Rise the Dark

Michael Koryta

Rise the Dark

The second book in the Markus Novak series, 2016

For Michael and Rita Hefron, who introduced me to Montana and always encouraged my writing, and for my father, who kept the lights on, literally and figuratively. Sorry about this one, Dad.

Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.

– Nikola Tesla

The mind of every assassin runs on a narrow-gauge track. But there are no loners. No man lives in a void. His every act is conditioned by his time and his society.

– William Manchester,

The Death of a President

Part One: Echoes

1

The snow had been falling for three days above six thousand feet, but it had been gentle and the lines stayed up. At this point in the season, after a long Montana winter that showed no signs of breaking, Sabrina Baldwin considered that a gift.

Then, on the fourth day, the wind rose.

And the lights blinked.

They were both awake, listening to that howling, shrieking wind. When the omnipresent hum of electrical appliances in the house vanished and the glow of the alarm clock went with it only to return a few seconds later, they both said, “One,” in unison, and laughed.

It was a lesson she’d learned in their first home in Billings, watching the lights take two hard blinks during a storm, Jay explaining that the system would respond to trouble by opening and closing circuits, automatically testing the significance of the fault before shutting things down altogether. You’d get maybe one blink, maybe two, but never three. Not on that system, at least.

In their new home in Red Lodge, the glow and hum of an electrified existence went off once more, then came back on.

“Two,” they said.

Everything was as it should be-the alarm clock blinked, waiting to be reset, but the power stayed on and the furnace came back to life. Sabrina slid her hands over Jay’s chest and arms. For five fleeting seconds, it seemed the system had healed itself, that all would be well, and no one would need to travel out into the storm.

Then the electricity went out again, and they both groaned. The problems of the world outside had just moved inside, announcing themselves through the staggered blinks like knocks on the door.

“The phone will ring now,” Jay said. “Damn it.”

Sabrina shifted her chest onto his and kissed his throat. “Then let’s not waste time.”

They didn’t. The phone rang before they were finished, but they ignored it. She would remember that moment with odd clarity for the rest of her life-the unique silence of the house in the power outage, the cold howling wind working outside, the warmth of her husband’s neck as she pressed her face against it, each of them so lost in the other that even the shrill sound of the phone caused no interruption.

The phone rang again when they were done, and he swore under his breath, kissed her, and then slipped out from under the covers, leaving her alone and still breathless in their bed.

A new bed, new sheets, new everything. She was grateful for the simplicity of Jay’s scent, the only thing that was not new, not different. They’d moved to Red Lodge only two months ago, and while everyone told her she’d appreciate its beauty, she still found the mountains menacing rather than enticing.

When winter finally yielded to spring, her view of the place would improve. She had to believe that. Right now, all she knew was that they’d managed to move somewhere that made Billings seem like a big city, and that wasn’t an easy feat.

She could hear his side of the conversation, providing a strange blend of breaking news and the customary-storms, lines down, substations, circuits. Even the bad pun was familiar: We sure don’t want the hospital to lose patience.

A joke that he’d told, and his father had told, and his grandfather. It gave her a sense of the situation, though. The outages were bad enough that the hospital was running on backup generators. This meant he’d be gone for a while. In weather like this, the repairs were rarely quick fixes. Not in Montana.

She followed him downstairs and brewed coffee while he explained what was going on, his eyes far away. She knew he was thinking of the map and the grid, trying to orient the issues before he rolled out. One of his greatest concerns lately was that he wasn’t familiar enough with the regional grid. In Billings, he’d known every substation, every step-down transformer, probably every insulator.

“It’ll be a long day,” he said. He pulled on his insulated boots while sitting in the kitchen that still felt foreign enough to Sabrina that she often reached for the wrong drawer or opened the wrong cupboard. It was a lovely home, though, with a gorgeous view of the mountains. Or at least, it would be gorgeous in the summer. The windows that Jay loved so much because they looked out at the breathtaking Beartooth Mountains were facing the wrong direction as far as Sabrina was concerned. The worst of the storms blew down out of those mountains, and here they could see them coming. She wished the kitchen windows faced east, catching the sunrise instead of the oncoming storms.

She was so sick of the storms.

Jay, meanwhile, was looking out the windows right now, and damned if he wasn’t smiling. The peaks were invisible, cloaked with low-lying clouds, and the wind rattled a snow-and-ice mixture off the glass.

“Enjoy that snow while you’ve got it,” she said. “This may be the last one of the season.”

“Brett told me that last year they closed the pass in mid-June for fourteen inches.”

“Tremendous.”

She struggled to keep her tone light, to use the good-natured kind of sarcasm, not the biting kind. They’d moved here for her, after all. Had left Billings because Jay was willing to give up the job he loved for her peace of mind. Out there, he’d been a member of a barehanding crew, an elite high-voltage repair team that worked on live lines up in the flash zone, perching like birds on wires pulsing with deadly current. In November, they’d learned just how deadly.

Sabrina had met Jay through her brother, Tim. They’d been coworkers, although that term wasn’t strong enough. They were more like Special Ops team members than colleagues. Every call-out was a mission where death waited. The bonds were different in that kind of work, ran deeper, and her always-protective older brother voiced nothing but approval of Jay. She’d met Jay at a barbecue, had their first date a week later, and were married a year after that. Someone put tiny high-voltage poles next to the bride and groom on their wedding cake, and they assumed that was the extent of the prank. It wasn’t. The miniature lines actually carried a low-voltage current that Tim energized just as Jay went to cut the cake. Jay had jumped nearly a foot in the air, and the rest of the crew fell to the floor laughing.

For several years, that was how it went. Tim and Jay were closer than most brothers. Then came November. A routine call-out. Tim on the line making a simple repair, confident that it wasn’t energized. What he didn’t know was that less than a mile away, someone was firing up a massive gas generator, unwilling to wait on the repairs. The generator, improperly installed, a home-wired job, created a back feed. For an instant, as Tim held the wire in his hands, the harmless line went live again.

He’d died at the top of the pole. Jay had climbed up to bring his body down.

Three weeks after the funeral, Jay told Sabrina he was done with the barehanding work. There was a foreman’s job open in Red Lodge, and taking it meant he’d stay on the ground, always, and she would never have to think of him climbing a pole again, never have to worry about the job claiming her husband as well as her brother.

“Love you,” he said, rising from the table.

She kissed him one last time. “Love you too.”

He went into the garage and she heard his truck start and then she pulled open the front door and stood in the howling wind so she could wave good-bye. He tapped the horn twice, the Road Runner good-bye-beep-beep-and was gone. She shut the door feeling both annoyed and guilty, as she always did when he went out in weather like this, torn between the fear of what waited out there for him and the knowledge that she should be proud of the work he did.

She was proud too. She really was. This winter had been worse than most, that was all. The pain of losing Tim compounded by the tumult of moving-those things were to blame for her discontent, not Red Lodge. The snow would melt and summer would come. The coffee shop she’d owned in Billings wouldn’t have lasted anyhow. The landlord had been ready to sell, Sabrina hadn’t found a good replacement location, and so summer in Billings had loomed ominously. Now summer was promising; she’d already found good real estate for a new location, and she had the peace of knowing that, whatever happened out there today, her husband would stay on the ground.

Red Lodge was a fresh start.

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