I jogged through the broken doors and entered the basement floor of the Riffe Tower. Moss was spreading across the marble stairs leading to the foyer. To my right was the locked gate to a little cafeteria; I'd eaten there after I'd been to an art exhibit on the main floor. It wasn't exactly gourmet dining, but I knew the place would have what I needed.

     It took me a couple of minutes of searching for words for "rust" to rot the steel Masterlock enough that I could bash it open with the butt of the shotgun. I heaved the gate out of the way. The kitchen was locked, too, but I was getting better at finding good words for corrosion. The doorknob's comparatively flimsy lock gave after a minute of chanting.

     The kitchen was lit in the red glow from the Exit signs. I set my shotgun down by the door. A white steel medical kit was bolted to the back wall between the grill and one of the prep tables; I opened it and found a roll of gauze and an Ace bandage.

     "Mustard, mustard, where are you mustard ...?" There it was, right below the prep tables. I pulled the huge plastic jar off its shelf and set it on the steel tabletop.

     I heard a roar and frightened shouts upstairs.

     Three firecracker pops of a pistol. Then a loud thumping and shattering glass. The scream of a man in pain.

     Girl, you better hurry, I thought.

     My arm ached, and my palm had gone numb. Maybe Smoky had put a little something special into my wound. Or maybe his cut had damaged a nerve.

     Cooper had shown me how to make a healing poultice out of mustard and onions from our weenie roast fixings when we'd gone swimming at Buckeye Lake and I cut my foot open on a broken bottle. But mustard and onions weren't much use for poison. Would ginger work? Garlic? My memory pinged: basil. People once used basil in poultices to draw out venom. Hindus? Medieval Europeans? My memory failed. No matter.

     I found all my herbs in a cabinet; the powdered garlic was relatively fresh, but the dried basil was sad and stale. I dumped what was left of the tin onto a cutting board, mixed in an equal portion of chopped onions from the refrigerator, a few pinches of dried garlic, and mixed in enough mustard to make a paste. I kneaded the mixture as I spoke the ancient words for health and healing, then pulled up the remains of my tee shirt sleeve and pressed a handful of the paste against the angry wound.

     Pain jagged from the wound down my arm and into my chest. I managed to keep from screaming, kept up my chant as I tried to think cool thoughts, healing thoughts. I visualized the pain and poison leaving my body and my flesh closing beneath my fingers.

     It was done. I pulled my hand away. The wound had knitted into a red seam. It looked like it might not even scar. As a precaution against the wound being pulled open, I wrapped my shoulder in gauze and then the Ace bandage, then flexed my arm. I felt a twinge when I rotated the arm backward, but all things considered the joint felt pretty solid.

     There was a phone bolted to the wall near the door; would I be able to get through to anybody on a land line? I lifted the receiver and put it to my ear. Instead of a dial tone, I heard a hollow, faint roar.

     I jiggled the cradle. "Hello?"

     "I need to get warm." My aunt's voice was thin, barely more than a whisper. "It's so cold in here. Let me warm up inside you. I can slip in through your ear and you'll hardly know I'm there at all--"


     I slammed the receiver back in its cradle, grabbed the shotgun and headed back to the stairway.

     Then stopped.

     The marble steps were completely covered in waving, curling vines and meat-purple fernlike fronds. The vines shuddered and stretched out toward me, yearning for my heat or blood or both.

     I backed off and ran down the corridor to the other set of stairs that led up to the first floor. I jogged up the steps and peeked out around the corner.

     The entire floor between the basement stairway and the entrance to the art gallery was covered in a jungle of undulating fronds. A viney lump twitched in the middle of the floor. The vines shifted and I saw a section of white uniform shirt. A walkie-talkie crackled.

     I forced my gaze from the dying security guard and realized that a half-dozen round pods were growing near his body. They looked like football-sized red grapes. As I stared at the translucent pods, I realized I was seeing tiny embryos like curled eels growing inside. Thick, thorny umbilical vines pulsed between the guard's body and the pods.