Midnight Page 52


When the car was less than a block away, someone riding in the back seat switched on a handheld spotlight. He directed it out his side window, playing it over the front lawns of the houses that faced on Bergenwood and the side lawns of houses facing the cross streets. At the moment the beam was pointed in the opposite direction, south, toward the other side of Bergenwood. But by the time they had driven this far, they might decide to spotlight the properties to the north of Bergenwood.


"Backtrack," Sam said fiercely. "But stay down and crawl, crawl."


The car reached the intersection, half a block uphill.


Chrissie crawled after Sam, not straight back the way they had come but toward the nearby house. She didn't see anywhere he could hide, because the back-porch railing was pretty open and there were no large shrubs. Maybe he figured to slip around the side of the house until the patrol passed, but she didn't think she and Tessa would make it to the corner in time.


When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that the spotlight was still sweeping the front lawns and between the houses on the south flank of the street. However, there was also the side-glow effect of the headlights to worry about, and that was going to wash across this lawn in a few seconds.


She was half crawling and half slithering on her belly, moving fast, though no doubt squashing lots of snails and earthworms that had come out to bask on the wet grass, which didn't bear thinking about. She came to a concrete walkway close to the house—and realized that Sam had disappeared.


She halted on her hands and knees, looking left and right.


Tessa appeared at her side. "Cellar steps, honey. Hurry!"


Scrambling forward, she discovered a set of exterior concrete steps leading down to a cellar entrance. Sam was crouched at the bottom, where collected rainwater gurgled softly as it trickled into a drain in front of the closed cellar door. Chrissie joined him in that haven, slipping below ground level, and Tessa followed. About four seconds later a spotlight swept across the wall of the house and even played for a moment inches above their heads, on the concrete lip of the stairwell.


They huddled in silence, unmoving, for a minute or so after the spotlight swung away from them and the car passed. Chrissie was sure that something inside the house had heard them, that the door at Sam's back would fly open at any second, that something would leap at them, a creature part werewolf and part computer, snarling and beeping, its mouth bristling with both teeth and programming keys, saying something like, "To be killed, please press ENTER and proceed."


She was relieved when at last Sam whispered, "Go."


They recrossed the lawn toward Bergenwood Way. This time the street remained conveniently deserted.


As Harry promised, a stone-lined drainage channel ran alongside Bergenwood. According to Harry, who had played in it when he was a kid, the channel was about three feet wide and maybe five feet deep. Judging by those dimensions, a foot or more of runoff surged through it at the moment. Those currents were swift, almost black, revealed at the bottom of the shadow-pooled trench only by an occasional dark glint and chuckle of roiling water.


The channel offered a considerably less conspicuous route than the open street. They moved uphill a few yards until they found the mortared, iron handholds that Harry had promised they'd find every hundred feet along the open sections of the channel. Sam climbed down first, Chrissie went second, and Tessa brought up the rear.


Sam hunched over to keep his head below street level, and Tessa hunched a bit less than he did. But Chrissie didn't have to hunch at all. Being eleven had its advantages, especially when you were on the run from werewolves or ravenous aliens or robots or Nazis, and at one time or another during the past twenty-four hours, she had been on the run from the first three, but not from Nazis, too, thank God, though who knew what might happen next.


The churning water was cold around her feet and calves. She was surprised to discover that although it only reached her knees it had considerable force. It pushed and tugged relentlessly, as if it were a living thing with a mean desire to topple her. She was not in any danger of falling as long as she stood in one place with feet widely planted, but she was not sure how long she could maintain her balance while walking. The watercourse sloped steeply downhill. The old stone floor, after several decades of rainy seasons, was well polished by runoff. Because of that combination of factors, the channel was the next best thing to an amusement-park flume ride.


If she fell, she'd be swept all the way downhill, to within half a block of the bluff, where the channel widened and dropped straight down into the earth. Harry had said something about safety bars dividing the passage into narrow slots just before the downspout, but she figured that if she were swept down there and had to rely on those bars, they would prove to be missing or rusted out, leaving a straight shot to the bottom. The system came out again at the base of the cliffs, then led part of the way across the beach, discharging the runoff onto the sand or, at high tide, into the sea.


She had no difficulty picturing herself tumbling and twisting helplessly, choking on filthy water, desperately but unsuccessfully grabbing at the stone channel for purchase, suddenly plummeting a couple of hundred feet straight down, banging against the walls of the shaft when it went vertical, breaking bones, smashing her head to bits, hitting the bottom with …


Well, yes, she could easily picture it, but suddenly she didn't see any wisdom in doing so.


Fortunately Harry had warned them of this problem, so Sam had come prepared. From under his jacket and around his waist, he unwound a length of rope that he had removed from a long-unused pulley system in Harry's garage. Though the rope was old, Sam said it was still strong, and Chrissie hoped he was right. He had tied one end around his waist before leaving the house. Now he looped the other end through Chrissie's belt and finally tied it around Tessa's waist, leaving approximately eight feet of play between each of them. If one of them fell—well, face it, Chrissie was far and away the one most likely to fall and most likely to be swept to a wet and bloody death—the others could stand fast until she had time to regain her footing.


That was the plan, anyway.


Securely linked, they started down the channel. Sam and Tessa hunched over so no one in a passing car would see their heads hobbling above the stone rim of the watercourse, and Chrissie hunched over a bit, too, keeping her feet wide apart, sort of troll-walking as she had done last night in the tunnel under the meadow.


Per Sam's instructions, she held on to the line in front of her with both hands, taking up the slack when she drew close to him, to avoid tripping on it, then paying it out again when she fell back a couple of feet. Behind her, Tessa was doing the same thing; Chrissie felt the subtle tug of the rope on her belt.


They were heading toward a culvert half a block downhill. The channel went underground at Conquistador and stayed subterranean not just through the intersection but for two entire blocks, surfacing again at Roshmore.


Chrissie kept glancing up, past Sam at the mouth of the pipe, not liking what she saw. It was round, concrete rather than stone. It was wider than the rectangular channel, about five feet in diameter, no doubt so workmen could get into it easily and clean it out if it became choked with debris. However, neither the shape nor the size of the culvert made her uneasy; it was the absolute blackness of it that prickled the nape of her neck, for it was darker even than the essence of night at the bottom of the drainage channel itself—absolutely, absolutely black, and it seemed as if they were marching into the gaping mouth of some prehistoric behemoth.


A car cruised by slowly on Bergenwood, another on Conquistador. Their headlights were refracted by the incoming bank of fog, so the night itself seemed to glow, but little of that queer luminosity reached down into the watercourse, and none of it penetrated the mouth of the culvert.


When Sam crossed the threshold of that tunnel and, within two steps, disappeared entirely from sight, Chrissie followed without hesitation, although not without trepidation. They proceeded at a slower pace, for the floor of the culvert was not merely steeply sloped but curved, as well, and even more treacherous than the stone drainage channel.


Sam had a flashlight, but Chrissie knew he didn't want to use it near either end of the tunnel. The backsplash of the beam might be visible from outside and draw the attention of one of the patrols.


The culvert was as utterly lightless as the inside of a whale's belly. Not that she knew what a whale's belly was like, inside, but she doubted it was equipped with a lamp or even a Donald Duck night-light, like the one she'd had when she was years younger. The whale's belly image seemed fitting because she had the creepy feeling that the pipe was really a stomach and that the rushing water was digestive juice, and that already her tennis shoes and the legs of her jeans were dissolving in that corrosive flood.


Then she fell. Her feet slipped on something, perhaps a fungus that was growing on the floor and attached so tightly to the concrete that the runoff had not torn it away. She let go of the line and windmilled her arms, trying to keep her balance, but she went down with a tremendous splash, and instantly found herself borne away by the water.


She had enough presence of mind not to scream. A scream would draw one of the search teams—or worse.


Gasping for breath, spluttering as water slopped into her mouth, she collided with Sam's legs, knocking him off balance. She felt him falling. She wondered how long they'd all lie, dead and decomposing, at the bottom of the long vertical drain, out at the foot of the bluff, before their bloated, purple remains were found.


5


In the tomb-perfect darkness, Tessa heard the girl fall, and she immediately halted, planting her legs as wide and firm as she could on that sloped and curved floor, keeping both hands on the security line. Within a second that rope pulled taut as Chrissie was swept away by the water.


Sam grunted, and Tessa realized that the girl had been carried into him. Slack developed on the line for an instant, but then it went taut again, pulling her forward, which she took to mean that Sam was staggering ahead, trying to stay on his feet, with the girl pressing against his lower legs and threatening to knock them out from under him. If Sam had been brought down, too, and seized by tumultuous currents, the line would not have been merely taut; the drag would have been great enough to wrench Tessa off her feet.


She heard a lot of splashing ahead. A soft curse from Sam.


The water was creeping higher. At first she thought she was imagining it, but then she realized the torrent had risen to above her knees.


The damned darkness was the worst of it, not being able to see anything, virtually blind, unable to be sure what was happening.


Abruptly she was jerked forward again. Two, three—oh, God—half a dozen steps.


Sam, don't fall!


Stumbling, almost losing her balance, realizing that they were on the edge of disaster, Tessa leaned backward on the line, using its tautness to steady herself instead of rushing forward with the hope of developing slack again. She hoped to God she didn't resist too much and get yanked off her feet.


She swayed. The line pulled hard at her waist. Without slack to loop through her hands, she was unable to take most of the strain with her arms.


The pressure of water against the back of her legs was growing.


Her feet skidded.


Like videotape fast-forwarded through an editing machine, strange thoughts flew through her mind, scores of them in a few seconds, all unbidden, and some of them surprised her. She thought about living, surviving, about not wanting to die, and that wasn't so surprising, but then she thought about Chrissie, about not wanting to fail the girl, and in her mind she saw a detailed image of her and Chrissie together, in a cozy house somewhere, living as mother and daughter, and she was surprised at how much she wanted that, which seemed wrong because Chrissie's parents were not dead, as far as anyone knew, and might not even be hopelessly changed, because the conversion—whatever it was—just might be reversible. Chrissie's family might be put back together again. Tessa couldn't see a picture of that in her mind. It didn't seem as much a possibility as she and Chrissie together. But it might happen. Then she thought of Sam, of never having a chance to make love to him, and that startled her, because although he was sort of attractive, she truly hadn't realized she was drawn to him in any romantic way. Of course his grit in the face of spiritual despair was appealing, and his perfectly serious four-reasons-for-living shtick made him an intriguing challenge. Could she give him a fifth? Or supplant Goldie Hawn as the fourth? But until she found herself tottering on the brink of a watery death, she didn't realize how very much he had attracted her in such a short time.


Her feet skidded again. Beneath the surging water, the floor was much more slippery than it had been in the stone channel, as if moss grew on the concrete. Tessa tried to dig in her heels.


Sam cursed under his breath. Chrissie made a coughing-choking sound.


The depth of water in the center of the tunnel had risen to about eighteen or twenty inches.


A moment later the line jerked hard, then went completely slack.


The rope had snapped. Sam and Chrissie had been swept down into the tunnel.


The gurgle-slosh-slap of gushing water echoed off the walls, and echoes of the echoes overlaid previous echoes, and Tessa's heart was pounding so loud she could hear it, but still she should have heard their cries, too, as they were carried away. Yet for one awful moment they were silent.


Then Chrissie coughed again. Only a few feet away.


A flashlight snapped on. Sam was hooding most of the lens with his hand.


Chrissie was sideways in the passage, pressed up out of the worst of the flow, her back and the palms of both hands braced against the side of the tunnel.


Sam stood with his feet planted wide part. Water churned and foamed around his legs. He had gotten turned around. He was facing uphill now.


The rope hadn't snapped, after all; the tension had been released because both Sam and Chrissie had regained their equilibrium.


"You all right?" Sam whispered to the girl.


She nodded, still gagging on the dirty water she had swallowed. She wrinkled her face in distaste, spat once, twice, and said, "Yuch."


Looking at Tessa, Sam said, "Okay?"


She couldn't speak. A rock-hard lump had formed in her throat. She swallowed a few times, blinked. A delayed wave of relief passed through her, reducing the almost unbearable pressure in her chest, and at last she said, "Okay. Yeah. Okay."


6


Sam was relieved when they got to the end of the culvert without another fall. He stood for a moment, just outside the lower mouth of the drain, happily looking up at the sky. Because of the thick fog, he couldn't actually see the sky, but that was a technicality; he still felt relieved to be out in the open air again, if still knee-deep in muddy water.

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