Midnight Page 12


At least two men—she presumed they were men, not women were stalking her.


Overhead, in her own stairwell, the unoiled hinges of that door produced a barely audible, protracted rasp and squeal. The other man evidently had tired of waiting for her to make a covering noise.


She could not go into the hallway. They'd trap her between them.


Though she could scream in the hope of calling forth other guests and frightening these men away, she hesitated because she was afraid the motel might be as deserted as it seemed. Her scream might elicit no help, while letting the stalkers know that she was aware of them and that they no longer had to be cautious.


Someone was stealthily descending the stairs above her.


Tessa turned away from the corridor, stepped to the east door, and ran out into the foggy night, along the side of the building, into the parking lot beyond which lay Cypress Lane. Gasping, she sprinted past the front of Cove Lodge to the motel office, which was adjacent to the now closed coffee shop.


The office was open, the doorstep was bathed in a mist-diffused glow of pink and yellow neon, and the man behind the counter was the same one who had registered her hours ago. He was tall and slightly plump, in his fifties, clean-shaven and neatly barbered if a little rumpled looking in brown corduroy slacks and a green and red flannel shirt. He put down a magazine, lowered the volume of the country music on the radio, got up from his spring-backed desk chair, and stood at the counter, frowning at her while she told him, a bit too breathlessly, what had happened.


"Well, this isn't the big city, ma'am," he said when she had finished. "It's a peaceful place, Moonlight Cove. You don't have to worry about that sort of thing here."


"But it happened," she insisted, nervously glancing out at the neon-painted mist that drifted through the darkness beyond the office door and window.


"Oh, I'm sure you saw and heard someone, but you put the wrong spin on it. We do have a couple other guests. That's who you saw and heard, and they were probably just getting a Coke or some ice, like you."


He had a warm, grandfatherly demeanor when he smiled. "This place can seem a little spooky when there aren't many guests."


"Listen, mister …"


"Quinn. Gordon Quinn."


"Listen, Mr. Quinn, it wasn't that way at all." She felt like a skittish and foolish female, though she knew she was no such thing.


"I didn't mistake innocent guests for muggers and rapists. I'm not an hysterical woman. These guys were up to no damn good."


"Well … all right. I think you're wrong, but let's have a look." Quinn came through the gate in the counter, to her side of the office.


"Are you just going like that?" she asked.


"Like what?"


"Unarmed?"


He smiled again. As before, she felt foolish.


"Ma'am," he said, "in twenty-five years of motel management, I haven't yet met a guest I couldn't handle."


Though Quinn's smug, patronizing tone angered Tessa, she did not argue with him but followed him out of the office and through the eddying fog to the far end of the building. He was big, and she was petite, so she felt somewhat like a little kid being escorted back to her room by a father determined to show her that no monster was hiding either under the bed or in the closet.


He opened the metal door through which she had fled the north service stairs, and they went inside. No one waited there.


The soda-vending machine purred, and a faint clinking arose from the ice-maker's laboring mechanism. Her plastic bucket still stood atop the chest, filled with half-moon chips.


Quinn crossed the small space to the door that led to the ground-floor hall, pulled it open.


"Nobody there," he said, nodding toward the silent corridor. He opened the door in the west wall, as well, and looked outside, left and right. He motioned her to the threshold and insisted that she look too.


She saw a narrow, railing-flanked serviceway that paralleled the back of the lodge, between the building and the edge of the bluff, illuminated by a yellowish night-light at each end. Deserted "You said you'd already put your money in the vendor but hadn't got your soda?" Quinn asked, as he let the door swing shut.


"That's right."


"What did you want?"


"Well … Diet Coke."


At the vending machine, he pushed the correct button, and a can rolled into the trough. He handed it to her, pointed at the plastic container that she had brought from her room, and said, "Don't forget your ice."


Carrying the ice bucket and Coke, a hot blush on her cheeks and cold anger in her heart, Tessa followed him up the north stairs. No one lurked there. The unoiled hinges of the upper door squeaked as they went into the second-floor hallway, which was also deserted.


The door to her room was ajar, which was how she left it. She was hesitant to enter.


"Let's check it out," Quinn said.


The small room, closet, and adjoining bath were untenanted.


"Feel better?" he asked.


"I wasn't imagining things."


"I'm sure you weren't," he said, still patronizing her.


As Quinn returned to the hallway, Tessa said, "They were there, and they were real, but I guess they've gone now. Probably ran away when they realized I was aware of them and that I went for help —"


"Well, all's well then," he said. "You're safe. If they're gone, that's almost as good as if they'd never existed in the first place."


Tessa required all of her restraint to avoid saying more than, "Thank you," then she closed the door. On the knob was a lock button, which she depressed. Above the knob was a dead-bolt lock, which she engaged. A brass security chain was also provided; she used it.


She went to the window and examined it to satisfy herself that it couldn't be opened easily by a would-be assailant. Half of it slid to the left when she applied pressure to a latch and pulled, but it could not be opened from outside unless someone broke it and reached through to disengage the lock. Besides, as she was on the second floor, an intruder would need a ladder.


For a while she sat in bed, listening to distant noises in the motel. Now every sound seemed strange and menacing. She wondered what, if any, connection her unsettling experience had with Janice's death more than three weeks ago.


20


After a couple of hours in the storm drain under the sloping meadow, Chrissie Foster was troubled by claustrophobia. She had been locked in the kitchen pantry a great deal longer than she had been in the drain, and the pantry had been smaller, yet the grave-black concrete culvert was by far the worse of the two. Maybe she began to feel caged and smothered because of the cumulative effect of spending all day and most of the evening in cramped places.


From the superhighway far above, where the drainage system began, the heavy roar of trucks echoed down through the tunnels, giving rise in her mind to images of growling dragons. She put her hands over her ears to block out the noise. Sometimes the trucks were widely spaced, but on occasion they came in trains of six or eight or a dozen, and the continuous rumble became oppressive, maddening.


Or maybe her desire to get out of the culvert had something to do with the fact that she was underground. Lying in the dark, listening to the trucks, searching the intervening silences for the return of her parents and Tucker, Chrissie began to feel she was in a concrete coffin, a victim of premature burial.


Reading aloud from the imaginary book of her own adventures, she said, "Little did young Chrissie know that the culvert was about to collapse and fill with earth, squishing her as if she were a bug and trapping her forever."


She knew she should stay where she was. They might still be prowling the meadow and woods in search of her. She was safer in the culvert than out of it.


But she was cursed with a vivid imagination. Although she was no doubt the only occupant of the lightless passageway in which she sprawled, she envisioned unwanted company in countless grisly forms slithering snakes; spiders by the hundreds; cockroaches; rats; colonies of blood-drinking bats. eventual she began to wonder if over the years a child might have crawled into the tunnels to play and, getting lost in the branching culverts, might have died there, undiscovered. His soul, of course, would have remained restless and earthbound, for his death had been unjustly premature and there had been no proper burial service to free his spirit. Now perhaps that ghost, sensing her presence, was animating those hideous skeletal remains, dragging the decomposed and age-dried corpse toward her, scraping off pieces of leathery and half-petrified flesh as it came. Chrissie was eleven years old and level-headed for her age, and she repeatedly told herself that there were no such things as ghosts, but then she thought of her parents and Tucker, who seemed to be some kind of werewolves, for God's sake, and when the big trucks passed on the interstate, she was afraid to cover her ears with her hands for fear that the dead child was using the cover of that noise to creep closer, closer.


She had to get out.


21


When he left the dark garage where he had taken refuge from the pack of drugged-out delinquents (which is what he had to believe they were; he knew no other way to explain them), Sam Booker went straight to Ocean Avenue and stopped in Knight's Bridge Tavern just long enough to buy a six-pack of Guinness Stout to go.


Later, in his room at Cove Lodge, he sat at the small table and drank beer while he pored over the facts of the case. On September 5, three National Farmworkers Union organizers: Julio Bustamante, his sister Maria Bustamante, and Maria's fiance, Ramon Sanchez—were driving south from the wine country, where they had been conducting discussions with vineyard owners about the upcoming harvest. They were in a four-year-old, tan Chevy van. They stopped for dinner in Moonlight Cove. They'd eaten at the Perez Family Restaurant and had drunk too many margaritas (according to witnesses among the waiters and customers at Perezs that night), and on their way back to the interstate, they'd taken a dangerous curve too fast; their van had rolled and caught fire. None of the three had survived.


That story might have held up and the FBI might never have been drawn into the case, but for a few inconsistencies. For one thing, according to the Moonlight Cove police department's official report, Julio Bustamante had been driving. But Julio had never driven a car in his life; furthermore, he was unlikely to do so after dark, for he suffered from a form of night blindness. Furthermore, according to witnesses quoted in the police report, Julio and Maria and Ramon were all intoxicated, but no one who knew Julio or Ramon had ever seen them drunk before; Maria was a lifelong teetotaler.


The Sanchez and Bustamante families, of San Francisco, also were made suspicious by the behavior of the Moonlight Cove authorities. None of them were told of the three deaths until September 10, five days after the accident. Police chief Loman Watkins had explained that Julio's, Maria's, and Ramon's paper IDs had been destroyed in the intense fire and that their bodies had been too completely burned to allow swift identification by fingerprints. What of the van's license plates? Curiously, Loman had not found any on the vehicle or torn loose and lying in the vicinity of the crash. Therefore, with three badly mangled and burned bodies to deal with and no way to locate next of kin on a timely basis, he had authorized the coroner, Dr. Ian Fitzgerald, to fill out death certificates and thereafter dispose of the bodies by cremation.


"We don't have the facilities of a big-city morgue, you understand," Watkins had explained.


"We just can't keep cadavers long term, and we had no way of knowing how much time we'd need to identify these people. We thought they might be itinerants or even illegals, in which case we might never be able to ID them."


Neat, Sam thought grimly, as he leaned back in his chair and took a long swallow of Guinness.


Three people had died violent deaths, been certified victims of an accident, and cremated before their relatives were notified, before any other authorities could step in to verify, through the application of modern forensic medicine, whether the death certificates and police report in fact contained the whole story.


The Bustamantes and Sanchezes were suspicious of foul play, but the National Farmworkers Union was convinced of it. On September 12, the union's president sought the intervention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the grounds that anti-union forces were responsible for the deaths of Bustamante, Bustamante, and Sanchez. Generally, the crime of murder fell into the FBI's jurisdiction only if the suspected killer had crossed state borders either to commit the act, or during its commission, or to escape retribution subsequent to the act; or, as in this case, if federal authorities had reason to believe that murder had been committed as a consequence of the willful violation of the victims' civil rights.


On September 26, after the absurd if standard delays associated with government bureaucracy and the federal judiciary, a team of six FBI agents—including three men from the Scientific Investigation Division—moved into picturesque Moonlight Cove for ten days. They interviewed police officers, examined police and coroner files, took statements from witnesses who were at the Perez Family Restaurant on the night of September 5, sifted through the wreckage of the Chevy van at the junkyard, and sought whatever meager clues might remain at the accident site itself. Because Moonlight Cove had no agricultural industry, they could find no one interested in the farm-union issue let alone angered by it, which left them short of people motivated to kill union organizers.


Throughout their investigation, they received the full and cordial cooperation of the local police and coroner. Loman Watkins and his men went so far as to volunteer to submit to lie-detector tests, which subsequently were administered, and all of them passed without a hint of deception. The coroner also took the tests and proved to be a man of unfailing honesty.


Nevertheless, something about it reeked.


The local officials were almost too eager to cooperate. And all six of the FBI agents came to feel that they were objects of scorn and derision when their backs were turned—though they never saw any of the police so much as raise an eyebrow or smirk or share a knowing look with another local. Call it Bureau Instinct, which Sam knew was at least as reliable as that of any creature in the wild.


Then the other deaths had to be considered.


While investigating the Sanchez-Bustamante case, the agents had reviewed police and coroner records for the past couple of years to ascertain the usual routine with which sudden deaths—accidental and otherwise—were handled in Moonlight Cove, in order to determine if local authorities had dealt with this recent case differently from previous ones, which would be an indication of police complicity in a cover-up. What they discovered was puzzling and disturbing—but not like anything they had expected to find. Except for one spectacular car crash involving a teenage boy in an extensively souped-up Dodge, Moonlight Cove had been a singularly safe place to live. During that time, its residents were untroubled by violent death—until August 28, eight days before the deaths of Sanchez and the Bustamantes, when an unusual series of mortalities began to show up on the public records.

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