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    Q&A | August 26, 2015

    Christopher Moore: IMG Powell’s Q&A: Christopher Moore



    Describe your latest book. Secondhand Souls is the sequel to my bestselling novel A Dirty Job, which was about a single dad in San Francisco who... Continue »
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      Secondhand Souls

      Christopher Moore 9780061779787

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The First Horseman

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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Prologue

The Hudson Valley: November 11, 1997

Tommy was nervous. Susannah could tell, because she knew he liked to talk, and yet, he hadn't said a word for fifty miles. Not that she could blame him. She was nervous, too. And excited. And scared.

It was dusk when they got off the Taconic Parkway, switching on the

headlights as they traveled through rolling farmland, a Ralph Lauren

landscape where the houses were so perfect, you just knew they were owned by doctors and lawyers. They were "mini-estates," or enclaves with names like "Foxfield Meadows," and they didn't really grow anything except, maybe, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula.

As they passed the Omega Institute, Susannah wondered aloud--what's that? And the driver, Tommy, made a sound like a duck--kwak-kwak-kwak! So both of them laughed (a little too loud), and Susannah thought, Some kind of New Age thingie.

The thing was--what made her nervous was: the whole deal about the teeth, about pulling out the teeth. No matter how you looked at it, pulling out the teeth was creepy. It was like Nuremberg or something. So if they got caught, it wouldn't just be murder, it would be...what? Charles Manson, or something.

Not that she'd be the one to do it--she couldn't hurt a fly. That was

Vaughn's job, the teeth and the fingers. And giving the injections. He had

to do that, too, because he was the doctor. (And a good one, Tommy said.

"Vaughn's an 'Old Blue,' aren't ya, Vaughn?" Whatever that was.)

Still, you had to wonder why it was necessary to do the teeth. And the

fingers. Why not just...dump them? Or, better yet, leave 'em where they

lay.

Susannah thought about it for a while, then shrugged to herself. Solange

moves in strange ways, she thought, smiling at the in-joke. Sometimes he

did things just to be theatrical. Make a splash. Shake 'em up.

Not that it made any difference. They weren't going to get caught.

Everything had been rehearsed, from the knock on the door to the

handcuffs, and there wasn't anything they hadn't thought through.

Like the U-Haul. The U-Haul was Solange's idea, and it was brilliant

because, once they'd fixed it up, it gave Vaughn a sort of operating room

in the back. So he could do what he had to do even while they were driving

away.

And it was inconspicuous, too. Because U-Hauls were everywhere. There

wasn't anywhere in America they didn't belong. Not even here. Everybody

used them.

Her job was to get inside the house and, once there, make sure the

Bergmans couldn't get to their gun. So it was two jobs, really, and what

made everyone think she could bring it off was the fact--she wasn't

bragging, really, it was just a fact of life--the fact that she was

"cute." Cheerleader cute. And pregnant. Which made her kind of

vulnerable-looking.

And that made people trust her. Which was important. Because the Bergmans

were totally paranoid--like someone was out to kill them. Susannah smiled

at the thought. Talk about irony--hello?

But mostly it was scary and horrible, and she wished that she wasn't a

part of it, except: it had to be done. She knew it had to be done because

Solange said so, and Solange never lied. Ever.

And it wasn't going to be painful. Vaughn said they wouldn't feel a thing.

Just "a bee sting" from the needle. And that would be that.

Unless, of course, something went wrong. Like, if they had a Doberman or

something. But, no: they didn't have a dog, because if they did, Lenny

would have mentioned it. Lenny was their son, and if there was a Doberman

walking around, he'd have told them about it.

Like Marty did with the gun. Not that Marty was related to them, but he

was close. He'd said, I don't think the old fuck knows how to use it, but

he's got a .38 Special that he keeps in the vestibule--in a little table,

just under the telephone. I used to kid him about being "strapped," and

he'd say, "What are you talking about, what strap? I don't see any strap."

And the thing is, he wasn't kidding. I mean, like this guy is livin' in

another century.

Even so...what if the needle broke off, or the woman started screaming?

Everything would go real bad, fast. Like with Riff--when she was a kid,

and the car hit him. And her father tried to put him down with the .22,

but he was so nervous, he couldn't find the heart. So...he just kept

shooting.

If that happened, or something like that, there'd be blood all over the

place--and all over them. And the thing is, legally, what they were doing

was murder. Which, for someone who'd been brought up Catholic, even if she

didn't practice anymore, was about as bad as it gets.

Because killing was wrong. She knew that. No ifs, ands, or buts. Killing

someone was dead wrong--

Unless...

Unless you were a soldier. And that's exactly what they were--she and

Tommy and Vaughn, and the French guy in the back of the truck. They were

soldiers. Knights, even. Just like in the Crusades.

Susannah was thinking about the Secret War, Solange's war, her war, when

the turn signal began to click, and the truck turned down a two-lane

country road, scattering a clutch of deer that were feeding on the verge.

A battered U-Haul with Arizona tags, the truck trembled and shook as it

rattled over the washboarded lane, slowing down at every letter box, then

speeding up, then slowing down again as the driver hunted for the right

address. Finally, the truck came to a stop beside a rusting mailbox:

BERGMAN

For a long moment Tommy stared at the silvery, stick-on letters, muttering

to himself. Then he killed the headlights, backed up, shifted into Drive

and, holding his breath, entered the long driveway.

Susannah squirmed in her seat and took a deep breath. Exhaling, she made a

sort of stuttering sound, then wet her lips with her tongue.

The truck crunched slowly over the gravel toward the front porch of a

white farmhouse. There, beneath a bower of old walnut trees, Tommy killed

the engine, the passenger door opened, and Susannah climbed out.

She was, as anyone could see, pretty, young, and pregnant, with huge brown

eyes and ash-blond hair. She wore a yellow sun dress under a tattered,

gray cardigan that was much too big, and which might well have been her

father's. With a "Here goes" glance at the driver, she took a deep breath

and mounted the steps to the porch, glancing at the pots of mums on either

side.

Reaching the top of the steps, she hesitated, suddenly queasy and weak.

For a long moment she swayed in front of the door. Finally, she

knocked--ever so softly, secretly hoping that no one was home.

There was no answer at first, but she could hear the television inside,

and so she knocked again. Louder this time. And then again, almost banging

on the screen door.

Eventually, the inner door swung open, and a woman in her fifties peered

out from behind the latched screen door. "Hello?" She pronounced the word

as if it were a question.

"Hi!" Susannah said, looking sheepish and beautiful.

Martha Bergman's eyes took in the pregnancy, then drifted to the U-Haul,

where a wiry young man (the girl's husband, she supposed) gave a little

wave. The side of the truck was painted with the image of a senorita, a

Spanish lady peering coyly over the top of her fan. U-Haul liked to do

that, painting the trucks with scenes that suggested where they were from:

cowboys and lobsters and skyscrapers. Martha figured that this truck must

be from New Mexico, or someplace in the Southwest.

"Can I help you?" Martha asked.

"I hope so," Susannah replied, shifting her weight from one foot to the

other. "We're really lost."

Martha's face softened. "Where are you looking for?"

The girl shook her head and shrugged. "That's the problem. We lost the

number. But I know it's one of these houses--one of the houses on Boice

Road."

Martha winced. "It's a long road, dear."

"I was hoping--if I could use your phone...I could call my brother. He's

at the house now."

Martha's face settled into a frown. Then her eyes fell to Susannah's

stomach and, suddenly reassured, she smiled, unhooked the latch to the

screen door, and held it open. "Of course," she said. "Come on in. The

telephone's over there, on the little table."

"That's so nice of you," Susannah said as she stepped into the vestibule.

"And, wow--what a beautiful house!" In fact, it was a lot like her

parents' house, with fake Bokharas on the hardwood floors and overstuffed

furniture from the Pottery Barn.

From the next room a man's voice boomed out above the noise of the

television. "Martha! What are you doing? You're missing it!"

"I'll be right there."

"Who are you talking to?" the man asked.

"I'm letting a young woman use the phone," Martha answered, and, turning

to Susannah, sighed hugely. "The Jets are playing," she explained.

Susannah smiled knowingly and shook her head, as if to say, Men!--then

crossed the room to the table where the phone was. "I'll just be a

second," she said, and picked up the receiver. Turning away from the older

woman, she dialed the cell phone in the back of the truck and waited.

There was a ticking noise for several seconds, a warbling sound, and--

Cliiick! Yeah. It was Vaughn.

"Hiiii!" Susannah gushed, emoting for Mrs. Bergman's benefit.

You're inside?

"Yup!" And then, just as they rehearsed, she launched into a spiel about

how she was just around the corner, or thought she was, but they'd lost

the number to the new house--and what was it, anyway?

What about the gun?

Susannah threw a smile over her shoulder as she talked and, almost idly,

cracked open the drawer to the end table. Seeing the .38, she said, "Got

it! No problem."

You're sure?

"Absolutely."

Be right in.

She kept talking for a few seconds after Vaughn hung up, then replaced the

receiver in its cradle, turned and leaned against the end table.

"Well, that was easy," Mrs. Bergman remarked, though she felt a bit

awkward that the girl remained where she was, standing in front of the

telephone. "Which house is it?" she asked.

Susannah shrugged and, turning, opened the drawer and removed the .38.

Seeing the older woman's reaction, she put the gun behind her back and

smiled. "It's going to be okay," she said. "Really." She was thinking

about Solange, and what he'd told them the night before: Try not to scare

them too much. There's no point in starting a panic. Not yet, anyway.

It was then that Harry Bergman came in, scowling, a glass of wine in one

hand and a newspaper in the other. A pair of reading glasses hung from his

neck by a black cord. "There's a truck in the yard," he announced, as if

it were the most astonishing thing in the world. And then, double-taking

on Susannah, "Hello?"

"That's just us," Susannah mumbled.

Harry looked from the girl to his wife and back again. "What's going on?"

he asked, tensing at the look on his wife's face. No one said anything for

a moment, and then a screech tore through the yard--like nails on a

blackboard, followed by a crash of metal.

Martha jumped.

"What the hell--" Harry said.

"That's just the truck," Susannah replied, trying to be reassuring. "It's

just the back door going up. It needs grease or something."

"Right," Harry said and, pivoting, took a step toward the little table

next to Susannah.

"Uh-uh," she muttered, and waved the Browning at him. "Better not."

Harry didn't quite freeze--he more or less subsided into himself, and as

he did, his wife stepped in front of him. "Just leave him alone. He's

not--"

"Martha--" Harry protested.

"Take whatever you want."

"Well, thanks," Susannah said, "but...that's not the point."

The Bergmans gave her a blank look, and she could have kicked herself. But

then the screen door opened and Vaughn came in, carrying a sawed-off

shotgun as if it were a briefcase--never pointing it, never needing to.

The French dude was right behind him with a set of plastic restraints, the

kind the police use when they're making lots of arrests at the same time.

Tommy was on the porch outside, keeping watch.

"Okay, everybody listen up," Vaughn said. "You do what we tell you, we'll

be out of your hair in ten minutes. That's a promise, okay?"

Harry Bergman put his arm around his wife and nodded, not so much because

he agreed, but because he was too frightened to say anything.

Then the guy with the cuffs stepped behind them, and with an improbable

"S'il vous plaît," gently removed Harry's arm from his wife's shoulders.

Bringing the older man's arms behind his back, the Frenchman looped the

plastic cord around Harry's wrists and pulled it tight. This done, he

turned to the woman and did the same.

"Great," Vaughn said, and turned to Susannah. "You know what to do, right?"

Susannah nodded--quick little jerks of her head--and watched as the

Bergmans were led outside. As they went through the door she heard Vaughn

say, "By the way, I spoke to your son the other day. He sends his love."

You could hear them gasp.

Then the screen door slammed and Mr. Bergman's voice was in the air,

scared and growling, like a small dog protecting his patch from a

rottweiler: "What is this? Where are you taking us?" And Vaughn's voice,

laid-back and matter-of-fact: "We're just going to the truck...."

Well, yeah, Susannah thought and, with a shudder, took a handkerchief from

her pocket and wiped the .38 clean. Then she put the gun back in the

drawer and erased her fingerprints from the wood and the phone. What else?

She was supposed to turn off the TV, and the lights, too, and close the

front door behind her. It was supposed to look like they just--

Suddenly, the air was split by a frightened, almost feral bark, a

prehistoric gasp of unadulterated terror. Hearing it, the night fell

silent and Susannah, shaken, found herself running from the house, pulled

by the sheer, centripetal force of someone else's fear.

As she came off the porch, she saw Tommy. He was coming around from the

back of the truck, walking fast, head down, mouth open, blinking wildly.

"What happened?"

Tommy just shook his head and got behind the wheel. "Don't go back there,"

he said.

But how could she not?

Turning the corner, she saw the man--Mr. Bergman--on the ground, his body

trembling as if it were in the grip of an unseen and powerful amperage. A

few feet away the woman was on her stomach in the driveway, pinioned by

the Frenchman, who had his hand on the back of her neck and his knee in

the small of her back. For a second Susannah's eyes locked with the

woman's, and it seemed as if the night shivered in the space between them.

Then Vaughn stepped over the husband's still twitching body and, squatting

beside the wife, administered an injection to the back of her shoulder,

piercing the thin cotton dress that she wore.

Immediately, the woman's eyes widened, rolled, and went white. The

connection between her and Susannah, a duplex of hatred and pity, was

shattered as 10 cc of pharmaceutical morphine slammed into her heart. She

stiffened for a long moment, then just as suddenly softened. Finally, the

tension drained from her body and she was dead.

It took a moment for Susannah to realize that she'd been holding her

breath forever. Letting it out, she felt a need to explain why she was

standing there. "I heard a sound," she said.

Vaughn got to his feet and nodded. "That was the guy. The guy freaked when

he saw the needle."

The Frenchman climbed into the back of the truck, where a pair of

55-gallon drums waited beside a white metal table. The floor was covered

with sheets of black polyethylene. A string of lights hung from the

ceiling, and the Frenchman switched them on. Then he jumped back down to

the ground and shook his head. "No," he said. "It wasn't the needle. It

was the truck. He saw the plastic, and it scared him."

Vaughn shrugged. "Whatever. Help me get her in the back."

The Frenchman took the woman's body by the arms, while Vaughn took hold of

her feet. As they lifted her, Vaughn glanced at Susannah. "You saw the

light go out, right?"

Susannah looked puzzled. "What light?"

"The light in her eyes," Vaughn said. "You were looking at each other when

it hit her."

Susannah nodded slowly. Yeah, she'd seen it. The eyes went...slack. The

two men heaved the woman's body into the back of the truck.

Turning to Susannah, Vaughn threw her a sympathetic look. "I could tell,"

he said. "I could see it in your face."

"See what?" Susannah asked.

"The way you reacted. It was like..." His voice trailed off.

"What?" Susannah asked, almost as if Vaughn were flirting with her.

Vaughn thought for a moment, shook his head, and laughed. "It

was...complicated," he said. "It was way complicated." Then, stooping, he

seized the dead man by the arms and pulled him toward the truck.

Susannah couldn't believe it--the way the feet made little furrows in the

ground, so perfectly parallel they seemed, almost, like lines on a page.

CHAPTER 1

The Diamond Mountains: January 26, 1998

At first he didn't hear it. The noise was a long way off and hundreds of

meters below, a distant growl gusting on the wind. Trudging slowly up the

hillside, Kang kept his head down, ignoring both the wind's moan and the

sound that it carried in its jaws.

The cold made him clumsy. Twice he'd slipped on the ice, and twice he'd

broken the fall with his hands, plunging his fingers into the crusted

snow. With the holes in his gloves, it was like grabbing broken glass.

Even so, he'd surprised himself by coming as far as he had--and in the

dead of winter. He was, after all, a cripple. But tough. Korean tough. And

though others had come this way before--he'd climbed through a ghost

forest in which a thousand pines had been reduced to stumps--they'd had

two good legs to carry them.

While he had only one.

Most of the trees had been cut years ago, for firewood. But as he climbed

higher, Kang saw pines that had been flayed alive, the bark stripped from

their trunks for food. Or what passed for food in the famine years.

The soft wood, just beneath the bark, filled the stomach. And while it was

barely digestible, it was pleasant to chew. It took away the hunger

pains--at least for a while--and the bark itself could be used to make a

weak tea.

Still, taking the bark killed the trees, and wounded the land.

It was the women, mostly, who climbed the hills to look for wild grasses,

bark, and firewood. Until the sickness had taken her, as it had taken so

many others, Kang's wife had climbed this very hill, armed with the same

folding saw that he now carried, and the same length of rope.

It was she who'd told him to go in this direction. And though the way was

impossibly steep, he'd kept his promise and done as she'd suggested. Since

her death, he'd made the trek a dozen times, trading the wood that he'd

gathered for herbs, rice, and a pair of old boots. By now he knew the

hills above Tasi-ko as well as he knew the cracks in the ceiling above his

bed.

He paused for a moment to catch his breath, and gazed at the uphill

terrain, calculating the most efficient way over the rocks, deciding ahead

of time where to set each foot. This was more complicated than it might

otherwise have been because one of his legs was made of wood below the

knee and was insensitive to differences in footing.

An open area stretched ahead of him, and he picked his way carefully

across the snowfield, wary of crevasses. Finally, he crested a ridge and

came upon the place that he was looking for, a grove of sturdy pines,

bristling with green needles above the snow.

As always happened when he came here, his wife's face flashed before him

and his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he lurched toward the wood and,

finding a sapling, broke a twig from its trunk and sucked at the resin. As

he did, he glanced around for a suitable tree, one that he could cut with

his saw and drag to the village.

And that's when he heard it, heard it for the first time in the silence of

the pines: riding on the back of the wind was a separate and distinct

noise, a mechanical whine that he recognized in an instant.

It was the sound of deliverance, the clamor of rescue.

Hobbling back to the ridge, Kang squinted down the hillside to the road,

where a convoy of trucks rolled toward Tasi-ko, miniaturized by distance.

All in all there were six troop transports, a jeep, and a couple of

flatbed trailers with orange bulldozers strapped to their backs. Watching

them, as Kang did, it was possible to trace the path that the convoy had

taken, winding its way through the valley. The chained tires, chewing into

the snow and ice, churned up the earth so that it seemed, almost, as if

the trucks had drawn a line across the jagged contours of the land.

For the first time in weeks the corners of his mouth lifted and Kang

smiled. With a grunt of relief he sat down heavily in the snow and, using

a small tool he carried for the purpose, adjusted the screws in his

artificial leg. Things would be better now.

Not that they could have gotten worse. This was the most monstrous winter

in anyone's memory, a season of paralyzing cold in which hunger had turned

into famine, and famine to plague. Even now, thirty-one people--a fourth

of the village--lay on the floor of the factory, their bodies stacked like

cordwood. (This building, shaped like a coffin and made of cement, was a

place where brooms--good brooms--had been made for more than twenty years.

Now, Kang thought, the building was as dead as its inhabitants. Without

fuel, the lathes had fallen silent even as the air grew still and cold.)

Daunting from the outside, the building's interior was terrifying--a

makeshift morgue paved with the cadavers of men, women, and children whose

blistered limbs had turned a startling blue in the days before their

deaths. As the only medical worker in Tasi-ko, it had been Kang's

responsibility to carry the bodies to where they now lay, awaiting burial

in the spring.

Until he'd seen the trucks winding toward the village, Kang had begun to

doubt that, by spring, anyone would be left to bury the dead. And if by

chance someone was, it seemed unlikely that it would be him or, if it was,

that he'd have the strength to wield a pick and shovel.

Now he felt ashamed, ashamed of the bitterness in his thoughts. At some

point, perhaps when his wife had died, he'd surrendered to pessimism. He'd

begun to think that the suffering in Tasi-ko had gone unnoticed, or that

it was being ignored because the village was remote and insignificant.

These were subversive thoughts, as Kang well knew. If shared, they might

weaken the resistance of all citizens. And they were wrong, as well as

subversive. Clearly, the life of a farmer in Tasi-ko was worth as much as

that of an engineer in Pyongyang. The proof was there, on the road below.

It had simply been a question of time, and the allocation of scarce

resources.

The army's presence was a rebuke to his negative thinking. The trucks

would have food and medicine in them--and doctors, real doctors, not

medical workers like himself. These were people who had gone to the

university in Pyongyang. They'd know what to do.

Whereas he could do nothing. In less than a month he'd seen the village

decimated by an illness whose symptoms were so violent and strange that,

on hearing of them, a doctor had been sent to Tasi-ko from the Institute

for Infectious Diseases in the capital.

The doctor had been very short and very old--a compact little nut of a man

with large, yellow incisors. He chain-smoked imported cigarettes and

talked in short bursts, punctuated by long silences. Kang knew that to

smoke so much, the man must be important. But even so, Kang didn't like

him.

In the end the doctor examined a dozen patients, four of whom had since

died. He made notes of their symptoms and questioned Kang about the

progress of the disease. He took blood samples from four of the villagers,

and arranged for two of the dead to be wrapped in sheets and taken to the

capital for autopsies.

As the doctor was leaving, Kang asked what he should do in his absence,

but the old man didn't answer him. He lit another cigarette and, leaning

out the window of his car, pointed toward the building where the dead were

kept. "All this," he said, "Spanish Lady. Spanish Lady did this!"

Though it wasn't Kang's place to contradict a senior physician from

Pyongyang, he couldn't help himself. As the car began to pull away he

jogged beside it. "But, Doctor--this is not correct! We haven't had any

visitors. No foreigners--" Suddenly, the car began to pull away, and Kang

shouted out: "What can I do?"

The old man turned in his seat for a last look, and shook his head,

leaving Kang in the road, thinking he was mad.

But that didn't matter now. The old man was back. He'd come with

medicine--and bulldozers to bury the dead.

Kang knew that he should hurry down the hill to help the soldiers. But the

cold made him hesitate. Whatever cures the army might bring, whatever food

they might bring, firewood was nearly impossible to come by, and it would

be a waste to have climbed so far, in such cold, only to return

empty-handed.

Leaving the ridge for the wooded hillside a hundred yards away, he pounced

on a small tree and, kneeling in the snow, sawed furiously at its trunk

with his little folding saw. The pitch was sticky and gummed the teeth of

the blade, but in the end the tree keeled over, and Kang scrambled to his

feet. Knotting his rope around the branches at the base of the pine, he

turned and hurried back up to the ridge, dragging the tree behind him on

its leash.

At the crest of the ridge he stopped to catch his breath, and what he saw

puzzled him. About a kilometer south of town half of the convoy--three

trucks and a flatbed--pulled to a halt in the middle of the road and

waited. Meanwhile, the other trucks continued on their way, rumbling into

and...through the village.

Except for the jeep. The jeep pulled into the little square that, in

better days, had served as a marketplace for local farmers. Idling in the

cold, it drew the villagers like iron filings to a magnet, though Kang

knew what the real attraction was: the promise of medicine, food, and news.

He started moving again, but then he hesitated. The convoy south of town

had not moved. Its trucks sat in the middle of the road, their engines

stilled, while soldiers stood around, smoking cigarettes and slinging

their Kalashnikovs.

And there, to the north, the scene was being repeated. The second half of

the convoy rolled to a stop about a kilometer past Tasi-ko. Soldiers

jumped from the backs of the trucks, then stood and waited.

It was a disquieting sight, even from so far above. The village was being

quarantined. And though it disturbed Kang to see Tasi-ko isolated in this

way, he began to see the wisdom of it. Whatever the pestilence might be,

it would have to be contained. Betrayed by China, battered by floods, and

beset by famine, his country would be hard put to withstand yet another

disaster.

Once again he was thinking dangerously, seditiously. But what he thought

was the truth. And a second truth was that he was very tired and, being

tired, he lacked the energy to "weed the garden of his mind."

This was the metaphor that Kang had been taught in the army, when he'd

served for six years as a medical officer in a reconnaissance unit at the

DMZ. Some thoughts were flowers; others were weeds. Still others were

vipers. Constant vigilance was needed to correctly identify each.

But "constant vigilance" required more energy than Kang could spare. Over

the years, he'd lost too much--his leg to a land mine, his wife to

sickness. For the past week he'd eaten little more than wild grass, and

now--now, his mind was anything but a garden. It was a ruin, and he just

didn't care. What more could the world do to him?

Suddenly, an electric bullhorn crackled and whined in the square. Kang

strained to hear what was being said, but as the words floated up the

hillside, they softened in a way that made them impossible to understand.

But he could see their effect: repelled now, the people withdrew from the

jeep and, one by one, disappeared into their homes. Before long the

village--a cluster of decrepit wooden houses surrounded by fallow fields

and an abandoned factory--looked eerily empty. Only then did the jeep pull

away from the marketplace, trailing a plume of white exhaust as it rolled

north to rendezvous at the second roadblock.

First a quarantine, Kang thought, and now a curfew. But in the middle of

the day? Why? And what about the doctors? Where were they? Kang's face,

impassive for so long, crumpled into a frown. What he was seeing did not

make sense, and his instincts told him to be wary. And though it seemed

unlikely that anyone would notice him from so far below, he removed the

red muffler that his wife had made with the yarn from an unraveled

sweater. He tucked the muffler inside his jacket and sat down on the tree

that he'd been dragging. Then he snapped a twig from one of its branches

and began to chew it as he watched the road.

Over the course of the next hour nothing much happened. Except for

soldiers and the barricades, the Pyongyang road remained empty. Too empty.

Never busy, it was now entirely deserted. Not a single car, truck, or

pedestrian arrived at either barricade. Which could only mean there were

other barricades, farther from town, and that the ones he saw served a

purpose far different than he'd imagined. They weren't there to keep the

traffic out. They were there to keep the people in.

Kang's heart wobbled in his chest.

And then, abruptly, there was movement. As if on cue, soldiers at both

ends of the village scrambled to the side of the road, where they hunkered

down in ditches. Kang didn't know what to make of it--even when he saw the

plane, coming over the mountains.

Like every other plane he'd ever seen, this was a military aircraft. Its

aluminum skin was a dull brown that seemed, almost, to absorb the

sunlight. Kang watched the plane as it drew closer to Tasi-ko, its engines

rumbling in the frigid air. Suddenly, a piece of the fuselage detached and

fell, tumbling, toward the village. Kang didn't believe what he was

seeing. The plane banked to the east, leveled out, and accelerated toward

the horizon as Kang, unthinking, jumped to his feet.

He opened his mouth to shout or to scream--at the plane, at the village,

at the soldiers--but it was too late. The world pulsed. There was a flash

of light, and a low whummmmp that sucked the air out of the sky. For an

instant Kang saw an incinerating wave of light roll outward in every

direction from Tasi-ko. Then a tidal wave of heat smashed against the

ridge, bowling him over. He gasped to breathe, gasped again, then panicked

with the realization that there was no air in the air--only heat, and the

smell of burning hair.

They're killing everyone, he thought. Frantic, he slipped on the ice and

landed hard, flat on his back. A shower of light went off behind his eyes

and something cracked, deep inside his head. Kang's vision shuddered and

the last thing he saw, before his senses shut down, was Tasi-ko,

shuddering in a sea of flames.

When he woke, it was dark, and the air was sharp with the smell of smoke.

His face felt as if the skin had been peeled from his cheeks, and the back

of his head was pounding as rhythmically as a drum. With the fingers of

his right hand he touched the place where the pain was, just behind his

ear, and instantly drew back, shocked by the lump that was bleeding there.

For a moment his stomach swayed, and it seemed as if his chest was about

to turn inside out. But nothing happened.

Machines growled in the distance, off to the left and far below.

Below. Where was he?

Slowly, Kang sat up and looked around. He was on a ridge, just like the

one above Tasi-ko. The ground was slick with ice, and here and there tree

stumps poked from the snow. Turning toward the noise, he saw bulldozers

moving back and forth across a field of rubble, lit by the headlamps of

half a dozen trucks.

He was on an overlook, above a construction site. But how had he gotten

there? He'd been gathering wood and...The pain in his head made it

impossible to think. A stream of broken images meandered around the inside

of his skull: a brown plane; a jeep; his wife's face--fire.

He needed a doctor, and instinctively he called out to the men below. But,

of course, they couldn't hear him. Struggling to his feet, he made his way

down the hillside, calling out against the bulldozers' rumbling noise. A

spray of small stones and rocks preceded him in a little avalanche and, as

he drew closer, he saw for the first time that the construction crew

consisted entirely of soldiers, and that the soldiers were wearing gas

masks.

Strange.

He was halfway down the ridge when one of the soldiers saw him and began

to shout. Relieved, Kang paused to catch his breath and, standing amid a

clutch of boulders, waved and shouted back. Then a peculiar thing

happened. The soldier raised his Kalashnikov to his chest and began to

fire in the disciplined way that soldiers do, peppering the air between

them with short bursts of gunfire that sounded, almost, like the

telegraphic code that ships use at sea.

And as that happened, the moment expanded. Suddenly, Kang knew where he

was--which was just where he seemed to be: on the ridge above Tasi-ko. And

then he remembered: they're killing everyone.

The boulder beside him was spitting stones as 9mm slugs slapped into it.

Even so, Kang didn't move. His eyes were in the distance, ignoring the

soldiers as they ran toward him, staring instead at the cratered wasteland

that lay, smoking, in the headlights of the trucks. Tasi-ko was gone.

The realization frightened him even more than the guns, frightened him in

a way that he had never felt before. Because this was a fear that had no

point of origin or focus. It came from within and without at the same

time. It was terror, pure and oceanic, and it radiated from him like heat

from a fire.

Jolted, Kang turned and began to run, scrambling up the hillside from rock

to rock, moving from one shadow to another. Behind him, his pursuers gave

ground as they moved deeper into the cold, dark, and unfamiliar hills,

swinging their flashlights in great, useless arcs. Soon it was obvious

that they had no idea which way he'd gone and that, in fact, they were

beginning to worry about their own whereabouts.

Still, Kang kept moving. Far from feeling the usual clumsiness of his

wooden leg, he covered the ground with immaculate economy, invisible as a

shadow in the night. And though his lungs were on fire and his quadriceps

were drained, he moved higher and higher into the mountains until the

soldiers' voices dwindled to nothing and the bulldozers fell silent.

After four or five hours in the freezing cold, his shirt was soaked with

sweat and his stump was a bloody mess. His fingers were frozen, his skull

was fractured, and his face was a blister. The parts of him that didn't

hurt were dead. It was as simple as that.

But he kept on moving, and eventually he found a sort of track that led

downhill. Following it, he emerged from the mountains just as the night

grayed toward dawn. Finding himself beside the Victory Road, he followed

the highway without thinking or caring where it went. The truth was: he

had nowhere to go and, clearly, he was dying. The likelihood was that

whatever energy he had left would soon disappear. He'd sit down for a

rest, and that would be that. If he was lucky, there would be a tree, and

he could lean back against it...close his eyes...and just let go.

He looked forward to dying that way, like an old monk, dreaming the world.

Indeed, the image lifted his spirits and, as he walked beside the road, he

kept his eyes open for the perfect tree. The death-tree. His tree.

But it was nowhere to be found. Morning molted into afternoon, the air

warmed and, step by step, the day dissolved into evening. Night fell, the

temperature dropped, and still Kang kept walking.

So it went for a second day, and then a third. Instinctively, and without

thinking, Kang trudged toward the one place he knew as well as the

environs of Tasi-ko. This was Korea's Demilitarized Zone. A closely

watched no-man's-land that runs for more than a hundred miles, stretching

from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, the DMZ was at once a nature

preserve and a killing floor. Honeycombed with tunnels and bristling with

land mines, it was a ribbon of green in a sea of mud and ice--tranquil,

forested, and dangerous. Gateway to the Vampire South.

Perhaps he would find his tree there.

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

John Case is the pseudonym of an award-winning investigative reporter and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Genesis Code, as well as two nonfiction books about the U.S. intelligence community. A resident of Washington, D.C., he is the proprietor of a company that specializes in international investigations for law firms and labor unions.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780345435798
Author:
Case, John
Publisher:
Ballantine Books
Author:
Hougan, Jim
Author:
Hougan, Carolyn
Location:
New York :
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
Thrillers
Subject:
Reporters and reporting
Subject:
Plague
Subject:
Detective and mystery stories
Subject:
Medical
Subject:
Suspense
Subject:
Suspense fiction
Subject:
Biological warfare
Subject:
Reporters and reporting -- Fiction.
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;thriller;suspense;mystery;novel;biological warfare;science fiction;medical
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Mass market paperback
Publication Date:
19990531
Binding:
MASS MARKET
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
384
Dimensions:
6.88x4.20x1.07 in. .43 lbs.

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z
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Fiction and Poetry » Popular Fiction » Contemporary Thrillers

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