The first blast came at dawn on February 8, 1945. Two men died in that instant. Everyone else was already dead.
Other blasts followed. The windows of the central building of the huge complex blew out, and smoke billowed through the empty frames. A few minutes later, the windows in the wings of the complex shattered. The metal door of the main building began to melt within thirty minutes. Another thirty minutes, and the roof collapsed. Flames and embers shot high into the dry mountain air.
The fire raged on, consuming the building and the dead. It melted the equipment those people had put together and tested so painstakingly. It ate wood and flesh indiscriminately.
Twenty-four hours later, a man and a woman appeared in the smoking rubble.
They stared in bewilderment at the remnants of the machinery they remembered so well. In front of the shattered machinery lay the upper half of a body. He had been a large, blond man. His face was undamaged and unfamiliar.
The man who had just arrived brushed his shoe across the ashes beneath his feet, exposing part of a yellow circle.
"Why is it now?" he asked.
"Come on," the woman said.
They made their way through the ruins, moving clumsily in their heavy coats. The remaining heat kept them out of some areas. The charred floor sagged and creaked under them. Remnants of walls collapsed suddenly.
Hours passed. They found bodies, some burned to charcoal but some untouched by the fire. They were all dead -- of slit throats or bullets in the forehead. They saw no sign of the two people they were looking for.
"He wouldn't be here," the woman said. "He left when we did. We know that."
"But what about her?" the man said in despair.
"I don't think she's here." She said that to encourage him, not because she believed it. "Come on."
It was noon now, but bitterly cold, and yet they were sweating inside their coats. For a moment, they stood looking up at the cracked face of the sandstone cliff. Then finally they turned and walked away.
The fire had changed them already and would change them again. It extended its effects beyond its own brief life, far into the future, changing men and women and their lives and loves forever.
Eight years earlier and two thousand miles away, a dark-haired woman and her blonde daughter walked carefully along a country road in southern Michigan. The light was fading, catching the tops of the trees and the brilliant colors of autumn. The road itself was almost dark. They couldn't see the patches of ice, but they knew they were there.
Across the road, invisible in the darkness between the trees, a man watched them.
Absorbed in her thoughts, the younger woman drew further ahead of the older one. The watcher frowned. He had expected them to stay close together. This might be a complication.
The mother called out, "Dolores! ¡Espérame!"
The girl stopped and turned around. "Sorry, Mom. I was thinking about that job."
"Good. You should."
The girl laughed. She waited while her mother caught up with her.
Right next to each other, the watcher thought. That's good.
The headlights of a car swept across him. He threw his hand up to shade his eyes and stepped further back among the trees. He couldn't let anyone see him. He couldn't imagine what the boss would do if anything went wrong.
The car roared around a curve, coming from behind the two women. It was upon them before they were aware of the car or the driver of them.
The watcher held his breath. Perfect.
Mother and daughter stood frozen in shock, caught in the lights, as the car rushed toward them.
The driver seemed to be just as frozen. At the last moment, the car swerved toward the middle of the road.
The watcher willed the car toward the mother and daughter. Hit them! Hit them!
The driver almost made it past the two. But the big rear right fender caught the mother on the hip and threw her against her daughter. They fell heavily to the ground and lay still.
The car skidded to a stop. The driver jumped from it and ran up to the two still figures. In the fading light, the watcher could tell that the driver was a well-dressed man. He couldn't see the man's face, but he read shock in the body language.
"Oh, God!" the driver said. "Oh, my God!"
He stood over the two bodies for a long time, hesitating. Then suddenly he turned and ran back to his car and sped off.
"About time," the watcher muttered.
All he had to do now was drag the girl's body into the woods, far enough from the road so that it wouldn't be found. Nature would do the rest.
He walked quickly across the road. From close up, he could see that the mother was lying on her side. Her eyes were open and unmoving, and her skull was misshapen. Blood pooled under her.
He turned to the girl. Fortunately, she had landed on her back. He bent down and slid his hands under her back and into her armpits and started to pull her toward the edge of the road. She didn't weigh much. That was good. There didn't seem to be any blood under her, which was also good. Pretty thing, he thought, looking down at her face. Too bad.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, confused. "Mama?"
He jumped back, letting her shoulders and head fall to the ground. "Shit! I thought you were dead!"
She struggled to sit up and managed at last. She held her arms wrapped tightly around herself. "Where's my mother? Who're you?"
"She's back there."
"Mama!" She was shouting, trying to get up, looking back at the still, dark figure in the road. "Mama!"
"Listen, Dolores. It's okay. My name's Hank. I'm going to take care of you. It'll be okay."
Except that it wouldn't be. This was a disaster. It wasn't supposed to happen like this at all, and the boss would be furious in that quiet, terrifying way of his.
The girl was dragging herself along the road, trying to crawl to her mother. She was whimpering. She kept one arm tightly against her middle.
Probably has internal injuries, Hank thought. She won't make it, anyway.
But he couldn't bet on that.
He sighed and shook his head. I hate shit like this, he thought. He reached inside his shirt and drew the knife from the sheath strapped against his chest. He stepped over to the crying girl and slit her throat.
He waited till she had stopped moving and then, trying to avoid all the fresh blood, grasped the back of her shirt collar and dragged her into the woods, far enough that he was sure she wouldn't be found.
He told himself that the fresh blood was good. It would attract animals all the faster.
He felt sick.
I need a drink, he thought. Gotta get my car and go back to town and find a bar or something.
He pressed a spot behind his ear. "It's Morrison," he said. "No more Dolores."
There were tough years ahead. There'd be more work like this. Eventually, in the future, there'd be a reward.