This book is dedicated to
the one who is always there,
the one who always cares,
the one who always understands,
the one like whom there is no other:
my wife and my best friend.
Fear came upon me, and trembling.
The Book of Job, 4:14
The civilized human spirit ... cannot get rid of a feeling of the uncanny.
Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann
The Town Jail
The scream was distant and brief. A woman’s scream.
Deputy Paul Henderson looked up from his copy of Time. He cocked his head, listening.
Motes of dust drifted lazily in a bright shaft of sunlight that pierced one of the mullioned windows. The thin, red second hand of the wall clock swept soundlessly around the dial.
The only noise was the creak of Henderson’s office chair as he shifted his weight in it.
Through the large front windows, he could see a portion of Snowfield’s main street, Skyline Road, which was perfectly still and peaceful in the golden afternoon sunshine. Only the trees moved, leaves aflutter in a soft wind.
After listening intently for several seconds, Henderson was not sure he had actually heard anything.
Imagination, he told himself. Just wishful thinking.
He almost would have preferred that someone had screamed. He was restless.
During the off season, from April through September, he was the only full-time sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Snowfield substation, and the duty was dull. In the winter, when the town was host to several thousand skiers, there were drunks to be dealt with, fistfights to be broken up, and room burglaries to be investigated at the inns, lodges, and motels where the skiers stayed. But now, in early September, only the Candleglow Inn, one lodge, and two small motels were open, and the natives were quiet, and Henderson—who was just twenty-four years old and conclucling his first year as a deputy—was bored.
He sighed, looked down at the magazine that lay on his desk—and heard another scream. As before, it was distant and brief, but this time it sounded like a man’s voice. It wasn’t merely a shriek of excitement or even a cry of alarm; it was the sound of terror.
Frowning, Henderson got up and headed toward the door, adjusting the holstered revolver on his right hip. He stepped through the swinging gate in the railing that separated the public area from the bull pen, and he was halfway to the door when he heard movement in the office behind him.
That was impossible. He had been alone in the office all day, and there hadn’t been any prisoners in the three holding cells since early last week. The rear door was locked, and that was the only other way into the jail.
When he turned, however, he discovered that he wasn’t alone any more. And suddenly he wasn’t the least bit bored.
During the twilight hour of that Sunday in early September, the mountains were painted in only two colors: green and blue. The trees—pine, fir, spruce——looked as if they had been fashioned from the same felt that covered billiard tables. Cool, blue shadows lay everywhere, growing larger and deeper and darker by the minute.
Behind the wheel of her Pontiac Trans Am, Jennifer Paige smiled, buoyed by the beauty of the mountains and by a sense of homecoming. This was where she belonged.
She turned the Trans Am off the three-lane state road, onto the county-maintained, two-lane blacktop that twisted and climbed four miles through the pass to Snowfield.
In the passenger seat, her fourteen-year-old sister, Lisa, said, “I love it up here.”
“So do I.”
“When will we get some snow?”
“Another month, maybe sooner.”
The trees crowded close to the roadway. The Trans Am moved into a tunnel formed by overhanging boughs, and Jenny switched on the headlights.
“I’ve never seen snow, except in pictures,” Lisa said.
“By next spring, you’ll be sick of it.”
“Never. Not me. I’ve always dreamed about living in snow country, like you.”
Jenny glanced at the girl. Even for sisters, they looked remarkably alike: the same green eyes, the same auburn hair, the same high cheekbones.
“Will you teach me to ski?” Lisa asked.
“Well, honey, once the skiers come to town, there’ll be the usual broken bones, sprained ankles, wrenched backs, torn ligaments...I’ll be pretty busy then.”
“Oh,” Lisa said, unable to conceal her disappointment.
“Besides, why learn from me when you can take lessons from a real pro?”
“A pro?” Lisa asked, brightening somewhat.
“Sure. Hank Sanderson will give you lessons if I ask him.”
“He owns Pine Knoll Lodge, and he gives skiing lessons, but only to a handful of favored students.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
Jenny smiled, remembering what it was like to be fourteen years old. At that age, most girls were obsessively concerned about boys, boys above all else. “No, Hank isn’t my boyfriend. I’ve known him for two years, ever since I came to Snowfield, but we’re just good friends.”
They passed a green sign with white lettering: SNOWFIELD—3 MILES.
“I’ll bet there’ll be lots of really neat guys my age.”
“Snowfield’s not a very big town,” Jenny cautioned. “But I suppose you’ll find a couple of guys who’re neat enough.”
“Oh, but during the ski season, there’ll be dozens!” “Whoa, kid! You won’t be dating out-of-towners—at least not for a few years.”
“Why won’t I?”
“Because I said so.”
“But why not?”
“Before you date a boy, you should know where he comes from, what he’s like, what his family is like.”
“Oh, I’m a terrific judge of character,” Lisa said. “My first impressions are completely reliable. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not going to hook up with an ax murderer or a mad rapist.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Jenny said, slowing the Trans Am as the road curved sharply, “because you’re only going to date local boys.”
Lisa sighed and shook her head in a theatrical display of frustration. “In case you haven’t noticed, Jenny, I passed through puberty while you’ve been gone.”
“Oh, that hasn’t escaped my attention.”
They rounded the curve. Another straightaway lay ahead, and Jenny accelerated again.
Lisa said, “I’ve even got boobs now.”
“I’ve noticed that, too,” Jenny said, refusing to be rattled by the girl’s blunt approach.
“I’m not a child any more.”
“But you’re not an adult, either. You’re an adolescent.”
“I’m a young woman.”
“Young? Yes. Woman? Not yet.”
“Listen, I’m your legal guardian. I’m responsible for you. Besides, I’m your sister, and I love you. I’m going to do what I think—what I know—is best for you.”
Lisa sighed noisily.
“Because I love you,” Jenny stressed.
Scowling, Lisa said, “You’re going to be just as strict as Mom was.”
Jenny nodded. “Maybe worse.”
Jenny glanced at Lisa. The girl was staring out the passenger-side window. Her face was only partly visible, but she didn’t appear to be angry; she wasn’t pouting. In fact, her lips seemed to be gently curved in a vague smile.
Whether they realize it or not, Jenny thought, all kids want to have rules put down for them. Discipline is an expression of concern and love. The trick is not to be too heavy-handed about it.
Looking at the road again, flexing her hands on the steering wheel, Jenny said, “I’ll tell you what I will let you do.”
“I’ll let you tie your own shoes.”
Lisa blinked. “Huh?”
“And I’ll let you go to the bathroom whenever you want.”
Unable to maintain a pose of injured dignity any longer, Lisa giggled. “Will you let me eat when I’m hungry?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Jenny grinned. “I’ll even let you make your own bed every morning.”
“Positively permissive!” Lisa said.
At that moment the girl seemed even younger than she was. In tennis shoes, jeans, and a Western-style blouse, unable to stifle her giggles, Lisa looked sweet, tender, and terribly vulnerable.
“Friends?” Jenny asked.
Jenny was surprised and pleased by the ease with which she and Lisa had been relating to each other during the long drive north from Newport Beach. After all, in spite of their blood tie, they were virtually strangers. At thirty-one, Jenny was seventeen years older than Lisa. She had left home before Lisa’s second birthday, six months before their father had died. Throughout her years in medical school and during her internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Jenny had been too over-worked and too far from home to see either her mother or Lisa with any regularity. Then, after completing her residency, she returned to California to open an office in Snowfield. For the past two years, she had worked extremely hard to establish a viable medical practice that served Snowfield and a few other small towns in the mountains. Recently, her mother had died, and only then had Jenny begun to miss not having had a closer relationship with Lisa. Perhaps they could begin to make up for all the lost years—now that only the two of them were left.
The county lane rose steadily, and the twilight temporarily grew brighter as the Trans Am ascended out of the shadowed mountain valley.
“My ears feel like they’re stuffed full of cotton,” Lisa said, yawning to equalize the pressure.
They rounded a sharp bend, and Jenny slowed the car. Ahead lay a long, up-sloping straightaway, and the county lane became Skyline Road, the main street of Snowfield.
Lisa peered intently through the streaked windshield, studying the town with obvious delight. “It’s not at all what I thought it would be!”
“What did you expect?”
“Oh, you know, lots of ugly little motels with neon signs, too many gas stations, that sort of thing. But this place is really, really neat!”
“We have strict building codes,” Jenny said. “Neon isn’t acceptable. Plastic signs aren’t allowed. No garish colors, no coffee shops shaped like coffee pots.”
“It’s super,” Lisa said, gawking as they drove slowly into town.
Exterior advertising was restricted to rustic wooden signs bearing each store’s name and line of business. The architecture was somewhat eclectic—Norwegian, Swiss, Bavarian, Alpine-French, Alpine-Italian-but every building was designed in one mountain-country style or another, making liberal use of stone, slate, bricks, wood, exposed beams and timbers, mullioned windows, stained and leaded glass. The private homes along the upper end of Skyline Road were also graced by flower-filled window boxes, balconies, and front porches with ornate railings.
“Really pretty,” Lisa said as they drove up the long hill toward the ski lifts at the high end of the town. “But is it always this quiet?”
“Oh, no,” Jenny said. “During the winter, the place really comes alive and ...”
She left the sentence unfinished as she realized that the town was not merely quiet. It looked dead.
On any other mild Sunday afternoon in September, at least a few residents would have been strolling along the cobblestone sidewalks and sitting on the porches and balconies that overlooked Skyline Road. Winter was coming, and these last days of good weather were to be treasured. But today, as afternoon faded into evening, the sidewalks, balconies, and porches were deserted. Even in those shops and houses where lights burned, there was no sign of life. Jenny’s Trans Am was the only moving car on the long street.
She braked for a stop sign at the first intersection. St. Moritz Way crossed Skyline Road, extending three blocks east and four blocks west. She looked in both directions, but she could see no one.
The next block of Skyline Road was deserted, too. So was the block after that.
“Odd,” Jenny said.
“There must be a terrific show on TV,” Lisa said.
“I guess there must be.”
They passed the Mountainview Restaurant at the corner of Vail Lane and Skyline. The lights were on inside and most of the interior was visible through the big comer windows, but there was no one to be seen. Mountainview was a popular gathering place for locals both in the winter and during the off season, and it was unusual for the restaurant to be completely deserted at this time of day. There weren’t even any waitresses in sight.
Lisa already seemed to have lost interest in the uncanny stillness, even though she had noticed it first. She was again gawking at and delighting in the quaint architecture.
But Jenny couldn’t believe that everyone was huddled in front of TV sets, as Lisa had suggested. Frowning, perplexed, she looked at every window as she drove farther up the hill. She didn’t see a single indication of life.
Snowfield was six blocks long from top to bottom of its sloping main street, and Jenny’s house was in the middle of the uppermost block, on the west side of the street, near the foot of the ski lifts. It was a two-story, stone and timber chalet with three dormer windows along the street side of the attic. The many-angled, slate roof was a mottled gray-blue-black. The house was set back twenty feet from the cobblestone sidewalk, behind a waist-high evergreen hedge. By one corner of the porch stood a sign that read JENNIFER PAIGE, M.D.; it also listed her office hours.
Jenny parked the Trans Am in the short driveway.
“What a nifty house!” Lisa said.
It was the first house Jenny had ever owned; she loved it and was proud of it. The mere sight of the house warmed and relaxed her, and for a moment she forgot about the strange quietude that blanketed Snowfield. “Well, it’s somewhat small, especially since half of the downstairs is given over to my office and waiting room. And the bank owns more of it than I do. But it sure does have character, doesn’t it?”
“Tons,” Lisa said.
They got out of the car, and Jenny discovered that the setting sun had given rise to a chilly wind. She was wearing a longsleeved, green sweater with her jeans, but she shivered anyway. Autumn in the Sierras was a succession of mild days and contrastingly crisp nights.
She stretched, uncramping muscles that had knotted up during the long drive, then pushed the door shut. The sound echoed off the mountain above and through the town below. It was the only sound in the twilight stillness.
At the rear of the Trans Am, she paused for a moment, staring down Skyline Road, into the center of Snowfield. Nothing moved.
“I could stay here forever,” Lisa declared, hugging herself as she happily surveyed the town below.
Jenny listened. The echo of the slammed car door faded away—and was replaced by no other sound except the soft soughing of the wind.
There are silences and silences. No one of them is like another. There is the silence of grief in velvet-draped rooms of a plushly carpeted funeral parlor, which is far different from the bleak and terrible silence of grief in a widower’s lonely bedroom. To Jenny, it seemed curiously as if there were cause for grieving in Snowfield’s silence; however, she didn’t know why she felt that way or even why such a peculiar thought had occurred to her in the first place. She thought of the silence of a gentle summer night, too, which isn’t actually a silence at all, but a subtle chorus of moth wings tapping on windows, crickets moving in the grass, and porch swings ever-so-faintly sighing and creaking. Snowfield’s soundless slumber was imbued with some of that quality, too, a hint of fevered activity—voices, movement, struggle—just beyond the reach of the senses. But it was more than that. There is also the silence of a winter night, deep and cold and heartless, but containing an expectation of the bustling, growing noises of spring. This silence was filled with expectation, too, and it made Jenny nervous.
She wanted to call out, ask if anyone was here. But she didn’t because her neighbors might come out, startled by her cry, all of them safe and sound and bewildered by her apprehension, and then she would look foolish. A doctor who behaved foolishly in public on Monday was a doctor without patients on Tuesday.
“... stay here forever and ever and ever,” Lisa was saying, still swooning over the beauty of the mountain village.
“It doesn’t make you ... uneasy?” Jenny asked.
“Oh, I love it. It’s so peaceful.”
It was peaceful. There was no sign of trouble.
So why am I so damned jumpy? Jenny wondered.
She opened the trunk of the car and lifted out one of Lisa’s suitcases, then another.
Lisa took the second suitcase and reached into the trunk for a book bag.
“Don’t overload yourself,” Jenny said. “We’ve got to make a couple of more trips, anyway.”
They crossed the lawn to a stone walkway and followed that to the front porch where, in response to the amber-purple sunset, shadows were rising and opening petals as if they were night-blooming flowers.
Jenny opened the front door, and stepped into the dark foyer. “Hilda, we’re home!”
Phantoms by Dean Koontz / Horror / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes