It was a stubborn wood on Nussack Isle, a timeless knot of trees. And noonless besides, even at the hottest of July, when no beam of sun could paw the ground. But summer was a ghost now, November was showing in the freeze, and the trees were nodding at a storm—a howling blow that wore for hours.

No forecast, no small craft advisory, just a snap dusk and a pelt of rain. The gales rose just as fast and threw Jessy Wilcox off her feet. Ramps cut among the trunks. She gimped for cover, forging on up a golf cart route, past a way sign with names in royal we. The Digbies. The Vanderslices. The Fanshaws. The Rumplesses. The Van Winkles. All so plummy they were storybook. Water struck the letters in a boil. The plant litter had begun to crawl. A thunder came in rips and rumbles, and the gaps were drawing shut.

“Wicked pisser,” the towniest of townies would be saying, not a mile off across the Squirrel Gut, under roof and flush with beer. South Reach Island would be all but derelict itself, but some kept there year-round—locals safe before a hearth, dewy can in hand, armed for a duel.

Jessy hankered for the pull, the hiss, the sip of foam. Instead she went with what she had, an ankle twist, a plush seat with an antimacassar she used to dry her hair, and half a mouth of Pussy Van Winkle’s cooking wine. That swallow was all that was left, a salty grape from the back of a cupboard. Even for a nineteen-year-old with an eye roll near at heart—“Figures”—it was sad loot.

A feat of mother nature—the whole house shook. A wrecking bar, her new best friend, had got her in just in time for the electric show. The dark deepened between the bolts and the wind hauled upon the roof. The empty took a tumble and a roll, all unheard. It stalled just aside the mohair lounge, so chic, so damp, while Jessy made a face and got the courage down.

The Van Winkle house had no power, same as any on Nussack, save one. There was no light except the Maglite she had brought in her camera bag and the strikes catching in the slats. Nor running water, the conduit throttled down for wintertime, dead dry. But that could almost pass for a joke.

An unshuttered window lay ahead but not against the wind. She stood up to dare the view and try the leg. A fire poker became a human kickstand. With a dumb slop her fleece hit the floor.

Out in Gamma Bay all the seething water seemed aglow between the flashes. The lightning froze it up like a snapshot and a stare thawed it out. There were combers out there. There were never combers in a bay, least a three-mile inlet shaped like a potsherd. Tonight nature had the aim, a straight shot at a memorable worst. The Fibbers were out there under the surge, and even if a local like Jessy hadn’t known just where, nor how deep, the surf was shooting up where it struck the rocks, a spew of foam higher than the island she had come to raid.

Trees stood thick, it was true, at least where no plat for a summerhouse had been staked. With a beam of half a mile and a crest of forty feet, the isle could hardly make a stash of anything. Deep ranks stood just behind many a porch or gingerbread verandah, spruce and oak. All that showed from the wharfs and windows of Wilkes Harbor, up the bay, was the mass of leaves, where sky met sea.

South Reach ran closer, with a better glimpse of all aboard. But most Reachers, too, were from away. A swing bridge made the real estate less select, the summer folk more of this earth. It had also got the forests thin in a time of stoves—not so long ago to those who stuck it out in winter.

A different sort had gone to Nussack since the nineteen-aughts. They never thought about the trees they kept, though fireplace cords had been boated in with something like a given damn. They would be looking outward instead, to the waters of the bay, smalt blue and dotted up with buoys for the traps. But only for the wakes left by pleasure craft. In those leads they might natter on about horsepower and sail-plan and who had bought what when.

The newsletter had shown the hearsay. No need for townies, little need for town itself save the ferry and a grocery run, that most often made by staff. The Nutties kept themselves to themselves. Which was what they called each other, drolly so, they thought. They had no grasp that it stood for Nutsacks. At least it did to those who had watched them throw down gangways and take them up for a hundred years.

“Wicked pisser,” Jessy shouted to herself. An hour of fear for a mortal hide had been enough. She had limped to a bedroom. Where else? Pussy’s figurines were skittish in a glass display. But the walls baffled the sound if not the shudder—maybe enough to sleep through. The mattress had been stripped for months, but she found a chest. And in the tuck of the blanket inside it she found a fifth, or close enough in a Swedish metric—high-proof vodka, tax stamp unbroken.

“Bless you, you withered biddy,” she said aloud through the sting in her mouth. There was a picture frame on the vanity so Jessy had seen the gnomish smile. Like someone’s idea of a grandmother. The lady had a problem, it seemed, or someone in her employ did. It took a special kind of cad to misuse a widow. Bottoms up! She had found mealy tabs of aspirin in a medicine cabinet, and they made do for an olive. The clothes went on a curtain rod, wrung to dry as best they could. The wool put an itch on Jessy’s naked skin.

The caretaker was the only person within a hobble. Jessy wondered how he was making out in his fort, a cottage with electric light and a cistern full of water and a fireplace to read beside. It was at the only good landing, on the lee side to the north. A modest slip known as Sachem Wharf, for some reason, since it was neither a wharf nor royal. All the private docks were up for winter. The ten-foot skirt of granite was too sheer for anything but the worst of waves. Which, hello.

She would be seeing the caretaker again soon enough, Jessy supposed, five gulps down. Little chance her kayak had stayed put, less that she could get the ankle into the sprayskirt and hold the foot out straight. Her cell phone had no range. A call and a ride was what she needed, whoever made it, whoever drove. Handcuffed, printed and mugged, given a day before the court. But that was all just giggles. Her father would be the one who found out next. She loved the harbormaster, surly though he was, but man could he slap a pretty face.

No “Wicked pisser” per the caretaker. Maybe a “Mein Gott” or some other patness. He was a trim silver man of late middle age with a mild accent. Jessy and her friends had used it for a bullseye.

On days off, spring through fall, he came to the Salty Dog in Wilkes Harbor. There Jessy tended bar of late, cheat book in hand for any drink more complex than added ice. A tidy loner, the caretaker—canvas pants and a sweater of a thickness from cashmere to rag, per the weather. He would take a domestic beer or two, steamed clams or a lobster roll, and a New York Times crossword, done in pen.

With sly voices Jessy and Prudence Hazard and “Radical” Stew dubbed him Wolfgang Hochstetter, the Teutonic Titwillow, Judgment at Nuremberg, Curse You Red Baron, and other darts of a short range. He was so nice and unassuming that it became fun to peg him for a fiend. They said he did unspeakable things, German things, when left alone for winter, which they spoke at length. The rich were different, true, but not so odd as the man who stayed put to latch their gate.

The three were bored, was all—young and bored and pushing for room. No harm was meant. And Jessy only saw as much when C.Y.R. Baron caught them at it.

“Radical” Stew had just flounced into the Salty Dog. Jessy and Prude knew the choice of word because he announced it. “So ask me why I’m flouncing.”

“Why what now?”

“Flouncing. As in, to-flounce. It’s on the SAT.”

“You’re thinking of that GED our dad made you take.”

Prude was his foil and twin sister, to Jessy best friend. Their father owned the bar, as had his father before him, and so on back to the sepia Hazards in frames on the wall. The present mister was also the town manager, tax collector, road commissioner, and treasurer, which was how Jessy got the job despite the age and sweeping indifference. He, the harbormaster, and the sheriff were the illuminati of Wilkes Harbor—them and maybe the tourist board.

“Look,” the dropout said. He held up a newspaper, tabloid size and folded double, and slapped it to a tabletop. It was late spring and the place was empty coming on noon, save the three of them.

The Nutty Times,” Jessy said aloud. “It isn’t.”

“But it so totally is. Official organ of the Nussack Isle Home Covenant Association.”

“You’re an official organ,” Prude said, in observance of due forms.

Jessy asked, “Where’d you get it?”

“Old Lou takes a cup of chowder just before the noon run. At the Java Hut, right by the boats. And he puts a lot of trust in his fellow genus homo. The mail sacks for the Nussack post office, they’re just sitting there on the gunwales. Low-hanging fruit and all that.”

“The Nutsacks mail themselves news about themselves?”

“It’s not like they got a printing press out there, or a paper boy. And it’s not like”—a glance to the address label—“Mr. and Mrs. Wolfie Presters are going to miss a single issue.”

“Ayuh,” Jessy said, but only flip. That part of the coast did not go in for Downeaster. Too many accents came in from abroad, like the license plates, to keep theirs pure and separate. “So what do the neighbors got if not the means to production?”

“Lessee,” Prude said, tracing a column inch with a press-on nail. She frowned. “What the hell is an ice cream social?”

“Maybe it’s like a Cleveland steamer. ‘The HCA proudly welcomes the Deevers of New Canaan to our cherished solstice kingdom.’ What are they, druids?”

Prude said, “You run out of ways to say ‘summer resort.’”

“‘These scions of’—skee-ons?”

“Maybe it’s like ‘science’?” Stew said in that California voice of his.

Prude said, “Try ‘cylons,’” and her deadpan was mwah.

“‘These cylons of old Connecticut will make a worthy addition to the neighborhood of Metacomet Court, where they will be taking over the fine falu-red sommarstuga formerly leased to the Whipple-Burlies of Darien.’ What got the Whipple-Burlies the bum’s rush?”

“One of those hyphen marriages,” Prude guessed.

Jessy read more aloud but the cracks had grown stale. The wear was half brat, half moral, so she said, “Me, I’m just glad the Gestapo’s got a tall boot out there.”

“Why is that?” asked the caretaker, right behind her.

Three sets of knees and pairs of lips clapped shut. Even as Jessy shrank she saw the man had no particular look on his face.

“I’ll have a Coors Light,” he said at last, scooting back a chair and laying out a paper open to the puzzle. “And an order of steamers. None of those from Cleveland, please.”

And he set the tip of a turned-out finger square beneath his nose.

So Attila could sense humor. That might be of help, Jessy thought as she toddled through the wreck of Nussack. “I’m sorry I called you the Sorrows of Young Werther,” she would say, or not. And then he’d ladle out a schnitzengruben and get on the elektrischalpenhorn, or whatever the hell it was the overmen called a telephone. Sorry again, she thought in advance.

What she really wanted was just some stupid water, that searing blue a.m. The wind had been gone when she woke—all quiet save a bleat of sprain and headache. The squirt bottle had fallen from the pack as she had fled, it seemed—a vodka gone down uncut. She had never come so near to lapping from a toilet tank. Upper deck of course.

Four more aspirin had gone home, chewed dry like bitter chalk, mind over gag reflex. She had bound the ankle with a high-threadcount dishrag. The sneaker went on with care, a cuss, and a lengthy sigh. She had tried a few steps. Slow but not tragic.

She looked back. Not got far. For shelter the summerhouse had been a godsend but also a bore, like the rest. She had only jimmied two doors before the storm—the Gantries and the Connors, names almost Zulu there—but she had seen the pattern. Tea sets on a kitchen island. Board games in a coat closet. Bookcases full of mass market paperbacks. The rich weren’t different, they were vanilla with options. An offshore sundae bar.

Her refuge stood on higher ground. As Jessy took a bend toward Sachem Wharf—a quarter mile, maybe—she was surprised to see what had come up over the ledges in the night.

Sand for one—whole drifts of it like a nicotine snow. The bottom of Gamma Bay was rock and molt. There was not much sand, the lobstermen said, except a few beds out past the islands to the south. That was at the lip of the no-trap zone they called the Bottomless Hole, where the floor fell out and no pot ever came back. How a storm could whisk it up and carry it there, that was one for the ice cream social.

The trees stood and all the buildings were intact save the shingle work. Nussack had stared oncoming nature down like a porcupine in the road. Jessy supposed that made her some kind of flea or tick. Nowhere did she hear a bird, and seas had come to visit. She walked past a fishing float, long since cast away and bearded up. Then a ghost net, marine green, hung in the branches of a spruce. Manmade gear come home at last but seeming otherworldly where it lay.

It was a funny kind of eerie, no more—Jessy wished she could text the sights to Prude—until she came upon a full boat. A puller, sixteen feet from a sharp bow to a canoe-style stern, with thwart seats and rowlocks. Old-timey, in other words. She looked to a broken davit arm. The paint job told her whose.

A hopping race got her to the ledge. Broken-bellied at the shelf of South Reach was the whaler she knew she would see. The replica had been in dock near the swing bridge, two miles off. A long restoration, lately finished with Nantucket colors. It had been up on blocks, well out of the water. The rigging was thrown down like a string game. No birds, no noise.

And that ship was not alone: a flat and a trawler were thrown aground, too. In the Gut a tug was belly-up—part of the port fleet, one of her Dad’s, sent adrift. No Coast Guard, no salvage team. Not even the sound of an engine. The bay water had gone silt brown, and the marker buoys had all broken loose. A whole catch lost, pots and all.

“I’m going to burgle the Nutties this fall.”

“Is this because you didn’t get into an Ivy?”

“You can be so vaginal.”

“Semper vi.”

Prude and Jessy had been shrooming—wavy caps from the other coast. They had been part of a kayak instructor’s stash that had outlasted a summer job. On the farthest seaward tip of South Reach there was a marina, small and ramshackle. A good place to stare down the moon and hear the water breathe.

Up it came on a slow draw, hoisting up boat and dock alike. It held and then went down again—a wet sigh of mussels as the plane fell away. Neither girl had tried magic before, and not knowing how, each had made a quid, a full gram apiece. The “strong psilocybe” smacked of shit, each could confess at last. So they swallowed the wads down just to get them past a sense of taste.

Half an hour later the world was doing tantric yoga. Sunlight would have shown color, but a cast of stars, a trackless deep, a phosphorescent world-skull in flight—these were nothing to rebuff.



“So burgling!”

“Got the outfit all picked out—black, black, unt mehr black. Even the underwear is black—merino wool. I have a knit cap in black and inked-out laces for my sneakers.”

“You could write ‘swag’ on a burlap sack.”

“It’s not a costume party.”

“Without a sack you’re a Swiss puppeteer.”

“If I were a Swiss puppeteer I’d be barefoot.”

They made out a little, just to try. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just weird.”

“I know, right? Who came up with an open mouth? I’m all kill that sushi.”

“There’s no getting on Nussack without the ferry slip. And there with the Stasi on watch. For all you know he’s a hunter, and you’re going to play a deadly game of cat and mouse.”

“I streamed that movie.”

“That’s like six.”

“On the south side there’s a place to land. A split in the rock where the runoff washes out. It’s full of pebbles. At neap you could make it in with a canoe or a kayak. It’d have to be a light boat. Something you could pull up into the trees so it didn’t float away or get spotted.”


Once Prude had said it aloud, neither had ever heard a stranger word. They marveled together for the space of three breaths.

“I just want to get me a trophy,” Jessy said at last. “It’ll be a knick-knack. It’s not like they’d leave anything valuable there.”

That was not the real story, but it did make her sound more like her namesake from the Bible. There would be breaking-and-entering in plenty. There might even be some sneak-work, if the caretaker drove out in the state cart to point a flood. And who knew, if a souvenir presented itself, some Christ figure in Hummel, she might even snatch it up for a place on the shelf, right next to the pint-size loving cup from the fourth grade, awarded to her for citizenship.

But no—pictures were the truth of it. These would be posted online under a nom de coward. Just for the dare. Just to show, she didn’t know, God, fate, Dad, that there was no such thing as limits. There had to be something sinister in those houses, or cringeworthy, or, failing that, ridiculous. Any take on funny would suit her fine.

“Were you looking for a second-story man? A yegg?”

“This Jezebel Wilcox must do alone. To show her mettle.”

“So metal. But why tell me at all?”

“I wanted you to think I was cool.”

“You’re my idol. What do I have to do, slaughter a goat?”

Sachem Wharf was a long and unset table. From the head, near a golf cart motor pool and the seasonal post office, Jessy could just make out one end of the harbor. A column of smoke was rising above the ridge to the right. That would put the fire in the townie docks.

Thoughts went to her father, to Prude, and even to Stewart, though of late he had been a dick. She might have liked to fret, to pull her hair like ripcords, but the nearer sight was too hard to look past.

Leeward side or not, the caretaker’s motorboat had beached in the storm. No help there, and no ferry due. His cottage stood on a foot of crusted brickwork that rose up right from the water. A shallow slope led to a landing on the other end, the slot for a golf cart in danger orange. There would have been a front door with a manager sign if there had not been a splintered rubble instead. No wall to hold a doorjamb upright, nor an eave to keep the sun off. Smashed siding, a staved roof. And thrust out from that breach, what, the tail of, what.

Tracks showed on the driveway, dits and dahs that were going dry. They led back to the seawater where, what, had first come aground. Jessy’s eye followed the path back to, what.

No mistaking the armor, not for a townie, nor even for the most grab-asstic landlubber. Segments, a tail fan, a spread of legs. But it was not the profile that would go on a Midwesterner’s bib. The form was no less wrong than the scale—stouter claws, a thicker body, and a head that ran broad like a wedge plow. The color was strange, too, a dark but lustrous indigo. Fringed with a weed—even scratches, a crust of barnacles. She had not molted for an age. Not fussy at all. All very unlobsterlike.

Most so the size. Thought of a fake never crossed Jessy’s mind. The search, the fidgets, the rasp from mouth parts ringing faint in the hollowed-out ruins—these all showed the life.

Jessy had squinted a good minute, in a daze. That time let a scent carry. The bug backed out. Tatters of siding and sheetrock fell away, and plaster came down in a drench. The cephalothorax swung about. Jessy heard the thick scrape of the carapace and the mincing strike of dactyl claws.

It had yards on it from rostrum tip to tail fan, five or more. The feelers swept with the whoop of a caber toss. Crusher and cutter each made a gauge of her, open and shut. The eyes had no depth, clouded globes larger than a fist. Speaking of human body parts, in the mandibles was a foot, bare and white. The palps sucked it back. A pop of bone. Chewed.

Monster movie, Jessy thought, but not without a sickening fright. The keys were in the ignition of the nearest cart, she saw. Three months idle—the battery might be as dry as the main.

She glanced back up and saw how fast the star attraction could move. It would never show in a dash but it could bear down on a pretty girl with a limp in no time at all. The vinyl seat felt cold.

The key turned with a backward click toward reverse. Jessy felt the chill up her back at the dead silence under the buzzer. But she remembered what the motor was—a rotor in a magnet waiting for a voltage—and she stomped the pedal to the floor.

A backward lurch, a skidding turn, a foot to the brake. Her hand stayed on the key and she flipped it past off to drive. As the cart got up to speed she heard the drum of eight heavy limbs. The front two of ten overall would be up and ready, she knew, from times she had heckled at an open-top tank.

A bollard stood in the path beside the post office—foot traffic only, a gentle reminder—but the gap was broad enough. Jessy sped though, clipping the sides, losing the mirrors. One claw rang the bollard out of true and the other smashed through corner windows and a stud post. Beads of safety glass shot into Jessy’s hair. But neither claw swung free to make the grab.

The sawlike nose rooted at the back—a burn of ammonia or worse as a marker fluid shot out—and the rear wheels left the ground. The mouthparts were champing with an appetite. Jessy yelped through the cough and the fumes and the thought of being eaten. At the loss of drag the front-wheel drive sped up. The rear axle hit with a bounce, pulled free.

Past reach—ten miles per hour over a phony-rustic shop lane. A two-ton mud locust galumphing just behind. It should suffocate in air, Jessy told herself, with a newfound love of rules.

Shattering glass and a rip of hedges fell behind. What passed for a mall on Nussack was runty, and Jessy swung a hard right—as hard as stubby tires and a clown car could permit. By then the bug had given up or found something else to eat. There had been a crêperie.

Her foot kept hard to the floor as the cart took the path back to the west-side summerhouses. There at least she knew the lay of the land, which way to run, if run were the word for the pegleg gait she had to work with.

As she drove over the footbridge she dared a look back. He eyes came back to the asphalt with a short-lived relief. But they held on the shallows to the right. There was no wind and all that rich bathroom brown was deathly still for a mile out. But the water stirred just offshore. It drained from a scratched-up and mottled blue. Shells broke the surface, dozens of backs all at once.

The trouble with the local catch was that it would eat just about anything, itself included if left to itself. And what had trotted ashore was close enough to call the selfsame beast. A lifelong diet of sinkers and fish carcasses had to pale next to fresh red meat. Unless a chipmunk ran fat, the only hot morsel on three hundred acres would be Jezebel Wilcox.

There had been no sign of a chase. She needed distance, but she noted the stink on the cart, and then just what stank. A paste of that head tinkle, yellowy brown and bumper high. Speaking of which, great, it appeared that she, too, had wet herself all in the ruckus. Just a half-cup at the crotch. Thirsty or not, her fear could spare it.

Right at the intersection that led up to the Van Winkles, she left the cart behind, limping at a stride, holding back the pain with a smirk and a shitty attitude. “Great. Great. Fuck you. Fuck.” A bottom feeder had no use for a jump. The granite drop around the isle would hold them back. If they had the interest, or the gills, they’d have to take a walk same as anybody else.

Toxic waste, she thought at each step and wince. Radiation. An Indian curse. DARPA plankton. But another idea began to shout any of those more arcane hurdles down: fresh water, fresh water, how about some fresh water.

One of these Nutsacks had to have a plastic jug on hand. And maybe a gun cabinet. TNT. Some of that fertilizer that low-rent militiamen and Arabs were always making bombs out of. Jessy would have settled for a racket to go out swinging with—any show of a fight, ad out or not.

Pussy’s house was a no-go for a drink, she knew already, unless the last tenth of that fifth got to be a quality-of-life issue. So she tried the house next door, and ungently, with the bar right at the front jamb. No more side windows for her, not with these stakes. The Fogles, the door read, with a wood carving of a pig in a top hat and spats that came down prone on the welcome mat.

The guts of the house were a chintz—flowers on the curtains, flowers on the vases, and where there was no flower to be found, a doily. Jessy swept the kitchen cabinets and found a can of snaps. A drawer gave up an opener. Soon she was helping herself to the pack water. Disgustingly delicious, downright sweet under the zing of tinplate, though it had no sugar. And then she wolfed down the beans, a green clump in three chews. Like fondant peeled off a wedding cake.

On to the next house, an ample bungalow, leased out to the Vanderslices judging from the nameplate. No sign of a stampede, or even a stray dogie, eyes on the path. Here there was vent glass aside the door, and she shattered it with a backhand.

The decor showed better taste, even a haut, but she had no time for Danish modern or regrets. The kitchen and the downstairs rooms gave her nothing to work with, no nectars in a supermarket can, but she was surprised to see a basement door under the flight that led upstairs.

Cellars were rare along the water and unheard of on the islands. The coast was a thankless solid rock. Even sewer lines were laid above grade. But a basement would be where she pictured a shotgun or a jug of something flammable. So she opened the door and took a set of steps, steep and narrow, Mag and beam overhand like a spear. And she promptly came to another door.

This one gave her pause even as it stopped her. It was some kind of oiled walnut with black band and heavy rivet. Medieval, in a frisky sort of way. Someone had babied it. Most definitely not where the rags and thinner would be left. Dreams of molotov cocktails faded to a sulk.

Jessy tried the handle though she saw the deadbolt plain enough. Locked tight for winter, duh. Back up the stairs she went. And then up the next flight, to the half-floor above, looking out through quarter-round windows on the duff and dirt. There the other comers would scuttle up to feed. She hoped she would taste like soggy old beans.

Her pulse had slowed to double digits. She checked the time on her cell, useless to her otherwise. Better than an hour had gone by. She gave it another two before she went back down to ground level. Even in the danger a restiveness had set in. She just had to know how safe she was, whatever a b-movie or comic book might have told her not to do. That sort of animal needed water to breathe, she knew, unless it was like a sowbug. So until a roly-poly showed up in jumbo, there was room for hope.

And the crack she heard in the air decided it, just as she peered out the door. A rolling pop, like a signal or a shot, maybe a flare gun or starter pistol out on South Reach.

The path led her with nothing like a hurry. She walked past the cart, straining an ear ahead. Once the demolition reached it—faint even in the stillness, but all wrong—she hunkered down to hide. But then she remembered that smell would be the trouble. And scrunched up low like that, all her own ripeness brought before her nose, she frowned and stood.

A wet fingertip told her nothing about the air, it turned out. No sense of current or direction. Her scout troop had lied to her. So she went no farther up the path. Instead she cut through to the ledge for an angle on the summerhouses ahead. And a view of the near island.

South Reach gave no tell of man, or not of man in person. Floes of garbage were drifting by on mudded water—all of Gamma Bay a leaking trash. And there on Nussack not many of the avant-quaint buildings showed well that close to the granite and through the trees.

But Jessy saw enough and heard better yet. A skepticism was only healthy, whatever her senses told her outright. But her heart took a prompt dive. Her visit had a purpose, and so did the other, it seemed. Fate was getting up in her shit. Time to find Jesus.

Coming back, thoughts lost in how she might live, she took a thicket for a shortcut. Her hands batted through the twigs. She let out a sob of anger, brushing needles and probably Lyme disease from her face as she got back on the path.

There stood a man in a gimp suit. Black latex, rings for a body hoist, zippered hood and all. Two bluish eyes gave cool regard through the holes. Slung over a shoulder was a rifle with a long clip.

A finger yanked the zipper ring. The mouth was free to speak. “Sorry, it’s cold out and this is all I have to wear. Nice to see you, whatever brings the company. But we should be moving.”

A modest German accent. Jessy looked to his boots—both full, both legs intact—and only then, with the low viewpoint, did she realize that she had fallen square on her cheeks.

“I know, I know,” he said, holding out a hand. “Make your fun, but hurry—”

“They’re tearing down the summerhouses,” she said on the rise.

“I was hiding in one. Not the safest, it turns out. Let’s—”

“Why are they tearing down the summerhouses? Is it the smell of us?”

“Reasons won’t make death by arthropod any sweeter,” he said. “But you might ask.” A nod toward the path, where it led north. Jessy heard a flam in eights just around the bend, growing loud.

“I can’t run, my ankle, I can’t—”

Aside went the rifle, and up she went, a fireman’s carry.

“Don’t, leave, that, gun, behind,” through the jostle.

“No good,” he said, clipped by puff and pace. “I tried. A shot.”

And she gave a shriek as the drummer came into sight. Larger than the first—much—and faster. No shine, so dark. A tear in what she understood—clutching, giving chase, and not alone.

“More,” Jessy shouted. “More.” More meant dozens, all.

The cart. The caretaker dropped her in the passenger seat, not gently, gasping hard but never slowing. He leapt over her and got the ride in forward gear.

A claw swoop, unseen but felt in Jessy’s chest. The top canopy was snatched off in a wink. It flew into the trunks, struck hard, tumbled to the understory.

“Not that way,” she shouted. “It’s a dead end!”

No answer though that hack of breath. Jessy spun in her seat and saw the flock, the ram at the head. The stink of seafloor was wafting off them, a salt in her throat and sinuses, sucking her dry.

“Come on!” the caretaker shouted. He laid a skid in front of the Vanderslice house.

“What are you doing?”

“You must trust me!”

He was shoving her through the front door. She had left it ajar, and that carelessness was what saved them. And then they were coming up on the stairwell as the house skidded inches off its slab. The doorway flew clear to the stairs jambs, leaf, and all. The floor was yanked out from under Jessy’s feet and the ceiling broke above her.

The caretaker had pulled her through the basement door. “Light,” he shouted right into her ear.

Her hand searched the pack. The lesser of them had caught up and they all began to slam the house at once. A harangue of nature like the night before, thunder shouting Jessy witless. The frame was coming apart, the pictures and surfaces beneath breaking away. Only the treads underfoot kept still, bolted to the granite. At the bottom Jessy and the caretaker splayed against the walnut door, shrinking back. Billows of dust were choking out the flashlight beam.

Wallboard gusted through the open doorway above. Debris bounced down the treads, pelting through the chalky cloud. A black crusher claw broke through the frame, larger than a backhoe arm.

The caretaker used what light he had in the thick. He felt along the lintel. A key tumbled off, winking in the beam, and his free hand snapped shut.

Soon enough the key was threaded, the bolt unshot. Once the door was pushed to behind them, the violence fell to a busy mutter. Quiet save the gasps of breath, harsh and quick, his and hers alike.

The flight down was too tight for anything but a single file, and that of human beings, and it was made of coastal granite. Without a view neither of them could see how much they were wanted. Claws prised at the floorboards, then the rock. Little gave, but the whole commotion went on, muted by the soundproofing—a room within a room, acoustic foam and flats of steel overhead. Dulled or not the tale came through. Fast work of the floors above—a heave all around as the uppermost gave out and smacked hard. The flashlight rolled from Jessy’s hand.

The two had slid down the near wall, backs against. That cushionless rest was all Jessy had ever wanted, and more. Thank God and the rest for a sit and a safe place to have it. The Mag rocked to a halt, still throwing a light.

Once she had a mind to, she looked to what her beam showed—a smooth and sealed concrete with drainage traps. An object lay farther up in the wedge. She squinted.

“Is that a sex swing?”

The caretaker was peeling off his mask. The sweat made a suck. His hair was sprung. “No point in denying it, since you ask. There has been a vibrant underground here since the early 1970s. Rickard Vanderslice is a tycoon in paper cups. Men in charge, well, sometimes they get a taste for discipline.”

“Praise the Lord!” The Nutties were a letdown—a drab—but color had showed up in the mix just in time to save her life. “So the tycoon, in cups, he chipped out a cellar so he could get a little me-time? And you knew. Was it you-time, too?”

“The prior tenant, he had a fallout shelter built on the sly, which made it easy. And if the set and setting has you worried—and my manner of dress—please don’t be. I’m a gentleman however I choose to butter my toast. In any case you’re not my type. Conserve those batteries. There are candles here—part of the, ah, ministration.”

Hot dribbles for a spank, then. Also, a source of light. Once the caretaker got wicks burning, several of them, with long and slender matches from a chalice near the door, Jessy saw the cell in whole. Before she even had the view, she had begun to smell leather and oils and plenty else.

“Holy shit,” she said. The piety had flagged. She had the digicam out and flashing. “Do you mind?” she thought to ask.

“I could hardly be fired for allowing it. There is no longer any job to dismiss me from. But tell me, young lady—if you had a camera all this time, why weren’t you photographing the …?”

The strobe quit as she took the meaning of his dot dot dot. “Dang it!”

“Why do you have a camera at all? And by the way, what are you doing here?”

“I came to play a joke. Taking pictures of the insides. Shit. I could have sold photos to the news. If there is a news. And a world that’s not ending.”

“Wait now. Why joke? And what joke?”

“You know. Take that, privileged folk—here’s your dirty laundry!”

“You’re Cain Wilcox’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Only child of a harbormaster?”

Slower: “Yeah. Why?”

Again the smile. He shrugged. “There is always room for youth.”

“So whose foot was that?” She explained what she meant. With as much tact as it allowed.

The stare held. At last he shrugged again. “A guest—leave it at that. As I said, you’re not my type. And there’s always going to be a secret.”

“But nothing to beat a swarm of giant shellfish?”

“That’s no secret. Call it a mystery or call it the weather—either way it will pass.”


“Because this is all unheard of.”

Jessy had a different take—a nicety between “unheard of” and “unreported”—but she kept it to herself. And hoped that he was right.

Pass it did, and overnight. Meanwhile there was sacramental wine among the toys, as well as a commode behind a shoji screen. Jessy didn’t care to wonder why, or for what, in either case. But she felt the gratitude. A fresh helping of booze helped hours pass once again. She and the caretaker split a meal of pump-action love jam and edible underwear. The cellar was in the mid- to low forties, and a rank of candle flame was nothing like fireside. For warmth the two of them spooned—in mutual disinterest, but not without team spirit. They even managed to nod off.

At last the sunrise was on them. So the app on Jessy’s cell told them in the dark, just before the battery crapped out. With a last nerve the door came open, debris kicked past on the flight up. The caretaker heaved up a rafter to clear a space. Both he and Jessy were glad to hear song—bird voices in a dawn chorus—and nothing else.

The new light showed the ruin all around. The Vanderslice house had not only been razed but vivisected, each piece dragged from every other. A catlike care. And every other house on that court had been unmade just so. Not only taken down but spread out, and stinking of a message.

A lease on Nussack had expired. All the sights along the cart path were the same, however slow they walked it. They gave a start at any noise, more brittle than courageous. Nothing but the trees yet stood, each of those without a scuff or even a spray. Doom had been choosy.

At last they reached the line of shops, demoed and stamped down to a single ply. And then the wharf, so-called. Every board along its length had been broken and only tarry pilings were showing whole. Jessy and the caretaker would have gone no closer to the water, not so soon, but a Zodiac boat had tied off close to the peaceful lap. A man was wading through it, come ashore.

They ran down as fast as they could, keeping a fit pace for the swollen ankle. Reek aside, no sign remained of what had come and gone except where the ground was soft. There a code had overwritten the grass and moss—dits and dahs a hundred deep.

The newcomer was a handsome sort, blond and stalwart, with a chin dimple and a lot of mackinaw beneath it. He looked them over, double long on that unhooded gimp suit.

“I am a claims adjuster,” he announced.

And there would have been more, question and answer and even a name to go by, but Jessy batted him aside with a gasp and a freak strength. She had recognized the boat that was coming in off the Squirrel Gut.

The water had gone back to a slaty blue as sediment fell out of it. Soon Jessy would be ashore again, perhaps to relocate far inland. All the whys might be sorted out in time, whatever difference knowing would make. The caretaker had struck up a conversation with the insurance man, and it would take them places, too.

Her friend was hollering at her from the top deck, cheeks wet from the relief. “That’s right, baby, I snitched you out! Never mind omerta! It’s cavalry time!”

“Oh my god! Prudence Hazard, you bitch! I love you! I love you!”

Weeping at each other across a distance that was closing. Jessy was a little more hesitant about the other face she saw, that above the helm of the buoy tender. She felt antsy as she watched him tread ashore, that scowl aglow through bushy beard and eyebrow. She even shut her eyes to brace herself for the palm, the sting. But instead she felt the arms go around her, and a wonder at her father’s grateful sobs.