Midnight Page 4


They passed safely wide of the east end of the stable, where she had first entered to get the mare, and she spotted Tucker coming out of the door. He was clearly surprised to see her heading that way instead of down to the ocean. He sprinted toward her, and he was startlingly quick, but he was no match for Godiva They came to the driveway, and Chrissie kept Godiva on the soft verge, parallel to that hard-surfaced lane. She leaned forward, as tight against the horse as she could get, terrified of falling off, and every hard thud of hooves jarred through her bones. Her head was turned to the side, so she saw the house off to the left, the windows full of light but not welcoming. It was no longer her home; it was hell between four walls, so the light at the windows seemed, to her, to be demonic fires in the rooms of Hades.


Suddenly she saw something racing across the front lawn toward the driveway, toward her. It was low and fast, the size of a man but running on all fours—or nearly so—loping, about twenty yards away and closing. She saw another equally bizarre figure, almost the size of the first, running behind it. Though both creatures were backlit by the house lights, Chrissie could discern little more than their shapes, yet she knew what they were. No, correct that She knew who they probably were, but she still didn't know what they were, though she had seen them in the upstairs hall this morning; she knew what they had been people like her—but not what they were now.


"Go, Godiva, go!"


Even without the flap of reins to signal the need for greater speed, the mare increased the length of her stride, as if she shared a psychic link with Chrissie.


Then they were past the house, tearing flat-out across a grassy fields, paralleling the macadam driveway, whizzing toward the county road less than half a mile to the east. The nimble-footed mare worked her great haunch muscles, and her powerful stride was so lullingly rhythmic and exhilarating that Chrissie soon was hardly aware of the rocking-jolting aspect of the ride; it seemed as if they were skimming across the earth, nearly flying.


She looked over her shoulder and did not see the two loping figures, although they were no doubt still pursuing her through the multilayered shadows. With the muddy-red candescence along the western horizon fading to deep purple, with the lights of the house rapidly dwindling, and with a crescent moon beginning to thrust one silver-bright point above the line of hills in the east, visibility was poor.


Though she could not see those pursuers who were on foot, she had no difficulty spotting the headlights of Tucker's blue Honda. In front of the house, a couple of hundred yards behind her now, Tucker swung the car around in the driveway and joined the chase.


Chrissie was fairly confident that Godiva could outrun any man or beast other than a better horse, but she knew that the mare was no match for a car. Tucker would catch them in seconds. The man's face was clear in her memory the bony brow, sharp-ridged nose, deeply set eyes like a pair of hard, black marbles. He'd had about him that aura of unnatural vitality that Chrissie sometimes had seen in her parents—abundant nervous energy coupled with a queer look of hunger. She knew he would do anything to stop her, that he might even attempt to ram Godiva with the Honda.


He could not, of course, use the car to follow Godiva overland. Reluctantly Chrissie employed her knees and the mane in her right hand to turn the mare away from the driveway and the county road, where they were most likely to reach help quickly. Godiva responded without hesitation, and they headed toward the woods that lay at the far side of the meadow, five hundred yards to the south.


Chrissie could see the forest only as a black, bristly mass vaguely silhouetted against the marginally less dark sky. The details of the terrain she must cross appeared to her more in memory than in reality. She prayed that the horse's night vision was keener than hers.


"That's my girl, go, go, you good old girl, go!" she shouted encouragingly to the mare.


They made their own wind in the crisp, still air. Chrissie was aware of Godiva's hot breath streaming past her in crystallized plumes, and her own breath smoked from her open mouth. Her heart pounded in time with the frantic thumping of hooves, and she felt almost as if she and Godiva were not rider and horse but one being, sharing the same heart and blood and breath.


Though fleeing for her life, she was as pleasantly thrilled as she was terrified, and that realization startled her. Facing death or in this case something perhaps worse than death—was peculiarly exciting, darkly attractive in a way and to an extent that she could never have imagined. She was almost as frightened of the unexpected thrill as of the people who were chasing her.


She clung tightly to the dapple-gray, sometimes bouncing on the horse's bare back, lifting dangerously high, but holding fast, flexing and contracting her own muscles in sympathy with those of the horse. With every ground-pummeling stride, Chrissie grew more confident that they would escape. The mare had heart and endurance. When they had traversed three-quarters of the field, with the woods looming, Chrissie decided to turn east again when they reached the trees, not straight toward the county road but in that general direction, and Godiva fell.


The mare had put a foot in some depression—a ground squirrel's burrow, the entrance to a rabbit's warren, perhaps a natural drainage ditch—stumbled, and lost her balance. She tried to recover, failed, and fell, bleating in terror.


Chrissie was afraid that her mount would crash down on her, that she would be crushed, or at least break a leg. But there were no stirrups to ensnare her feet, no saddle horn to snag her clothes, and because she instinctively let go of the dapple-gray's mane, she was thrown free at once, straight over the horse's head and high into the air. Though the ground was soft and further cushioned by a thick growth of wild grass, she met it with numbing impact, driving the air from her lungs and banging her teeth together so hard that her tongue would have been bitten off if it had been between them. But she was three yards away from the horse and safe in that regard.


Godiva was the first to rise, scrambling up an instant after crashing down. Eyes wide with fright, she cantered past Chrissie, favoring her right foreleg, which evidently was only sprained; if it had been broken, the horse would not have gotten up.


Chrissie called to the mare, afraid the horse would wander off. But her breath was coming in ragged gasps, and the name issued from her in a whisper: "Godiva!"


The horse kept going west, back toward the sea and the stables.


By the time Chrissie got up on her hands and knees, she realized that a lame horse was of no use to her, so she made no further effort to recall the mare. She was gasping for breath and mildly dizzy, but she knew she had to get moving because she was no doubt still being stalked. She could see the Honda, headlights on, parked along the lane more than three hundred yards to the north. With all the bloody glow of sunset having seeped out of the horizon, the meadow was black. She could not determine if low, swift-moving figures were out there, though she knew they must be approaching and that she would surely fall into their hands within a minute or two.


She got to her feet, turned south toward the woods, staggered ten or fifteen yards until her legs recovered from the shock of her fall, and finally broke into a run.


6


Over the years Sam Booker had discovered that the length of the California coast was graced by charming inns that featured master-quality stonework, weathered wood, cove ceilings, beveled glass, and lushly planted courtyards with used-brick walkways. In spite of the comfortable images its name evoked and the singularly scenic setting that it enjoyed, Cove Lodge was not one of those California jewels. It was just an ordinary stucco, two-story, forty-room, rectangular box, with a drab coffee shop at one end, no swimming pool. Amenities were limited to ice and soda machines on both floors. The sign above the motel office was neither garish nor in the artistic mode of some modern neon, just small and simple—and cheap.


The evening desk clerk gave him a second-floor room with an ocean view, though location didn't matter to Sam. Judging by the dearth of cars in the lot, however, rooms with a view were not in short supply. Each level of the motel had twenty units in banks of ten, serviced by an interior hall carpeted in short-nap orange nylon that seared his eyes. Rooms on the east overlooked Cypress Lane; those on the west faced the Pacific. His quarters were at the northwest corner: a queen-size bed with a sagging mattress and worn blue-green spread, cigarette-scarred nightstands, a television bolted to a stand, table, two straight-back chairs, cigarette-scarred bureau, phone, bathroom, and one big window framing the night-blanketed sea.


When disheartened salesmen, down on their luck and teetering on the edge of economic ruin, committed suicide on the road, they did the deed in rooms like this.


He unpacked his two suitcases, putting his clothes in the closet and bureau drawers. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the telephone on the nightstand.


He should call Scott, his son, who was back home in Los Angeles, but he couldn't do it from this phone. Later, if the local police became interested in him, they would visit Cove Lodge, examine his long-distance charges, investigate the numbers he had dialed, and try to piece together his real identity from the identities of those with whom he had spoken. To maintain his cover, he must use his room phone only to call his contact number at the Bureau office in L.A., a secure line that would be answered with "Birchfield Securities, may I help you?" Furthermore, in phone-company records that it was registered to Birchfield, the nonexistent firm with which Sam was supposedly a stockbroker; it could not be traced ultimately to the FBI. He had nothing to report yet, so he did not lift the receiver. When he went out to dinner, he could call Scott from a pay phone.


He did not want to talk to the boy. It would be purely a duty call. Sam dreaded it. Conversation with his son had ceased to be pleasurable at least three years ago, when Scott had been thirteen and, at that time, already motherless for a year. Sam wondered if the boy would have gone wrong quite as rapidly or so completely if Karen had lived. That avenue of thought led him, of course, to the contemplation of his own role in Scott's decline Would the boy have turned bad regardless of the quality of the parental guidance that he received; was his fall inevitable, the weakness in him or in his stars? Or was Scott's descent a direct result of his father's failure to find a way to steer him to a better, brighter path?


If he kept brooding about it, he was going to pull a Willy Loman right there in Cove Lodge, even though he was not a salesman.


Guinness stout.


Good Mexican food.


Goldie Hawn.


Fear of death.


As a list of reasons for living, it was damned short and too pathetic to contemplate, but perhaps it was just long enough.


After he used the bathroom, he washed his hands and face in cold water. He still felt tired, not the least refreshed.


He took off his corduroy jacket and put on a thin, supple leather shoulder holster that he retrieved from a suitcase. He'd also packed a Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special, which he now loaded. He tucked it into the holster before slipping into his jacket again. His coats were tailored to conceal the weapon; it made no bulge, and the holster fit so far back against his side that the gun could not be seen easily even if he left the jacket unbuttoned.


For undercover assignments, Sam's body and face were as well tailored as his jackets. He was five eleven, neither tall nor short. He weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, mostly bone and muscle, little fat, yet he was not a thick-necked weightlifter type in such superb condition that he would draw attention. His face was nothing special neither ugly nor handsome, neither too broad nor too narrow, marked neither by unusually sharp nor blunt features, unblemished and unscarred. His sandy-brown hair was barbered in a timelessly moderate length and style that would be unremarkable in an age of brush cuts or in an era of shoulder-length locks.


Of all the aspects of his appearance, only his eyes were truly arresting. They were gray-blue with darker blue striations. Women had often told him that his were the most beautiful eyes they had ever seen. At one time he had cared what women said of him.


He shrugged, making sure the holster was hanging properly.


He did not expect to need the gun that evening. He had not begun to nose around and draw attention to himself; and since he had not yet pushed anyone, no one was ready to push back.


Nevertheless, from now on he would carry the revolver. He could not leave it in the motel room or lock it in his rental car; if someone conducted a determined search, the gun would be found, and his cover would be blown. No middle-aged stockbroker, searching for a coastal haven in which to take early retirement, would go armed with a snub-nosed .38 of that make and model. It was a cop's piece.


Pocketing his room key, he went out to dinner.


7


After she checked in, Tessa Jane Lockland stood for a long time at the big window in her room at the Cove Lodge, with no lights on. She stared out at the vast, dark Pacific and down at the beach from which her sister, Janice, supposedly had ventured forth on a grimly determined mission of self-destruction.


The official story was that Janice had gone to the shore alone at night, in a state of acute depression. She had taken a massive overdose of Valium, swallowing the capsules with several swigs from a can of Diet Coke. Then she had stripped off her clothes and had swum out toward far Japan. Losing consciousness because of the drugs, she soon slipped into the cold embrace of the sea, and drowned.


"Bullshit," Tessa said softly, as if speaking to her own vague reflection in the cool glass.


Janice Lockland Capshaw had been a hopeful person, unfailingly optimistic—a trait so common in members of the Lockland clan as to be genetic. Not once in her life had Janice sat in a corner feeling sorry for herself; if she had tried it, within seconds she would have begun laughing at the foolishness of selfpity and would have gotten up and gone to a movie, or for a psychologically therapeutic run. Even when Richard died, Janice had not allowed grief to metastasize into depression, though she loved him greatly.


So what would have sent her into such a steep emotional spiral? Contemplating the story the police wanted her to believe, Tessa was driven to sarcasm. Maybe Janice had gone out to a restaurant, been served a bad dinner, and been so crushed by the experience that suicide had been her only possible response. Yeah. Or maybe her television went on the blink, and she missed her favorite soap opera, which plunged her into irreversible despair. Sure. Those scenarios were about as plausible as the nonsense that the Moonlight Cove police and coroner had put in their reports.


Suicide.


"bullshit," Tessa repeated.


From the window of her motel room, she could see only a narrow band of the beach below, where it met the churning surf. The sand was dimly revealed in the wintry light of a newly risen quarter moon, a pale ribbon curving southwest and northwest around the cove.

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