Midnight Page 6


Here was the best of organic and machine systems wedded in one perfect structure. As Thomas Shaddack imagined his way through the endless avenues of this dream place, he was enraptured even though he did not understand—or care—what ultimate function any of it had, what product or service it labored to bring forth. He was excited by the entity because it was clearly efficient at whatever it was doing, because its organic and inorganic parts were brilliantly integrated.


All of his life, for as many of his forty-one years as he could recall, Shaddack had struggled against the limitations of the human condition, striving with all his will and heart to rise above the destiny of his species. He wanted to be more than merely a man. He wanted to have the power of a god and to shape not only his own future but that of all mankind. In his private sensory-deprivation chamber, transported by this vision of a cybernetic organism, he was closer to that longed-for metamorphosis than he could be in the real world, and that was what invigorated him.


For him the vision was not simply intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving, but powerfully erotic too. As he floated through that imaginary semiorganic machine, watching it throb and pulsate, he surrendered to an orgasm that he felt not merely in his gen**als but in every fiber; indeed he was unaware of his fierce erection, unaware of the forceful ejaculations around which his entire body contracted, for he perceived the pleasure to be diffused throughout him rather than focused in his penis. Milky threads of se**n spread through the dark pool of magnesium-sulfate solution.


A few minutes later the sensory-deprivation chamber's a matic timer activated the interior light and sounded a soft alarm. Shaddack was called back from his dream to the real world of Moonlight Cove.


11


Chrissie Foster's eyes adjusted to the darkness, and she was able to find her way swiftly through even unfamiliar territory.


When she reached the rim of the canyon, she passed between a pair of Monterey cypresses and onto another mule-deer trail leading south through the forest. Protected from the wind by the surrounding trees, those enormous cypresses were lush and full, neither badly twisted nor marked by antler-like branches as they were along the windswept shore. For a moment she considered climbing high into those leafy reaches, with the hope that her pursuers would pass beneath, unaware of her. But she dared not take that chance; if they smelled her or divined her presence by some other means, they would ascend, and she would be unable to retreat.


She hurried on and quickly reached a break in the trees. Beyond lay a meadow that sloped from east to west, as did most of the land thereabout. The breeze picked up and was strong enough to ruffle her blond hair continuously. The fog was not as thin as it had been when she'd left Foster Stables on horseback, but the moonlight was still unfiltered enough to frost the knee-high, dry grass that rippled when the wind blew.


As she ran across the field toward the next stand of woods, she saw a large truck, strung with lights as if it were a Christmas tree, heading south on the interstate, nearly a mile east of her, along the crest of the second tier of coastal hills. She ruled out seeking help from anyone on the distant freeway, for they were all strangers headed to faraway places, therefore even less likely than locals to believe her. Besides, she read newspapers and watched TV, so she had heard all about the serial killers that roamed the interstates, and she had no trouble imagining tabloid headlines summing up her fate YOUNG GIRL KILLED AND EATEN BY ROVING CANNIBALS IN DODGE VAN; SERVED WITH A SIDE OF BROCCOLI AND PARSLEY FOR GARNISH; BONES USED FOR SOUP.


The county road lay half a mile closer, along the tops of the first hills, but no traffic moved on it. In any case she already had rejected the idea of seeking help there, for fear of encountering Tucker in his Honda.


Of course she believed that she had heard three distinct voices among the eerie pulings of those who stalked her, which had to mean that Tucker had abandoned his car and was with her parents now. Maybe she could safely head toward the county highway, after all.


She thought about that as she sprinted across the meadow. But before she had made up her mind to change course, those dreadful cries rose behind her again, still in the woods but closer than before. Two or three voices yowled simultaneously, as if a pack of baying hounds was at her heels, though stranger and more savage than ordinary dogs.


Abruptly Chrissie stepped into thin air and found herself falling into what, for an instant, seemed to be a terrible chasm. But it was only an eight-foot-wide, six-foot-deep drainage channel that cleaved the meadow, and she rolled to the bottom of it unharmed.


The angry shrieking of her pursuers grew louder, nearer, and now their voices had a more frenetic quality … a note of need, of hunger.


She scrambled to her feet and started to clamber up the six-foot wall of the channel, when she realized that to her left, upslope, the ditch terminated in a large culvert that bored away into the earth. She froze halfway up the arroyo and considered this new option.


The pale concrete pipe offered the lambent moonlight just enough of a reflective surface to be visible. When she saw it, she knew immediately that it was the main drainage line that carried rainwater off the interstate and county road far above and east of her. Judging by the shrill cries of the hunters, her lead was dwindling. She was increasingly afraid that she would not make the trees at the far side of the meadow before being brought down. Perhaps the culvert was a dead end and would provide her with a haven no more secure than the cypress that she had considered climbing, but she decided to risk it.


She slid to the floor of the arroyo again and scurried to the conduit. The pipe was four feet in diameter. By stooping slightly she was able to walk into it. She went only a few steps, however, before she was halted by a stench so foul that she gagged.


Something was dead and rotting in that lightless passage. She could not see what it was. But maybe she was better off not seeing; the carcass might look worse than it smelled. A wild animal, sick and dying, must have crawled into the pipe for shelter, where it perished from its disease.


She backed hastily out of the drain, drawing deep breaths of the fresh night air.


From the north came intermingled, ululant walls that literally put the hair up on the back of her neck.


They were closing fast, almost on top of her.


She had no choice but to hide deep in the culvert and hope they could not catch her scent. She suddenly realized that the decaying animal might be to her benefit, for if those stalking her were able to smell her as though they were hounds, the stench of decomposition might mask her own odor.


Entering the pitch-black culvert again, she followed the convex floor, which sloped gradually upward beneath the meadow. Within ten yards she put her foot in something soft and slippery. The horrid odor of decay burst upon her with even greater strength, and she knew she had stepped in the dead thing.


"Oh, yuck."


She gagged and felt her gorge rise, but she gritted her teeth and refused to throw up. When she was past the putrid mass, she paused to scrape her shoes on the concrete floor of the pipe.


Then she hurried farther into the drain. Scurrying with her knees bent, shoulders hunched, and head tucked down, she realized she must have looked like a troll scuttling into its secret burrow.


Fifty or sixty feet past the unidentified dead thing, Chrissie stopped, crouched, and turned to look back toward the mouth of the culvert. Through that circular aperture she had a view of the ditch in moonlight, and she could see more than she had expected because, by contrast with the darkness of the drain, the night beyond seemed brighter than when she had been out there.


All was silent.


A gentle breeze flowed down the pipe from drainage grilles in the highways above and to the east, pushing the odor of the decomposing animal away from her, so she could not detect even a trace of it. The air was tainted only by a mild dankness, a whiff of mildew.


Silence gripped the night.


She held her breath for a moment and listened intently.


Nothing.


Still crouching, she shifted her weight from foot to foot.


Silence.


She wondered if she should head deeper into the culvert. Then she wondered whether snakes were in the pipe. Wouldn't that be a perfect place for snakes to nest when the oncoming night's cool air drove them to shelter?


Silence.


Where were her parents? Tucker? A minute ago they had been close behind her, within striking distance.


Silence.


Rattlesnakes were common in the coastal hills, though not active at this time of year. If a nest of rattlers—


She was so unnerved by the continuing, unnatural silence that she had the urge to scream, just to break that eerie spell.


A shrill cry shattered the quietude outside. It echoed through the concrete tunnel, past Chrissie, and bounced from wall to wall along the passage behind her, as if the hunters were approaching her not only from outside but from the depths of the earth behind her.


Shadowy figures leaped into the arroyo beyond the culvert.


12


Sam found a Mexican restaurant on Serra Street, two blocks from his motel. One sniff of the air inside the place was enough to assure him the food would be good. That melange was the odiferous equivalent of a Jose Feliciano album chili powder, bubbling hot chorizo, the sweet fragrance of tortillas made with masa harina, cilantro, bell peppers, the astringent tang of jalapeno chiles, onions….


The Perez Family Restaurant was as unpretentious as its name, a single rectangular room with blue vinyl booths along the side walls, tables in the middle, kitchen at the rear. Unlike Burt Peckham at Knight's Bridge tavern, the Perez family had as much business as they could handle. Except for a two-chair table at the back, to which Sam was led by the teenage hostess, the restaurant was filled to capacity.


The waiters and waitresses were dressed casually in jeans and sweaters, the only nod to a uniform being white half-aprons tied around their waists. Sam didn't even ask for Guinness, which he had never found in a Mexican restaurant, but they had Corona, which would be fine if the food was good.


The food was very good. Not truly, unequivocably great, but better than he had a right to expect in a northern coastal town of just three thousand people. The corn chips were homemade, the salsa thick and chunky, the albondigas soup rich and sufficiently peppery to break him out in a light sweat… By the time he received an order of crab enchiladas in tomatillo sauce, he was half convinced that he should move to Moonlight Cove as soon as possible, even if it meant robbing a bank to finance early retirement.


When he got over his surprise at the food's quality, he began to pay as much attention to his fellow diners as to the contents of his plate. Gradually he noted several odd things about them.


The room was unusually quiet, considering that it was occupied by eighty or ninety people. High-quality Mexican restaurants with fine food, good beer, and potent margaritas—were festive places. At Perezs, however, diners were talking animatedly at only about a third of the tables. The other two-thirds of the customers ate in silence.


After he tilted his glass and poured from the fresh bottle of Corona that had just been served to him, Sam studied some of the silent eaters. Three middle-aged men sat in a booth on the right side of the room, scarfing up tacos and enchiladas and chimichangas, staring at their food or at the air in front of them, occasionally looking at each other but exchanging not a word. On the other side of the room, in another booth, two teenage couples industriously devoured a double platter of mixed appetizers, never punctuating the meal with the chatter and laughter one expected of kids their age. Their concentration was so intense that the longer Sam watched them, the odder they seemed.


Throughout the room, people of all ages, in groups of all kinds, were fixated on their food. Hearty eaters, they had appetizers, soup, salads, and side dishes as well as entrees; on finishing, some ordered "a couple more tacos" or "another burrito," before also asking for ice cream or flan. Their jaw muscles bulged as they chewed, and as soon as they swallowed, they quickly shoveled more into their mouths. A few ate with their mouths open. Some swallowed with such force that Sam could actually hear them. They were red-faced and perspiring, no doubt from jalapeno-spiced sauces, but not one offered a comment like, "Boy, this is hot," or "Pretty good grub," or even the most elementary conversational gambit to his companions.


To the third of the customers who were happily jabbering away at one another and progressing through their meals at an ordinary pace, the almost fevered eating of the majority apparently went unnoticed. Bad table manners were not rare, of course; at least a quarter of the diners in any town would give Miss Manners a stroke if she dared to eat with them. Nevertheless, the gluttony of many of the customers in the Perez Family Restaurant seemed astonishing to Sam. He supposed that the polite diners were inured to the behavior of the other patrons because they had witnessed it so many times before.


Could the cool sea air of the northern coast be that appetite-enhancing? Did some peculiar ethnic background or fractured social history in Moonlight Cove mitigate against the universal development of commonly accepted Western table manners?


What he saw in the Perez Family Restaurant seemed a puzzle for which any sociologist, desperately seeking a doctoral thesis subject, would be eager to find a solution. After a while, however, Sam had to turn his attention away from the more ravenous patrons because their behavior was killing his own appetite.


Later, when he was figuring the tip and putting money on the table to cover his bill, he surveyed the crowd again, and this time realized that none of the heavy eaters was drinking beer, margaritas, or anything alcoholic. They had ice water or Cokes, and some were drinking milk, glass after glass, but every last man and woman of these gourmands seemed to be a teetotaler. He might not have noticed their temperance if he had not been a cop—and a good one—trained not only to observe but to think about what he observed.


He remembered the scarcity of drinkers at Knight's Bridge tavern.


What ethnic culture or religious group inculcated a disdain for alcohol while encouraging mannerlessness and gluttony?


He could think of none.


By the time Sam finished his beer and got up to leave, he was telling himself that he'd overreacted to a few crude people, that this queer fixation on food was limited to a handful of patrons and not as widespread as it seemed. After all, from his table in the back, he had not been able to see the entire room and every last one of the customers. But on his way out, he passed a table where three attractive and well-dressed young women were eating hungrily, none of them speaking, their eyes glazed; two of them had flecks of food on their chins, of which they seemed oblivious, and the third had so many com-chip crumbs sprinkled across the front of her royal-blue sweater that she appeared to be breading herself with the intention of going into the kitchen, climbing into an oven, and becoming food.

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