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4.


Manhattan. 10:36 A.M.

Marilyn Keep was a copy editor for GrantTempo Publications. She was attached to GrantQuasar, the historical novel division. Her husband was an account executive for Bradley amp; Boone, a rising securities firm. They had a comfortable, but not lush, two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, just off Central Park West. Marilyn was twenty-nine years old, had been married four years, and wanted more than anything else to get pregnant. When we're in a little better shape financially, Larry had been saying.

She worked at home. Her assignments arrived every other Wednesday toward the end of the afternoon. Currently she was trying to get through Shadow of the Betrayer, a murder mystery set in the court of Charles XII of Sweden. Although she enjoyed her job, and liked reading historical novels, she could not appreciate the subtleties of GrantQuasar titles in the same way as those she might casually pick up in a bookstore. She was too caught up in detail for that, ensuring that eye colors and speech patterns stayed consistent, assembling time lines, running down anachronisms. What she did was more technical than literary. She knew that, of course. But she did her job well, and she'd saved more than one high-priced writer from a red face. Although nobody seemed to appreciate her efforts.

Ordinarily she worked against a background of nativist stereo music, the kind of stuff that sounded like mountain streams and windblown forests set to drums and chants. But that day the drums and chants had given way to CNN, which murmured contentedly in the background. While she imposed her magic, her subconscious listened for words like comet or falling rock or possible tidal waves.

There was almost nothing else on except reaction to the coming collision. Was New York safe? a host was asking a needle-nosed man. Was there a coverup?

The needle-nosed man thought there was.

A woman on one of the talk shows originating in Los Angeles, in a voice just this side of hysteria, proclaimed that everyone near the Pacific was going to die. She was not an expert, merely someone in a studio audience, but her fear so unnerved Marilyn that she called Bradley amp; Boone to ask Larry whether they shouldn't think about getting out for a few days.

"Everything seems normal," Larry said maddeningly.

She looked out the window. The streets were certainly normal, which is to say, jammed with commercial traffic. (Private vehicles had been prohibited from coming into the city in 2010.)

"I think we ought to get away until it's over," she said.

She could hear him breathing on the phone. In fact, she could see him staring at the instrument with that look he got when he concluded once again that he'd married an alarmist. "Why don't we talk about it tonight?"

"I'm not sure we should wait to talk about it tonight. If we're going to get out of town, maybe we should do it while there are still airline tickets available."

"Oh, come on, Marilyn." He sounded annoyed, as if this were somehow her fault. "We can't just take off in the middle of the week and go run into the woods. We don't have the money for something like that. And anyhow, I've got commitments here. I'm not able to just walk out the door because everybody's getting excited about a comet."

"It's not the middle of the week. It's Thursday."

"Shoot me. I missed by a day."

"They're saying New York might get hit by tidal waves."

"Marilyn, listen to yourself. The city's going to be here next week, just like it always is. But I tell you what: Get tickets for tomorrow night. Where do you want to go?"

She didn't care. As long as it was higher ground.

"Try Columbus," he said, his voice suggesting that she had panicked, but that it was all right, he'd go along with it. "We can stay with my folks."

She called TransWorld. They were booked through the weekend. So was every other airline at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark.

So was Amtrak.



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