Midnight Page 26


"Dobermans?" Tessa asked.


At the laundry Sam had told her that her sister was one of many curious suicides and accidental deaths, but he had not gone into any details about the others. Now he quickly told her about Parkins.


"Not her own dogs," Tessa agreed. "She was savaged by whatever killed Armes. And the people tonight at Cove Lodge."


This was the first that Harry Talbot had heard about the murders at Cove Lodge. Sam had to explain about that and about how he and Tessa had met at the laundry.


A strange expression settled on Harry's prematurely aged face. To Tessa, he said, "Uh … you didn't see these things at the motel? Not even a glimpse?"


"Only the foot of one of them, through the crack under the door."


Harry started to speak, stopped, and sat in thoughtful silence.


He knows something, Sam thought. More than we do.


For some reason Harry was not ready to share what he knew, for he returned his scrutiny to the notebook on his lap and said, "Two days after Paula Parkins died, there was one body taken to Callan's, around nine-thirty at night."


"That would be September eleventh?" Sam asked.


"Yes."


"There's no record of a death certificate issued that day."


"Nothing about it in the paper, either."


"Go on."


Harry said, "September fifteenth—"


"Steve Heinz, Laura Dalcoe. He supposedly killed her, then took his own life," Sam said. "Lovers' quarrel, we're to believe."


"Another quick cremation," Harry noted. "And three nights later, on the eighteenth, two more bodies delivered to Callan's shortly after one in the morning, just as I was about to go to bed."


"No public record of those, either," Sam said.


"Two more out-of-towners who drove off the interstate for a visit or just dinner?" Tessa wondered. "Or maybe someone from another part of the county, passing on the county road along the edge of town?"


"Could even have been locals," Harry said. "I mean, there're always a few people around who haven't lived here a long time, newcomers who rent instead of own their houses, don't have many ties to the community, so if you wanted to cover their murders, you could maybe concoct an acceptable story about them moving away suddenly, for a new job, whatever, and their neighbors might buy it."


If their neighbors weren't already "converted" and participating in the cover-up, Sam thought.


"Then September twenty-third," Harry said. "That would have been your sister's body, Tessa."


"Yes."


"By then I knew I had to tell someone what I'd seen. Someone in authority. But who? I didn't trust anyone local because I'd watched the cops bring in some of those bodies that were never reported in the newspaper. County Sheriff. He'd believe Watkins before he'd believe me, wouldn't he? Hell, everyone thinks a cripple is a little strange anyway—strange in the head, I mean—they equate physical disabilities with mental disabilities at least a little, at least subconsciously. So they'd be predisposed not to believe me. And admittedly it is a wild story, all these bodies, secret cremations… ." He paused. His face clouded. "The fact that I'm a decorated veteran wouldn't have made me any more believable. That was a long time ago, ancient history for some of them. In fact … no doubt they'd hold the war against me in a way. Post-Vietnam stress syndrome, they'd call it. Poor old Harry finally went crackers—don't you see?—from the war."


Thus far Harry had been speaking matter-of-factly, without much emotion. But the words he had just spoken were like a piece of glass held against the surface of a rippled pool, revealing realms below—in his case, realms of pain, loneliness, and alienation.


Now emotion not only entered his voice but, a few times, made it crack "And I've got to say, part of the reason I didn't try to tell anyone what I'd seen was because … I was afraid. I didn't know what the hell was going on. I couldn't be sure how big the stakes were. I didn't know if they'd silence me, feed me to the furnace at Callan's one night. You'd think that having lost so much I'd be reckless now, unconcerned about losing more, about dying, but that's not the way it is, not at all. Life's probably more precious to me than to men who're whole and healthy. This broken body slowed me down so much that I've spent the last twenty years out of the whirl of activity in which most of you exist, and I've had time to really see the world, the beauty and intricacy of it. In the end my disabilities have led me to appreciate and love life more. So I was afraid they'd come for me, kill me, and I hesitated to tell anyone what I'd seen. God help me, if I'd spoken out, if I'd gotten in touch with the Bureau sooner, maybe some people might have been saved. Maybe … your sister would've been saved."


"Don't even think of that," Tessa said at once. "If you'd done anything differently, no doubt you'd be ashes now, scraped out of the bottom of Callan's furnace and thrown in the sea. My sister's fate was sealed. You couldn't unseal it."


Harry nodded, then switched off the penlight, plunging the room into deeper darkness, though he had not yet finished going through the information in his notebook. Sam suspected that Tessa's unhesitating generosity of spirit had brought tears to Harry's eyes and that he did not want them to see.


"On the twenty-fifth," he continued, not needing to consult the notebook for details, "one body was brought to Callan's at ten-fifteen at night. Weird, too, because it didn't come in either an ambulance or hearse or police car. It was brought by Loman Watkins—"


"Chief of police," Sam said for Tessa's benefit.


"—but he was in his private car, out of uniform," Harry said. "They took the body out of his trunk. It was wrapped in a blanket. The blinds weren't shut at their windows that night, either, and I was able to get in tight with the scope. I didn't recognize the body, but I did recognize the condition of it—the same as Armes."


"Torn?" Sam asked.


"Yes. Then the Bureau did come to town on the Sanchez Bustamante thing, and when I read about it in the newspaper, I was so relieved because I thought it was all going to come out in the open at last, that we'd have revelations, explanations. But then there were two more bodies disposed of at Callan's on the night of October fourth—"


"Our team was in town then," Sam said, "in the middle of their investigation. They didn't realize any death certificates were filed during that time. You're saying this happened under their noses?"


"Yeah. I don't have to look in the notebook; I remember it clearly. The bodies were brought around in Reese Dorn's camper truck. He's a local cop, but he was out of uniform that night. They hauled the stiffs into Callan's, and the blind at one window was open, so I saw them shove both bodies into the crematorium together, as if they were in a real sweat to dispose of them. And there was more activity at Callan's late on the night of the seventh, but the fog was so thick, I can't swear that it was more bodies being taken in. And finally … earlier tonight. A child's body. A small child."


"Plus the two who were killed at Cove Lodge," Tessa said. "That makes twenty-two victims, not the twelve that brought Sam here. This town's become a slaughterhouse."


"Could be even more than we think," Harry said.


"How so?"


"Well, after all, I don't watch the place every evening, all evening long. And I go to bed by one-thirty, no later than two. Who's to say there weren't visits I missed, that more bodies weren't brought in during the dead hours of the night?" Brooding about that, Sam looked through the eyepiece again. The rear of Callan's remained dark and still. He slowly moved the scope to the right, shifting the field of vision northward through the neighborhood.


Tessa said, "But why were they killed?"


No one had an answer.


"And by what?" she asked.


Sam studied a cemetery farther north on conquistador, then sighed and looked up and told them about his experience earlier in the night, on Iceberry Way. "I thought they were kids, delinquents, but now what I think is that they were the same things that killed the people at Cove Lodge, the same as the one whose foot you saw through the crack under the door."


He could almost feel Tessa frowning with frustration in the darkness when she said, "But what are they?"


Harry Talbot hesitated. Then: "Boogeymen."


52


Not daring to use sirens, dousing headlights on the last quarter mile of the approach, Loman came down on Mike Peyser's place at three-ten in the morning, with two cars, five deputies, and shotguns. Loman hoped they did not have to use the guns for more than intimidation. In their only previous encounter with a regressive—Jordan Coombs on the fourth of September—they had not been prepared for its ferocity and had been forced to blow its head off to save their own lives. Shaddack had been left with only a carcass to examine. He'd been furious at the lost chance to delve into the psychology—and the functioning physiology—of one of these metamorphic psychopaths. A tranquilizer gun would be of little use, unfortunately, because regressives were New People gone bad, and all New People, regressive or not, had radically altered metabolisms that not only allowed for magically fast healing but for the rapid absorption, breakdown, and rejection of toxic substances like poison or tranquilizers. The only way to sedate a regressive would be to get him to agree to be put on a continuous IV drip, which wasn't very damn likely.


Mike Peyser's house was a one-story bungalow with front and rear porches on the west and east sides respectively, nicely maintained, on an acre and a half, sheltered by a few huge sweet gums that had not yet lost their leaves. No lights shone at the windows.


Loman sent one man to watch the north side, another the south, to prevent Peyser from escaping through a window. He stationed a third man at the foot of the front porch to cover that door. With the other two men—Sholnick and Penniworth—he circled to the rear of the place and quietly climbed the steps to the back porch.


Now that the fog had been blown away, visibility was good. But the huffing and swirreling wind was a white noise that blocked out other sounds they might need to hear while stalking Peyser.


Penniworth stood against the wall of the house to the left of the door, and Sholnick stood to the right. Both carried semiautomatic 20-gauge shotguns.


Loman tried the door. It was unlocked. He pushed it open and stepped back.


His deputies entered the dark kitchen, one after the other, their shotguns lowered and ready to fire, though they were aware that the objective was to take Peyser alive if at all possible. But they were not going to sacrifice themselves just to bring the living beast to Shaddack. A moment later one of them found a light switch.


Carrying a 12-gauge of his own, Loman went into the house after them. Empty bowls, broken dishes, and dirty Tupperware containers were scattered on the floor, as were a few rigatoni red with tomato sauce, half of a meatball, eggshells, a chunk of pie crust, and other bits of food. One of the four wooden chairs from the breakfast set was lying on its side; another had been hammered to pieces against a counter top, cracking some of the ceramic tiles.


Straight ahead, an archway led into a dining room. Some of the spill-through light from the kitchen vaguely illuminated the table and chairs in there.


To the left, beside the refrigerator, was a door. Barry Sholnick opened it defensively. Shelves of canned goods flanked a landing. Stairs led down to the basement.


"We'll check that later," Loman said softly.


"After we've gone through the house."


Sholnick soundlessly snatched a chair from the breakfast set and braced the door shut so nothing could come up from the cellar and creep in behind them after they went into other rooms.


They stood for a moment, listening.


Gusting wind slammed against the house. A window rattled. From the attic above came the creaking of rafters, and from higher still the muffled clatter of a loose cedar shingle on the roof.


His deputies looked at Loman for guidance. Penniworth was only twenty-five, could pass for eighteen, and had a face so fresh and guileless that he looked more like a door-to-door peddler of religious tracts than a cop. Sholnick was ten years older and had a harder edge to him.


Loman motioned them toward the dining room.


They entered, turning the lights on as they went. The dining room was deserted, so they moved cautiously into the living room.


Penniworth clicked a wall switch that turned on a chrome and brass lamp, which was one of the few items not broken or torn apart. The cushions on the sofa and chairs had been slashed; wads of foam padding, like clumps of a poisonous fungus, lay everywhere. Books had been pulled from shelves and ripped to pieces. A ceramic lamp, a couple of vases, and the glass top of a coffee table were shattered. The doors had been torn off the cabinet-style television set, and the screen had been smashed. Blind rage and savage strength had been at work here.


The room smelled strongly of urine … and of something else less pungent and less familiar. It was, perhaps, the scent of the creature responsible for the wreckage. Part of that subtler stink was the sour odor of perspiration, but something stranger was in it, too, something that simultaneously turned Loman's stomach and tightened it with fear.


To the left, a hallway led back to the bedrooms and baths. Loman kept it covered with his shotgun.


The deputies went into the foyer, which was connected to the living room by a wide archway. A closet was on the right, just inside the front door. Sholnick stood in front of it, his 20-gauge lowered. From the side Penniworth jerked open the door. The closet contained only coats.


The easy part of the search was behind them. Ahead lay the narrow hall with three doors off it, one half open and two ajar, dark rooms beyond. There was less space in which to maneuver, more places from which an assailant might attack.


Night wind soughed in the eaves. It fluted across a rain gutter, producing a low, mournful note.


Loman had never been the kind of leader who sent his men ahead into danger while he stayed back in a position of safety. Although he had shed pride and self-respect and a sense of duty along with most other Old People attitudes and emotions, duty was still a habit with him—in fact, less conscious than a habit, more like a reflex—and he operated as he would have done before the Change. He entered the hall first, where two doors waited on the left and one on the right. He moved swiftly to the end, to the second door on the left, which was half open; he kicked it inward, and in the light from the hall he saw a small, deserted bathroom before the door bounced off the wall and swung shut again.

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