From Morgan Llywelyn, the bestselling author of Lion of Ireland and the Irish Century series, comes Drop By Drop her first near-future science fiction thriller
Unbound WorldsThe Best Sci Fi and Fantasy Books of June 2018
In this first book in the Step By Step trilogy, global catastrophe occurs as all plastic mysteriously liquefies. All the small components making many technologies possiblenavigation systems, communications, medical equipmentfail.
In Sycamore River, citizens find their lives disrupted as everything they've depended on melts around them, with sometimes fatal results. All they can rely upon is themselves.
And this is only the beginning . . .
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He awoke with a start in the middle of the night. Night as black and featureless as ink. He lay still, taking a moment to orient himself. All he heard was the ticking of his travel clock on the nightstand and the slight rustle of Egyptian cotton sheets on his naked body when he turned onto his side. Instinct awakened him whenever he was expecting trouble, but this time he'd gone to bed with an easy mind. Another job done, his reward stashed in the false bottom of his suitcase. He should be snoring his head off by now.
Danger prickled his back and shoulders; the sudden flood of adrenaline he thrived on. His lips drew back in a humorless smile. He waited. Five minutes; ten. Nothing happened. He kicked away the covers, swung his long legs off the bed and stood up.
The open window framed a view of the desert beyond. An apron of parched grass separated his hotel from a low brick retaining wall. On the other side of the wall a succession of sand dunes rose in pale waves like a moonlit sea.
Whatever you're looking for isn't out there, he told himself.
So what woke me?
The nearest dune appeared to move. A few grains of sand at the top slid down, followed by more and then more until there was a miniature landslide, as if the dune were being shaken.
He rubbed his eyes.
Damned imagination's running away with me. They say if you're in the desert too long that can happen.
When he closed the window to shut out the cold of the desert night, the illusion of moving sand was replaced by his reflection in the glass. Rumpled black hair, a hawkish nose and clean cut jaw. A man not yet forty, but with weary eyes.
It's time to go home again, Jack.
* * *
Drop by drop, the Change came to Sycamore River. Slowly and quietly in the beginning, not enough to cause a ripple on the placid surface of the town. Few people noticed at first. Change can be like that.
Eleanor Bennett — known to her friends as Nell and to her husband, in private, as Cookie — was already opening her handbag as she approached the Sycamore and Staunton Mercantile Bank on a sweltering summer morning.
The headlines in the newspaper dispenser on the sidewalk reenforced her need for retail therapy.
TERRORISM ON THE INCREASE EXPERTS FORECAST RECORD HEAT CONGRESS DEADLOCKED OVER MILITARY BUDGET
Dear God, thought Nell, does nothing ever change?
The slender woman in the coral-colored sportsuit inserted her bank card in the cash machine, cued in her number and waited for the bills to whisper into the cash drawer. Meanwhile she mentally rehearsed her conversation with the hairdresser at Snips. She was going to ask for a Parisian cut and more highlights in her ash-blonde hair.
Only yesterday her daughter had said, "You look absolutely ancient, Mom. Nobody wears those short skirts anymore."
Jessamyn knew everything; she was sixteen.
Her brother, Colin, a year younger, had joined in with, "Fuck it, Jess, she is ancient. Her hormones've dried up."
Ancient. At thirty-six and a bit. That's what comes of marrying too young.
When Nell discovered she was pregnant with Jessamyn it had been Rob who insisted on marriage. He was ten years older than she was, dynamic and exciting, and his uncontrollable passion was thrilling. She had not anticipated how soon it would fade into indifference.
If they had just lived together it would have been easier to walk away.
There's one thing that changes, Nell told herself. People.
Except me. I'm too stubborn to admit failure.
She awakened from her reverie to realize she had not heard the click of her bank card emerging from the slot. She peered at the machine with its multicolored façade of options; like a slot machine in the arcade, only this one had to pay out.
She punched buttons. Waited a few seconds and punched more buttons. Neither card nor money was forthcoming. The cash machine began making weird noises.
What finally emerged was not a card.
She stared at it in disbelief, then turned to the boy and girl waiting in line behind her. Attractive teenagers wearing matching sweatshirts, concentrating intently on their AllComs. Each had the other on the screen of their personal communicator. The digital conversation between the pair was silent. They were indifferent to her problem and the world at large.
* * *
Mrs. Robert Bennett entered the bank lobby to the staccato accompaniment of high heels that added more pockmarks to those already scarring the imitation teak parquet. The columns supporting the high ceiling were not imitation anything. Solid red marble with acanthus leaf capitals in the Corinthian style, they had been installed about the time the trains first came to Sycamore River. The broad counters were solid oak, polished to a deep gleam by two centuries of transactions sliding across them. Bulletproof windows acknowledged the twenty-first-century need for security.
Cobwebs clung to the corners of the ceiling like lace draperies from a gentler time.
Air-conditioning chilled the lobby. Flower arrangements were strategically placed to brighten the atmosphere, but their perfume had to compete with the aroma of past generations. A faded memory of black broadcloth, celluloid collars and mustache wax; Evening in Paris cologne, cotton wash dresses and home permanents; drip-dry suits, pancake makeup and polyester slacks. Overlying these was the pervasive smell common to all banks, a faintly metallic whiff of concealed anxiety.
The town of Sycamore River considered itself progressive but preferred its largest bank to be traditional. Civic bedrock.
Eleanor Bennett headed for the row of tellers' cages. Gilded bronze and floridly baroque, they were art in their own right. The computer age had made them redundant, but one was still in use for those die-hard customers who insisted on personal attention. A gleaming brass plate below its window identified "Miss Beatrice Fontaine, Chief Teller."
Through the half-open door of the vice president's office Dwayne Nyeberger had observed Eleanor Bennett's arrival. "Married a war hero," he muttered to himself. "Sure she did; homecoming queens like Nell Richmond always marry heroes. Some bastards have all the luck."
Dwayne had a small potbelly and an overbite that should have been corrected in childhood, but his parents could not afford it. Nothing could correct his air of dissatisfaction with life in general. Every hunting season he went out with a supply of weapons, including a high-powered rifle and a formidable shotgun, and took out his ire on anything with fur or feathers.
His wife, Tricia, had been a cheerleader in high school, the plump, pug-nosed girl at the end of the line who couldn't jump as high as the others. She had one undeniable attraction. Patricia Penelope Staunton was the daughter of O. M. Staunton, president of the bank and fourth generation of the founding family. Marrying her had been a calculated move on Dwayne's part and his one big success. She had no brothers. He would be the logical choice to succeed her father in the bank. All he had to do was wait.
Tricia's weight had ballooned during the years she bore five unmanageable sons. So far the oldest Nyeberger boys — Sandy, Kirby and Buster — had avoided being hauled into juvenile court because of their grandfather. Their little brothers, twins Philip and Daniel, more usually referred to as Flub and Dub, showed every indication of following in their footsteps.
"A litter of born criminals," was how O. M. Staunton referred to his grandchildren.
When Nell reached the chief teller's window a man was there before her. The occupant of the cage was patiently enduring his complaints.
Bea Fontaine was a woman in her middle fifties with a full bosom and a ramrod spine. Dark eyebrows contrasted with a braided coronet of silvery hair. Her complexion was the envy of younger women. Although optical technology had made eyeglasses obsolete, she wore spectacles rimmed with gold wire which complemented the décor of the bank.
In her youth Bea had been called handsome. A number of men thought she still was. Her lack of a permanent male partner was one of the town's enduring mysteries.
When Fred Mortenson lost the dispute over the bank statement from his dry cleaning business, he began teasing Bea about her cats. Fred was constitutionally unable to avoid teasing anyone who would allow it.
Bea refused to be ruffled. "Every town should have several town drunks and a lady who rescues cats," she told her would-be tormentor. "Since Ozzie Walsh and Mort Franklin died we just have one town drunk, but I'm still here."
"You and your hundred cats."
"Only seven!" Fred mocked. "Betcha can't name 'em all."
The chief teller recited, "Apollo, Hector, Castor and Pollux — they're twins — Aphrodite, Polydamus — he's a polydactyl, of course — and Plato."
"What kinda names are those?"
Standing behind him, Nell fixed her eyes on his bald spot and chewed her lip. The incident with the bank card had shaken her.
"I'm sorry you lack a classical education, Mr. Mortenson," Bea said as if she meant it. "Now, if you'll excuse me? Mrs. Bennett is waiting." She politely waved him aside.
"Thank you, Miss Fontaine."
"Not at all, Mrs. Bennett. What can I do for you?"
When they met outside the bank they were Bea and Nell, in spite of the twenty years' difference in their ages; their families had been friends for generations. But this was the Sycamore and Staunton. Proprieties must be observed.
Bea Fontaine was one of the bank's chief assets. She understood the proprieties and her air of calm authority was invaluable. As soon as she heard Nell's problem she rang the discreet bell that summoned the vice president.
Hurrying from his office, Dwayne Nyeberger sucked in his stomach and tried to arrange his sharp features into a combination of trustworthy officialdom and boyish charm. "Nell! What a nice surprise."
"Nothing to compare with the surprise I got when your ATM ate my bank card," she said, taking a step backward. She always did when Nyeberger insinuated himself into her personal space.
"What do you mean, it ate your card?"
"Just that. I put my bank card in the slot and it never came out. Nothing came out but sticky ooze!" She realized her voice was getting shrill. "I'm going shopping after I close my office this afternoon and I'll need my bank card. And some cash for the kids. Rob insists they be familiar with real money."
"Very wise of him," Nyeberger echoed on cue. "Wait till I get the keys to the machine and we'll have your problem sorted out in ..."
His words stuck in his throat. He stared toward the windows at the front of the lobby. The bulletproof glass did not distort his view.
A woman with auburn hair brushing her shoulders was walking past the bank. She wore a pale blue toga-and-leggings outfit that concealed more than it revealed. He could not tell if she had high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes, but he had no doubt those eyes were green. Her legs were every bit as long as he remembered. Her undulant walk was unique.
The unforgettable subject of a thousand wet dreams: Lila Ragland.
A decade earlier she had been notorious among a segment of Sycamore River's male population — until the night she disappeared, leaving rumor and wreckage behind.
The night Dwayne Nyeberger's rosy future came crashing down around him.CHAPTER 2
He staggered back until he encountered the reassuring reality of a desk. The color drained from his face.
"What's wrong, Mr. Nyeberger?" asked the chief teller.
"I saw ... I mean ..." He sank lower, resting his buttocks on the desk.
"Are you sick?" When he didn't respond to her question Bea snapped, "Dwayne!" Still no response.
She hurried from her cage. As she passed Nell Bennett she murmured, "Help me, will you?" Nell swung into action. Bracketing Dwayne between them, the two women loosened his tie and fanned his face.
He was embarrassed. Having Nell observe him in a moment of weakness was bad, but not as bad as what he had just seen.
"It's her," he said hoarsely.
Bea leaned closer to him. "What are you talking about?"
He waved a hand in the direction of the front windows. "Lila. She's back." A large vein began throbbing in his temple.
"He's having a heart attack," Nell determined. Someone else's emergency was having a steadying effect on her own nerves.
Bank staff and customers gathered around the stricken man. "Make him bend over and put his head between his knees," said a portly man wearing plaid golf trousers.
"No way," the woman with him contradicted. "With a heart attack they have to lie down."
A bank clerk added, "If he's having a fit, don't let him swallow his tongue."
"It's not a heart attack or a fit," said Bea. "He's just upset. Sit down, Dwayne, you'll be all right in a minute." She steered him to the nearest chair.
"I know what I saw!" He waved toward the windows again. Stabbed the air with his forefinger.
The others turned to look, but by then it was too late. Ordinary people were passing by, going about ordinary business.
Dwayne Nyeberger moaned like an animal in pain. "Lila Ragland's come back to ruin me!"
Nell patted his shoulder. "Ssshhh, it'll be all right."
He responded with an inarticulate croak and flung his arms around her hips.
While Nell was prying him off, two women entered the lobby, paused, looked at each other and left. "What d'you s'pose that's all about?" one asked when they were outside.
"Maybe she just paid off a gigantic mortgage," the other guessed.
Dwayne was taken to his office and given a glass of water. He dutifully drank while wishing for something stronger. Much stronger. In the bottom drawer of his desk was a practically full bottle of single malt, but he didn't want to take it out with Bea Fontaine watching him. The chief teller had strict views on alcohol in the workplace.
What he really needed was ...
No, that was what got him into trouble in the first place. When he was younger. And stupid.
What had Lila said? "It's fairy dust," she had told him, laughing. "Takes your troubles away."
It had for a while.
But sometimes when he least expected it the evil fairies came back.
Dwayne bent over and vomited into his lap.
Nell flinched away to avoid being splattered.
"Go on home," Bea whispered to her, "and we'll take care of him. This has happened before, it's only an hallucination." She squared her shoulders, raised her voice and became the chief teller again. "I'll see that your bank card is replaced, Mrs. Bennett — it'll come to you in the mail — and if you'll stop by the front desk on your way out, Janine will arrange for your cash. Just tell her how much."
When Nell left the bank the heat off the sidewalk hit her like a giant fist. She paused for a moment to catch her breath.
Lila Ragland? Wasn't she the one who ... Nell recalled the headline in The Sycamore Seed. Ten years ago, but not forgotten. The scandal had hit the quiet town like a thunderclap.
LOCAL GIRL FEARED MURDERED
The story had run for weeks. The local newspaper had boosted its circulation dramatically by relating the lurid details of a drug-fueled party on the north side, with everything available from horse tranquilizers to Zee tablets. The police had staged a raid and arrested several men, including the mayor's brother-in-law, but the town's bestknown party girl had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The river was dragged for her body, but it was never found.
Dwayne Nyeberger had been among those questioned, to the embarrassment of his wife and the fury of her father.
Nell had good reason to remember that time. She and Rob had been planning a "second honeymoon" to make up for not taking one after their marriage. She had been too heavily pregnant with Jessamyn when she walked down the aisle. Except there was no aisle, just the registry office, with her mother looking embarrassed and her father assessing Rob's prospects. Two giggling bridesmaids, hastily recruited. A bouquet purchased at the last moment, comprised of lilies that shed pollen all over her not-white maternity outfit.
Three years later, with their two toddlers temporarily lodged with her parents, the locale of their long-delayed trip had become a source of contention. She had wanted to go to Europe — to Paris. For years she had dreamed of honeymooning in Paris.
Over breakfast Rob had announced they were going to Panama City.
Nell set down her coffee cup. "But what about Paris?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Drop by Drop"
Copyright © 2018 Morgan Llywelyn.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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