A muffled squeak came from behind Amelia.
“Did you hear something?” she asked.
“Like what?” Harold asked.
“I don't know. Like...someone stifling a sneeze.”
“Cars don't make a noise like that,” said Harold.
“Especially this one,” Jane added.
A moment later, “There it was again.”
Amelia twisted around and began to shift the bags and packs jumbled up in the cargo area.
“What are you doing?” Harold asked.
“Amelia,” said Jane, “that's unsafe.”
“Hold on,” said Amelia. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“I hate it when you say that,” said Harold.
She pried a pack up and rolled it over. A passing street light briefly illuminated a terrified face set with wide blue eyes. “Uh-oh.”
“We have a problem.”
“I don't like problems,” said Harold. “Especially not this close to Game Day.”
“What sort of problem?” Jane asked.
“We have a stowaway,” Amelia said. “The two-legged kind.”
“What?!” said Harold.
“Impossible,” said Jane. “How can we possibly...oh, no.”
“Oh, ja,” said Amelia.
“No, no, no.”
Jane pulled vehicle onto the shoulder, put it in park, and twisted around. “Tell me you're kidding,” she said.
Amelia shook her head. “I wish.”
Jane closed her eyes briefly. “Cathy?”
“Mmm?” the girl noised.
“What are you...hold on. Amelia, will you help her out of there?”
“Uh...sure,” said Amelia. She undid her seatbelt and swiveled up onto her knees. A couple of minutes later, Cathy slid over the seat back and landed hard.
“You okay?” Amelia asked.
Cathy looked at her.
Jane closed her eyes briefly and sighed through her nose. “Cathy,” she said, “what are you doing back there?”
Cathy drew her knees up and pushed a tendril of hair from her face. “I was tossing the egg nog jug and heard voices. I thought you were burglars, so I hid.”
“In the SUV?”
“It was the best I could do in thirty seconds. Don't tell Mom and Dad I drank it all, okay?”
“I'm not concerned about the egg nog,” said Jane. “You were supposed to be at Band practice.”
“I was. But Mister Stock came down with laryngitis, so it was cancelled and I came home early.”
“I really wish you would have called.”
“I did. It went straight to voice-mail. Like usual.”
“As excuses go, that's not...terrible. What did you overhear?”
Harold swore under his breath.
“So now what?” Amelia asked.
“We have but one choice,” said Harold.
Jane tipped her head back and exhaled heavily. “I was afraid of that,” she said.
“What?” Cathy asked. “Afraid of what?” Then, “Oh, no, you're going to tie my feet to a cinder block and drop me in the river, aren't you?”
“Cathy!” Jane scolded. “That's the worst idea I've ever heard!”
“Strangulation with leather gloves?”
“Bullet to the back of my head?”
“Stop! We're not going to kill you.”
“Of course not! Why would you think such a thing?”
“Because I have no idea who these people are, you've been talking about weird stuff, and you're being more than a little vague, that's why!” Cathy snapped.
“Cathy,” said Harold, “what are we going to do with you?”
“What do you mean?” Cathy asked.
“You were eavesdropping.”
“I was not!”
“Ja,” said Harold, “you were.”
“I was not dropping any eaves!” Cathy insisted. “I mean, I heard a great deal about the Deep Ones and the end of the world and stuff. What does all that mean anyway?”
Amelia sighed. “Get belted,” she ordered.
Cathy tentatively pulled her seatbelt across her body and clicked it. “Who are you two, anyway? Wait, you're not a cult or something are you? Wait that's it! You're in some sort of sex cult! I'm telling Mom and Dad!”
“No you're not,” said Jane. She eased the vehicle back onto the road.
“Jane,” said Harold.
“We have to.”
“Have to what?” Cathy asked.
“You already know too much,” said Jane. “You have to come with us.”
“To your sex cult compound?”
“Cathy,” said Jane, “it's not a cult.”
“This is kidnapping!”
“Add it to the list,” said Harold.
“I'll trank you,” said Amelia.
“If you scream, I'll sedate you.”
“You can't do that!”
“I can and I will.”
“I'll tell Mom and Dad!” Cathy said again.
“They already know,” said Jane.
“They know,” Jane repeated.
“About your sex cult that's not a cult?”
“Cathy,” said Harold, “stop calling it that.”
“You still haven't told me who you are.”
“These are my associates Amelia and Harold.”
“Uh...hi. How do you know about me?”
“We know much that is hidden,” said Harold.
“Gee, that didn't sound creepy at all.”
“It was supposed to sound mysterious.”
“Well, it didn’t. And there’s still that kidnapping thing.”
“That would be creepy.”
“Wait,” said Cathy, “are you saying you are kidnapping me?”
“More like recruiting,” said Amelia.
Harold said, “It's a little late in the game to be bringing newbies on board.”
“Like you said, we only have one choice.”
“We can't possibly train her up in a week.”
Jane said, “Don't we have an opening in Gunnery?”
“That's not a bad idea,” said Amelia pensively. “Not bad at all. It's still going to be intense. Do you think she can handle it?”
“I think so, sure.”
“Hold on,” said Cathy, “I'm right here! Aren't you going to ask me or something?”
“You stowed away,” said Jane. “Harold's right. We have no choice but to recruit you.”
“That's a very long story.”
“And what if I don't want to be recruited?”
“Tough,” said Harold. “We're drafting you.”
“We can,” said Amelia, “and we are.”
“Mom and Dad are gonna be pissed when they find out,” said Cathy.
“Yes,” said Jane, “yes they are.”
“They'll have to deal,” said Harold.
“Let me out,” said Cathy.
“Can't,” said Jane.
“What do you mean, you can't?”
“I’m with Jane,” said Harold. “You already know too much.”
“Besides,” said Jane, “it's a long walk home, it's cold, and you're not dressed for it.”
“I'll still scream,” said Cathy.
“Are you seriously threatening us?” Harold asked.
“Cathy,” said Jane, “we have a couple more stops to make and you'll have to be quiet.”
“And if I don't?”
“Look, we’ll tell you everything in an hour or so. In the meantime, please don't push it.”
“I'll still tell Mom and Dad.”
“Be my guest,” said Amelia.
“Jane,” Cathy pleaded.
“I'm not telling them.”
“One of us has to,” said Harold. “Are we going to Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock for it?”
Jane sighed heavily. “No, they're my parents, I'll do it.”
“Good,” said Amelia, “because I don't want to face their wrath over this.”
“Wait,” said Cathy, “how come you're talking about my parents like you know them?”
“Because we do,” said Amelia.
Jane asked, “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing in Palm Springs?”
“Having a romantic vacation?” Cathy said.
“Well...you're not wrong.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
Harold said, “They command the Fourth Legion.”
“They do what to what?”
“It's a little complicated,” said Amelia.
“Wait, wait, wait. Our parents are travel agents!”
“Not...exactly,” said Jane.
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“Mom designs weapons, and Dad oversees tactical logistics.”
“No way. Mom and Dad are travel agents!”
“That's a cover.”
“Are you saying they're spies? Like in that show about the Russian couple back in the eighties?”
“Cathy, we're the spies they wish their spies could be like.”
“Okay, I want out.”
“Nope,” said Harold. “You know too much.”
“If I try anyway?”
“Doors are locked,” said Jane. “And if you flail, you'll crash us. And you all need me to drive the Wagon.”
“The Wagon? What's that, an Oregon Trail thing?”
“It's a tactical combat vehicle.”
“You can't be serious.”
“Why not? I'd probably hold a few patents on it, but we're too secret for that.”
“You? Jane, you're an Interior Design major!”
Jane grinned. “It's an interior design. You'll see.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
“You should,” said Harold. “You're being recruited into the Ninth Legion.”
“The Ninth Legion. Goes back to the latter days of the Roman Empire. The Ninth was supposedly lost in northern Britain in the second century.”
“What happened to it?”
“No one knows for sure. Though there is much speculation.”
“So you're named after an ill-fated legion? Oh, joy.”
Once Jane had negotiated the dip just south of Dundee, Amelia gave Cathy the Cliff's Notes version.
“You're kidding,” Cathy said at length.
“It's all true,” said Harold.
“What? No, no, no. That's not how it goes. There's the Rapture, then the Tribulation and the Four Horsemen, and...”
“Yes and no,” Jane interrupted.
“Everyone has their version of the Apocalypse. It's a little involved, and I'll fill you in on the detail later. But the short version is that they all overlap to a point. And it's in the overlap where we find the truth. A truth that's far weirder than most people can know.”
“And all the Dutch Bros?”
“It was our attempt to use good-will and positive energy to push back Game Day,” said Harold, “give us more time to prepare.”
“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Cathy asked.
“Just wait until we get to the Compound.”
“The Compound? Gee, that doesn't sound cult-y at all.”
Jane shrugged. “I always thought it sounded kind of prepper-ish myself.”
“Aw, crap. You're those kinds of people?”
“Young lady,” said Harold, “you have no idea. Just wait. We have a couple more stops to make first. You have two ears and one mouth, and we'll thank you to use them that way.”
“It means, listen twice as much as you talk,” said Jane. “Geez, Cathy, for someone with a four-point-oh, you can be really dense sometimes.”
“Gee, thanks,” Cathy glowered.
The vehicle fish-tailed a little crossing the old bridge over the North Yamhill River before the slight rise into McMinnville. Cathy quietly sulked the whole time, stirring only when Harold pulled off the summit of Zena Rd. south of Amity and onto a gravel drive on the crest of the Eola Hills. Headlights glared off waist-high walls of plowed snow on both sides. At length, they crept into a garage.
“Welcome to the Crypt,” said Jane.
“The Crypt?” Cathy asked. “That doesn't sound creepy at all.”
“You'll see,” said Harold.
Amelia opened the door and unfolded herself into the darkness. She clapped twice and a fluorescent bulb flickered to life above a work bench. Another half-dozen LED lamps blazed to life on a ceiling, bathing an expansive bay in blue-ish light. Tools and weapons both ancient and modern hung on the walls. Several vehicles occupied the space.
“You have a Clapper?” said Cathy. “That is so nineteen-eighties!”
“If it ain't broke,” said Harold.
“Fix it 'till it is?”
“Funny. And what is that?” Cathy pointed to a large vehicle two spots over on the other side of a Chevy Suburban painted in Forest Service Green. The size of a diesel locomotive in matte black and bristling with oddly-shaped boxes and tubes, it dominated the room.
“We call that 'The Wagon,'” said Amelia.
“It looks like something out of Mad Max.”
“Pretty much,” said Jane. “One-point-twenty-one gigawatt fusion-pile reactor. Thirteen-hundred-horsepower engine. Twelve-wheel drive. Gravity-wave emitters. Mattergy-disruption cannons. Thirty-two rail-guns. Twenty-four rocket-launchers. And twelve beverage-cup holders. She's fully-loaded!”
Amelia motioned toward a door to the left. “Let's get warmed up and introduce you to the crew.”
“You have a crew?”
“They might be a bit twitchy, though. They're not expecting any newcomers.”
“When are you going to tell me what you people do? I mean, besides trying to mitigate the Apocalypse?”
“There are things that go Bump in the night,” said Harold. “We bump back.”
“If that's supposed to make me feel better, you failed.”
“If that's the only thing I fail at over the next year, we'll be very, very lucky.”
“We can get our gear later,” Amelia said.
She led the way into the house. The warmth from within folded itself around her like a blanket. What had she been thinking, choosing a knee-length skirt and a single-layer sweater in the middle of the coldest winter on record?
“I'll be right back,” she said. She ducked into a bedroom and returned a few minutes later in fleece lounge pants and a leather jacket.
Jane giggled. “Nice look.”
“I'll say,” said Harold. He bumped his eyebrows, then grabbed Amelia and kissed her firmly.
“Get a room, guys,” said Jane.
“This is a room,” said Harold after a moment.
“You're not really going for it right here, are you?”
“We have score cards,” said Jane.
“What? As in, like the Olympics?”
Amelia stepped into the central living area. Green shag carpeting stretched wall-to-wall, save for a brown-tiled entryway. Beside that sat a shelf filled with a variety of shoes. Jackets attempted to spill from an open closet. Stuffed corduroy and leather furniture sat in a U-shape around a coffee table stained with a myriad of coffee-cup rings. Opposite the door, a large flat-screen TV on which flickered a progression of photos of various places all along the Pacific Crest occupied the wall.
At a small table half-covered with papers and half-finished food wrappers sat a twenty-something guy. He looked up from a computer screen. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Um...”
“What do you got, Florien?” she asked.
“Lots,” said Florien. “I saved these screen captures earlier this afternoon."
He tapped the keyboard and a collage of images showed on the screen. He pointed to each one as he enumerated.
“Eighty-four is closed again. This time, it's that new vent at Wahtum Lake. Basically flooded Eagle Creek.”
“Bummer,” said Jane. “That was my favorite hike! Is Tunnel Falls still intact?”
“Not likely, I'm afraid. The hatchery is gone. The BPA is going nuts digging the debris away from Bonneville Dam. And that's on top of what Mount Hood already sent down Hood River last month.
“Twenty-six is closed indefinitely, of course. Santiam Pass is having kind of an identity crisis. It was open earlier, but another landslide closed it again.
“MacKenzie Pass is under a fresh lava flow.
“Siskiyou Summit is a mess. The minor summits between Cottage Grove and Medford are hit-or-miss. Looks like Willamette Pass is our best option, as long as the tunnel stays open.”
“It's a good thing we have an on-shore flow right now, or the air quality would be terrible. And that's without the bad news from Yellowstone.”
“What bad news?”
“It exploded an hour ago.”
“That's bad, right?”
“It makes Chernobyl look like a Sunday picnic. The ash cloud from that is going to extend this winter even longer. The Norse sagas mentioned a winter lasting three years. Yellowstone stands to make it last for three decades. And there you have your Horseman of Famine and your Fimbulwinter.”
“Yes way. We're the only ones who stand between the candle and the star. Hold on to your britches, it's gonna get worse.”
“How much worse?”
“Possibly extinction-of-the-dinosaurs worse.”
“That's why we have the Wagon,” said Amelia.
“What was that, twelve-wheel-drive?” said Cathy.
Florien chuckled. “Oh, that's just the tip of the iceberg! The Wagon makes everyone look like amateurs.”
“I don't doubt it. How did you guys get all this stuff?”
“We work on an alternative revenue stream.”
“What the heck does that mean?”
“You know all those time someone talks about how the government lost a hundred million dollars?”
“Well, that's us. Some of it, anyway.”
“It means we hacked the Department of the Treasury.”
“You can do that? I mean, isn't it illegal?”
“Highly. If they found out, they'd have the FBI, the ATF, and Homeland Security on our butts before you could sneeze twice.”
“So where are we going?”
“The Plains of Vigrid. More or less.”
“The Night is preparing to Bump. All of it. All at once. Fire giants, dragons, volcano gods. Whatever you want to call them, they're our target. Oh, there'll be none of this standing in the shield wall business. It's why we have things like canisters of liquid nitrogen. All the fun toys.”
“The fun toys?” Cathy asked.
“You saw some of it.”
“And we're shooting at Cthulhu and the Kaiju?”
“More or less.”
“Sounds like a bad eighties band.”
Amelia shrugged. “Metaphors, mostly. The likes of Cthulhu and Surt don't exist, per se. But the creatures we expect to come surging up from the bowels of the earth are enough like them as to make no difference.”
“But didn't Lovecraft and Sturlusson write that stuff?”
“They were inspired.”
Cathy cocked an eyebrow. “Like John on Patmos?”
“Pretty much.” She exhaled heavily. “Come on, let's get some dinner. Then we'll grab our gear from the crypt.”
“Crypt? Can't you guys think of something else to call it?”
Amelia chuckled. “Cathy, I like you. I'll like you even better once you can learn to keep a secret.”
“Thanks. I think.”
Amelia led the girl into an expansive kitchen with dark granite countertops, colonial-blue cabinetry, and stainless-steel appliances. She hauled on the door of a walk-in refrigerator and gestured. “Go nuts.”
“You won't lock me in?”
Amelia rolled her eyes and pointed at a knob on the door. “It opens from the inside, you know.”
“And this isn't a Stephen King novel. Now, are you allergic to anything? Any intolerances?”
She shook her head. “But I'm vegan.”
Amelia made a hrmphing sound. “Not anymore, you're not.”
“When the apocalypse hits...and it's hit...all that stuff goes out the door. Which means whatever we're eating, you're eating. You'll just have to deal with it. So, most of this is packaged. Grab a burrito or something.”
A minute later, Amelia watched Cathy pull open the wrappers of a bean burrito and a couple of chicken tamales and pop them into the microwave on paper towels. She leaned against the counter with her arms crossed and scowled.
Amelia gazed back with what she hoped was a neutral expression. At length, she said, “And we'll have to get you some different clothes.”
“Because you can't fight evil in a cardigan, capris, and ballet flats, that's why.”
Cathy snorted. “Buffy did it.”
“Okay, most of us can't fight evil in a cardigan, capris, and ballet flats. That includes you.”
“Oh, come on. I've seen girls play basketball in heels.”
Amelia shrugged. “First of all, they practice. Second of all, that's a highly-controlled environment. The point is that, despite the sorts of things you've seen other women doing in heels, either in real life or on TV, a quasi-Medieval combat zone is no place for that. I don't want to think about you trying to sprint across a lava flow in heels. Maryjanes with decent tread, maybe, but you'd have to stop frequently to remove gravel, rocks, little sticks, and so on. In the heat of battle, none of us will have time for that, least of all you.”
The microwave dinged. “Your ouch-rito is done.”
“Nope. If it isn't cold, it's not a burr-ito.”
Amelia stumbled out of the small room she shared with Harold. She stared at the sheets of paper laying on the '70's cast-off carpeting and grinned.
She craned her head around and said to Harold, “Eight point five...nine point seven...nine point three. Hey, I think we improved over last time.” She exchanged a fist bump with him.
Cathy blinked at her from across the hall and rolled her eyes. “I don't believe it.”
“Not jealous, are you?” Jane teased from over her shoulder.
“Maybe. Okay, maybe I should be, if I knew what I was missing.”
Jane mussed her sister's hair. “If you did, you wouldn't want to stop.”
Cathy jerked her head around so fast, Amelia thought she heard a few vertebrae pop. She stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed at Jane for several moments before stammering, “Wh...wh...what?! You?!”
Jane grinned back.
Cathy blinked a few times. “Oh, I get it. You're teasing me.”
Jane shrugged. “Maybe,” she said.
“I'm beginning to think I was right about the sex-cult.”
Amelia chuckled. “Did you ever wonder why James Bond always bedded the woman in the movies?”
“Um...because he's James Bond?”
“Because in his line of work, you never know which breath will be your last.”
“And that's different from the rest of us how?”
“Point,” Amelia conceded. “Anyway, are you hungry?”
“Uh...yeah. What's for breakfast?”
Jane said, “Why don't you go to the kitchen while I see a man about a horse?”
Cathy nodded. “Sure.”
Amelia led Cathy back to the kitchen and pointed to a cupboard. “Bowls and plates are in there.”
She opened another cupboard. “Let's see. Ah! Pumpkin spice Cheerios...pumpkin spice oatmeal...pumpkin spice granola...pumpkin spice Cinnamon Toast Crunch...pumpkin spice Frosted Flakes...pumpkin spice pancake mix...pumpkin spice Pop Tarts...pumpkin spice...”
“Okay, okay. Is there anything that's not pumpkin spice?”
Amelia opened another cupboard. “SPAM!”
“If that's pumpkin spice, too, I'm out of here.”
“There's coffee, if you drink it."
Cathy opened another cupboard. “Who's Caravan and why do you have a whole case of their Christmas Blend?”
“They're a small roaster in Newberg. And because it's tasty.”
“Mm-hm. And where'd you get all that pumpkin spice stuff?”
“Grocery Outlet has a glut of it in July.”
“Huh. Oo, and there's creamer.” She paused. “That's pumpkin spice too?”
Amelia grinned and Cathy groaned.
“What the hell did I get into?”
“Something very, very interesting. You're taking your first step into a larger world. And you'll need the breakfast of champions.” Amelia reached over, pulled out a box of pumpkin spice Wheaties and smirked.