Midnight Page 11


Those were the two beverages that the dog had been taught to fetch, and for the most part the good pooch recognized the difference between the words "beer" and "Coke," and was able to keep the command in mind all the way to the kitchen. On rare occasions he forgot along the way and returned with the wrong drink. Rarer still, he brought odd items that had nothing to do with the command he'd been given: a slipper; a newspaper; twice, an unopened bag of dog biscuits; once, a hardboiled egg, carried so gently that the shell was not cracked between his teeth; strangest of all, a toilet-bowl brush from the housekeeper's supplies. When he brought the wrong item, Moose always proved successful on second try.


Long ago Harry had decided that the pooch often was not mistaken but only having fun with him. His close association with Moose had convinced him that dogs were gifted with a sense of humor.


This time, neither mistaken nor joking, Moose had brought what he'd been asked to bring. Harry grew thirstier at the sight of the can of Coors.


Switching off the penlight, he said, "Good boy. Good, good, gooood dog."


Moose whined happily. He sat at attention in the darkness at the foot of the stool, waiting to be sent on another errand.


"Go, Moose. Lie down. That's a good dog."


Disappointed, the Lab moseyed into the corner and curled up on the floor, while his master popped the tab on the beer and took a long swallow.


Harry set the Coors aside and pulled the telescope in front of him. He returned to his scrutiny of the night, the neighborhood, and his extended family.


The Gosdales and Kaisers were still playing cards.


Nothing but eddying fog moved at Callan's Funeral Home.


One block south on Conquistador, at the moment illuminated by the walkway lamps at the Stemback house, Ray Chang, the owner of the town's only television and electronics store, was coming this way. He was walking his dog, Jack, a golden retriever. They moved at a leisurely pace, as Jack sniffed each tree along the sidewalk, searching for just the right one on which to relieve himself.


The tranquillity and familiarity of those scenes pleased Harry, but the mood was shattered abruptly when he shifted his attention through his north window to the Simpson place. Ella and Denver Simpson lived in a cream-colored, tile-roofed Spanish house on the other side of Conquistador and two blocks north, just beyond the old Catholic cemetery and one block this side of Ocean Avenue. Because nothing in the graveyard—except part of one tree—obstructed Harry's view of the Simpsons' property, he was able to get an angled but tight focus on all the windows on two sides of the house. He drew in on the lighted kitchen. Just as the image in the eyepiece resolved from a blur to a sharp-lined picture, he saw Ella Simpson struggling with her husband, who was pressing her against the refrigerator; she was twisting in his grasp, clawing at his face, screaming.


A shiver sputtered the length of Harry's shrapnel-damaged spine.


He knew at once that what was happening at the Simpsons' house was connected with other disturbing things he had seen lately. Denver was Moonlight Cove's postmaster, and Ella operated a successful beauty parlor. They were in their midthirties, one of the few local black couples, and as far as Harry knew, they were happily married. Their physical conflict was so out of character that it had to be related to the recent inexplicable and ominous events that Harry had witnessed.


Ella wrenched free of Denver. She took only one twisting step away from him before he swung a fist at her. The blow caught her on the side of the neck. She went down. Hard.


In the corner of Harry's bedroom, Moose detected the new tension in his master. The dog raised his head and chuffed once, twice.


Bent forward on his stool, riveted to the eyepiece, Harry saw two men step forward from a part of the Simpson kitchen that was out of line with the window. Though they were not in uniform, he recognized them as Moonlight Cove police officers Paul Hawthorne and Reese Dorn. Their presence confirmed Harry's intuitive sense that this incident was part of the bizarre pattern of violence and conspiracy of which he had become increasingly aware during the past several weeks. Not for the first time, he wished to God he could figure out what was going on in his once serene little town. Hawthorne and Dorn plucked Ella off the floor and held her firmly between them. She appeared to be only half conscious, dazed by the punch her husband had thrown.


Denver was speaking to Hawthorne, Dorn, or his wife. Impossible to tell which. His face was contorted with rage of such intensity that Harry was chilled by it.


A third man stepped into sight, moving straight to the windows to close the Levolor blinds. A thicker vein of fog flowed eastward from the sea, clouding the view, but Harry recognized this man too Dr. Ian Fitzgerald, the oldest of Moonlight Cove's three physicians. He had maintained a family practice in town for almost thirty years and had long been known affectionately as Doc Fitz. He was Harry's own doctor, an unfailingly warm and concerned man, but at the moment he looked colder than an iceberg. As the slats of the Levolor blind came together, Harry stared into Doc Fitzs face and saw a hardness of features and a fierceness in the eyes that weren't characteristic of the man; thanks to the telescope, Harry seemed to be only a foot from the old physician, and what he saw was a familiar face but, simultaneously, that of a total stranger.


Unable to peer into the kitchen any longer, he pulled back for a wider view of the house. He was pressing too hard against the eyepiece; dull pain radiated outward from the socket, across his face. He cursed the curdling fog but tried to relax.


Moose whined inquisitively.


After a minute, a light came on in the room at the southeast corner of the second floor of the Simpson house. Harry immediately zoomed in on a window. The master bedroom. In spite of the occluding fog, he saw Hawthorne and Dorn bring Ella in from the upstairs hall. They threw her onto the quilted blue spread on the queen-size bed.


Denver and Doc Fitz entered the room behind them. The doctor put his black leather bag on a nightstand. Denver drew the drapes at the front window that looked out on Conquistador Avenue, then came to the graveyard-side window on which Harry was focused. For a moment Denver stared out into the night, and Harry had the eerie feeling that the man saw him, though they were two blocks away, as if Denver had the vision of Superman, a built-in biological telescope of his own. The same sensation had gripped Harry on other occasions, when he was "eye-to-eye" with people this way, long before odd things had begun to happen in Moonlight Cove, so he knew that Denver was not actually aware of him. He was spooked nonetheless. Then the postmaster pulled those curtains shut, as well, though not as tightly as he should have done, leaving a two-inch gap between the panels.


Trembling now, damp with cold perspiration, Harry worked with a series of eyepieces, adjusting the power on the scope and trying to sharpen the focus, until he had pulled in so close to the window that the lens was filled by the narrow slot between the drapes. He seemed to be not merely at the window but beyond it, standing in that master bedroom, behind the drapes.


The denser scarves of fog slipped eastward, and a thinner veil floated in from the sea, further improving Harry's view. Hawthorne and Dorn were holding Ella Simpson on the bed. She was thrashing, but they had her by the legs and arms, and she was no match for them.


Denver held his wife's face by the chin and stuffed a wadded handkerchief or piece of white clothing into her mouth, gagging her.


Harry had a brief glimpse of the woman's face as she struggled with her assailants. Her eyes were wide with terror.


"Oh, shit."


Moose got up and came to him.


In the Simpsons' house, Ella's valiant struggle had caused her skirt to ride up. Her pale yellow panties were exposed. Buttons had popped open on her green blouse. In spite of that, the scene conveyed no feeling that rape was imminent, not even a hint of sexual tension. Whatever they were doing to her was perhaps even more menacing and cruel—and certainly stranger—than rape.


Doc Fitz stepped to the foot of the bed, blocking Harry's view of Ella and her oppressors. The physician held a bottle of amber fluid, from which he was filling a hypodermic syringe.


The were giving Ella an injection.


But of what?


And why?


19


After talking with her mother in San Diego, Tessa Lockland sat on her motel bed and watched a nature documentary on PBS. Aloud, she critiqued the camera work, the composition of shots, lighting, editing techniques, scripted narration, and other aspects of the production, until she abruptly realized she sounded foolish talking to herself. Then she mocked herself by imitating various television movie critics, commenting on the documentary in each of their styles, which turned out to be dull because most TV critics were pompous in one way or another, with the exception of Roger Ebert. Nevertheless, although having fun, Tessa was talking to herself, which was too eccentric even for a nonconformist who had reached the age of thirty-three without ever having to take a nine-to-five job. Visiting the scene of her sister's "suicide" had made her edgy. She was seeking comic relief from that grim pilgrimage. But at certain times, in certain places, even the irrepressible Lockland buoyancy was inappropriate.


She clicked off the television and retrieved the empty plastic ice bucket from the bureau. Leaving the door to her room ajar, taking only some coins, she headed toward the south end of the second floor to the ice-maker and soda-vending machine.


Tessa had always prided herself on avoiding the nine-to-five grind. Absurdly proud, actually, considering that she often put in twelve and fourteen hours a day instead of eight, and was a tougher boss than any she could have worked for in a routine job. Her income was nothing to preen about, either. She had enjoyed a few flush years, when she could not have stopped making money if she'd tried, but they were far outnumbered by the years in which she had earned little more than a subsistence living. Averaging her income for the twelve years since she had finished film school, she'd recently calculated that her annual earnings were around twenty-one thousand, though that figure would be drastically readjusted downward if she did not have another boom year soon.


Though she was not rich, though free-lance documentary filmmaking offered no security to speak of, she felt like a success, and not just because her work generally had been well received by the critics and not only because she was blessed with the Lockland disposition toward optimism. She felt successful because she had always been resistant to authority and had found, in her work, a way to be the master of her own destiny.


At the end of the long corridor, she pushed through a heavy fire door and stepped onto a landing, where the ice-maker and soda cooler stood to the left of the head of the stairs. Well stocked with cola, root beer, Orange Crush, and 7-Up, the tall vending machine was humming softly, but the ice-maker was broken and empty. She would have to fill up her bucket at the machine on the ground floor. She descended the stairs, her footsteps echoing off the concrete-block walls. The sound was so hollow and cold that she might have been in a vast pyramid or some other ancient structure, alone but for the companionship of unseen spirits.


At the foot of the stairs, she found no soda or ice machines, but a sign on the wall indicated that the ground-floor refreshment center was at the north end of the motel. By the time she got her ice and Coke, she would have walked off enough calories to deserve a regular, sugar-packed cola instead of a diet drink.


As she reached for the handle of the fire door that led to the ground-floor corridor, she thought she heard the upper door open at the head of the stairs. If so, it was the first indication she'd had, since checking in, that she was not the only guest in the motel. The place had an abandoned air.


She went through the fire door and found that the lower corridor was carpeted in the same hideous orange nylon as was the upper hall. The decorator had a clown's taste for bright colors. It made her squint.


She would have preferred to be a more successful filmmaker, if only because she could have afforded lodgings that did not assault the senses. Of course, this was the only motel in Moonlight Cove, so even wealth could not have saved her from that eye-blistering orange glare. By the time she walked to the end of the hall, pushed through another fire door, and stepped into the bottom of the north stairwell, the sight of gray concrete block walls and concrete steps was positively restful and appealing.


There, the ice-maker was working. She slid open the top of the chest and dipped the plastic bucket into the deep bin, filling it with half-moon pieces of ice. She set the full bucket atop the machine. As she closed the chest, she heard the door at the head of the stairs open with a faint but protracted squeak of hinges.


She stepped to the soda vendor to get her Coke, expecting someone to descend from the second floor. Only as she dropped a third quarter into the slot did she realize something was sneaky about the way the overhead door opened the long, slow squeak … as if someone knew the hinges were unoiled, and was trying to minimize the noise.


With one finger poised over the Diet Coke selection button, Tessa hesitated, listening.


Nothing.


Cool concrete silence.


She felt exactly as she had felt on the beach earlier in the evening, when she had heard that strange and distant cry. Now, as then, her flesh prickled.


She had the crazy notion that someone was on the landing above, holding the fire door open now that he had come through it. He was waiting for her to push the button, so the squeak of the upper door's hinges would be covered by the clatter-thump of the can rolling into the dispensing trough.


Many modern women, conscious of the need to be tough in a tough world, would have been embarrassed by such apprehension and would have shrugged off the intuitive chill. But Tessa knew herself well. She was not given to hysteria or paranoia, so she did not wonder for a moment if Janice's death had left her overly sensitive, did not doubt her mental image of a hostile presence at the upper landing, out of sight around the turn.


Three doors led from the bottom of that concrete shaft. The first was in the south wall, through which she had come and through which she could return to the ground-floor corridor. The second was in the west wall, which opened to the back of the motel, where a narrow walk or service passage evidently lay between the building and the edge of the sea-facing bluff, and the third was in the east wall, through which she probably could reach the parking lot in front of the motel. Instead of pushing the vendor button to get her Coke, leaving her full ice bucket as well, she stepped quickly and quietly to the south door and pulled it open.


She glimpsed movement at the distant end of the ground-floor hall. Someone ducked back through that other fire door into the south stairwell. She didn't see much of him, only his shadowy form, for he had not been on the orange carpet in the corridor itself but at the far threshold, and therefore able to slip out of sight in a second. The door eased shut in his wake.

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