Night chills, p.17
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       Night Chills, p.17

           Dean Koontz
 
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  The boy stopped, reluctantly.

  On his way to the bloodied child, Salsbury saw a girl in the open door. She was staring at the blood, and she seemed mesmerized by the sight. He started toward her.

  She looked up, dazed.

  “I am the key.”

  She turned and fled.

  Salsbury ran to the door—but when he got there, she was already gone around the corner of the house, out of sight.

  PART TWO

  Terror

  1

  Friday, August 26, 1977

  9:45 A.M.

  Rya sat in the front seat of the station wagon between Paul and Jenny, silent and unmoving, gripped by what appeared to be fear and by anger as well. Her hands were curled into solid little fists in her lap. Beneath her summer tan she was ashen. Fine beads of perspiration were strung along her hairline. She pressed her lips together like the halves of a vise, partly to keep them from trembling, partly as a sign of her extreme anger, frustration, and determination to prove herself right.

  Although she had never lied to him about anything serious, Paul couldn’t believe the story she had told them minutes ago. She had seen something odd at the Thorp house. He was fairly certain of that. However, she had surely misinterpreted what she had seen. When she burst in upon Sam, Jenny, and him at the store, her tears and horror had been genuine; of that there was absolutely no doubt. But Mark dead? Unthinkable. Beaten to death by Bob Thorp, the chief of police? Ridiculous. If she wasn’t lying—well, then she was at least terribly confused.

  “It’s t-t-true, Daddy. It’s true. I swear to God it’s true. They ... they k-k-killed him. They did. Mr. Thorp did. The other man t-told Mr. Thorp to k-kill, and he did. He kept b-b-banging Mark’s head ... his head ... banging it against the stove. It was awful. B-banging it ... over and over again ... and all the blood ... Oh, God, Daddy, it’s crazy but it’s true!”

  It was crazy.

  And it couldn’t be true.

  Yet when she first came into the store—breathing hard, half-choking and half-crying, babbling as if she were in a fever, so unlike herself—he felt an icy hand on the back of his neck. As she told her improbable story, the glacial fingers lingered. And they were still there.

  He turned the comer onto Union Road. The police chief’s house was a quarter of a mile away, the last on the street, near the river. The garage, large enough for two cars and topped by a workman’s loft, lay fifty yards beyond the house. He pulled into the driveway and parked the station wagon in front of the garage.

  “Where’s the canary cage?” he asked.

  Rya said, “It was over there. Near the window. They’ve moved it.”

  “Looks calm. Peaceful. Doesn’t seem like a murder took place half an hour ago.”

  “Inside,” Rya said sharply. “They killed him inside.”

  Jenny took hold of the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “Rya—”

  “Inside.” Her face was set; she was resolute.

  “Let’s have a look,” Paul said.

  They got out of the car and crossed the freshly mown lawn to the back of the house.

  Emma had evidently heard them drive up; for by the time they reached the kitchen stoop, she had the door open and was waiting for them. She wore a royal blue floor-length corduroy housecoat with a high neckline, round collar, and light blue corduroy belt at the waist. Her long hair was combed back and tucked behind her ears, held in place by a few bobby pins. She was smiling, pleased to see them.

  “Hi,” Paul said awkwardly. He was suddenly at a loss for words. If even a tiny fraction of Rya’s tale were true, Emma would not be this serene. He began to feel foolish for having placed any faith whatsoever in such a bizarre story. He couldn’t imagine how he would ever tell Emma about it.

  “Hi there,” she said cheerily. “Hello, Rya. Jenny, how is your father?”

  “Fine, thanks,” Jenny said. She sounded quite as bewildered as Paul felt.

  “Well,” Emma said, “I’m still in my robe. The breakfast dishes haven’t been washed. The kitchen’s a greasy mess. But if you don’t mind sitting down in a disaster zone, you’re welcome to visit.”

  Paul hesitated.

  “Something wrong?” Emma asked.

  “Is Bob home?”

  “He’s at work.”

  “When did he leave?”

  “Same as every day. A few minutes before nine.”

  “He’s at the police station?”

  “Or cruising around in the patrol car.” Emma no longer needed to ask if something was wrong; she knew. “Why?”

  Why indeed? Paul thought. Rather than explain, he said, “Is Mark here?”

  “He was,” Emma said. “He and Jeremy went over to the basketball court behind the Union Theater.”

  “When was that?”

  “Half an hour ago.”

  It seemed to him that she had to be telling the truth, for her statement could be verified or disproved so easily. If her husband had killed Mark, what could she hope to gain by such a flimsy lie? Besides, he didn’t think she was the sort of woman who could take part in the cover-up of a murder—certainly not with such apparent equanimity, not without showing a great deal of stress and guilt.

  Paul looked down at Rya.

  Her face was still a mask of stubbornness—and even more pale and drawn than it had been in the car. “What about Buster?” she asked Emma. Her voice was sharp and too loud. “Did they take Buster over to the court so he could play basketball with them?”

  Understandably bewildered by the girl’s uncharacteristic nastiness and her intense reaction to such a simple statement, Emma said, “The squirrel? Oh, they left him with me. Do you want the squirrel?” She stepped back, out of the doorway. “Come in.”

  For a moment, recalling the tale of mindless violence that Rya had related just thirty minutes ago, Paul wondered if Bob Thorp was in the kitchen, waiting for him ...

  But that was absurd. Emma was not aware that supposedly a boy had been slain in her kitchen this morning; he would have wagered nearly any sum on that. And in the light of Emma’s innocence, Rya’s story seemed altogether a fantasy—and not really a very good one, at that.

  He went inside.

  The canary cage stood in one comer, next to the flip-top waste can. Buster sat on his hind feet and busily nibbled an apple. His tail flicked straight up, and he went stiff as a wooden squirrel when he became aware of the guests. He assessed Paul and Rya and Jenny as if he had never seen them before, decided there was no danger, and returned to his breakfast.

  “Mark told me he likes apples,” Emma said.

  “He does.”

  The kitchen held no evidence that a violent and deadly struggle had taken place there. The dishes on the table were spotted with dried egg yolk, butter, and crumbs of toast. The clock-radio produced soft instrumental music, an orchestrated version of a pop tune. The new issue of the weekly newspaper, distributed that morning, was folded in half and propped against two empty juice glasses and the sugar bowl. A cup of steaming coffee stood beside the paper. If she had watched her husband murder a child, could Emma have sat down to read less than an hour after the killing? Improbable. Impossible. There was no blood on the wall behind the electric range, no blood on the range itself, and no blood, not even one thin smear, on the tile floor.

  “Did you come to get Buster?” Emma asked. She was clearly perplexed by their behavior.

  “No,” Paul said. “But we’ll take him off your hands. Actually, I’m ashamed to tell you why we did come.”

  “They cleaned it up,” Rya said.

  “I don’t want to hear—”

  “They cleaned up the blood,” she said excitedly.

  Paul pointed one finger at her. “You have caused quite enough trouble for one day, young lady. You keep quiet. I’ll talk to you later.”

  Ignoring his warning, she said, “They cleaned up the blood and hid his body.”

  “Body?” Emma looked confused. “What body?”

 
It’s a misunderstanding, a hoax, or—” Paul began.

  Rya interrupted him. To Emma she said, “Mr. Thorp killed Mark. You know he did. Don’t lie! You stood at that chair and watched him beat Mark to death. You were naked and—”

  “Rya!” Paul said sharply.

  “It’s true!”

  “I told you to be quiet.”

  “She was naked and—”

  In eleven years he had never been required to deal out any punishment more severe than a twenty-four-hour suspension of some of her privileges. But now, angry, he started toward her.

  Rya pushed past Jenny, threw open the kitchen door, and ran.

  Shocked by her defiance, angry and yet worried about her, Paul went after her. When he set foot on the stoop, she was already out of sight. She couldn’t have had time to run to the garage or to the station wagon; therefore, she must have slipped around the comer of the house, either left or right. He decided she would most likely head for Union Road, and he went that way. When he reached the sidewalk he saw her and called to her.

  She was nearly a block away, on the far side of the street, still running. If she heard him, she didn’t respond; she disappeared between two houses.

  He crossed the street and followed her. But when he reached the rear lawns of those houses, she wasn’t there.

  “Rya!”

  She didn’t answer him. She might have been too far away to hear—but he suspected that she was hiding nearby.

  “Rya, I just want to talk to you!”

  Nothing. Silence.

  Already his anger had largely given way to concern for her. What in the name of God had possessed the girl? Why had she concocted such a grisly story? And how had she managed to tell it with such passion? He hadn’t really believed any of it, not from the start—yet he’d been so impressed by her sincerity that he’d come to the Thorp house to see for himself. She wasn’t a liar by nature. She wasn’t that good an actress. At least not in his experience. And when her story was shown to be a lie, why had she defended it so ardently? How had she defended it so ardently, knowing it was a lie? Did she believe, perhaps, that it wasn’t a fabrication? Did she think that she actually had seen her brother killed? But if that was the case, she was—mentally disturbed. Rya? Mentally disturbed? Rya was tough. Rya knew how to cope. Rya was a rock. Even an hour ago he would have staked his life on her soundness of mind. Was there any psychological disorder that could strike a child so suddenly, without warning, without any symptoms beforehand?

  Deeply worried, he went back across the street to apologize to Emma Thorp.

  2

  10:15 A.M.

  Jeremy Thorp stood, almost as if at attention before a military court, in the center of the kitchen.

  “Do you understand what I’ve said?” Salsbury asked.

  “Yeah.”

  “You know what to do?”

  “Yeah. I know.”

  “Any questions?”

  “Just one.”

  “What is it?”

  “What do I do if they don’t show up?”

  “They’ll show up,” Salsbury said.

  “But what if they don’t?”

  “You have a watch, don’t you?”

  The boy held up one thin wrist.

  “You wait twenty minutes for them. If they don’t show up in that time, come straight back here. Is that understood?”

  “Yeah. Twenty minutes.”

  “Get moving.”

  The boy started toward the door.

  “Don’t leave that way. They’ll see you. Go out the front. ”

  Jeremy went down the narrow hall to the door.

  Salsbury followed, watched until the boy was out of sight behind the neighboring house, closed the door, locked it, and went back to the kitchen.

  Not bad, he thought. You’re holding up well, Ogden. H. Leonard himself couldn’t have coped any faster than you’ve done. Clever as hell. You are certainly clever. With your mind and the advantage of the power, the key-lock code phrases, you’ll weather this crisis. If Miriam could see you now ... What would old Miriam say now? You aren’t anything like Miriam said you were. You’re a tough customer. Jesus, what a tough customer. You make sound decisions under pressure, and you stick with them. Smart. Damned smart. But oh, my God, what a razor edge you’re walking!

  Standing next to the rear window, he pushed the curtain aside a fraction of an inch, until he could see the garage. Annendale slid the squirrel’s cage into the cargo bed of the station wagon, closed the tailgate, and put up the electric window. Jenny Edison got in the car. Annendale and Emma talked for perhaps a minute. Then he got behind the wheel and reversed out of the driveway. When Emma waved good-by to them and started back toward the house, Salsbury let the curtain fall into place.

  She came into the kitchen, saw him, and was startled. She looked as if she was ready to scream. “What are you doing here? Who are you?”

  “I am the key.”

  “I am the lock.”

  “Relax.”

  She did.

  “Sit down.”

  She sat.

  He stood in front of her, loomed over her. “What were you and Annendale talking about out there?”

  “He kept apologizing for his daughter’s behavior.”

  Salsbury laughed.

  Because her memories of this morning’s events had been selectively edited, she didn’t see the humor in the situation. “Why would Rya accuse Bob of murder? What a terrible thing. Does she think she’s being funny? What a gruesome joke!”

  The entrance foyer of St. Margaret Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was quiet and nearly lightless. The entire interior was done in dark pine—pegged pine floors, dark pine walls, open-beam ceilings, an intricately carved twelve-foot-high crucifix—as befitted the major house of worship in a lumber mill town. A five-watt bulb burned above the holy water font twelve feet away. At the far end of the auditorium, votive candles flickered in ruby-colored glass cups, and soft lights shone at the base of the altar. However, little of this ghostly illumination filtered through the open archway into the foyer.

  Cloaked in these shadows and in the holy silence, Jeremy Thorp leaned against one of the two heavy, brass-fitted front doors of the church. He opened it only two or three inches and held it in place with his hip. Beyond lay a set of brick steps, the sidewalk, a pair of birch trees, and then the western end of Main Street. The Union Theater was directly across the street; he had an adequate view of it in spite of the birches.

  Jeremy looked at his watch in the blade of light that sliced through the narrow crack between the doors. 10:20.

  As they approached the traffic light at the town square, Paul switched on the righthand turn signal.

  Jenny said, “The store’s to the left.”

  “I know.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “To the basketball court behind the theater.”

  “To check up on Emma?”

  “No. I’m sure she’s telling the truth.”

  “Why, then?”

  “I want to ask Mark exactly what did happen this morning,” he said, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited impatiently for the light to change.

  “Emma told us what happened. Nothing.”

  He said, “Emma’s eyes were red and puffy, as if she’d been crying. Maybe she and Bob had an argument while Mark was there. Rya might have come to the door at the height of the shouting. She might have misunderstood what was happening; she panicked and ran.”

  “Emma would have told us.”

  “She might have been too embarrassed.”

  As the traffic light turned green, Jenny said, “Panic? That sure doesn’t sound like Rya.”

  “I know. But is it more in character for her to fabricate extravagant lies?”

  She nodded. “You’re right. As unlikely as it is, it’s more likely that she was confused and that she panicked. ”

  “We’ll ask Mark.”

  According to Jeremy Thorp’s
wrist watch it was 10:22 when Paul Annendale drove his station wagon up Main Street and into the alleyway beside the theater. As soon as the car was out of sight, the boy left the church. He went down the front steps, stood at the curb, and waited for the station wagon to reappear.

  During the last hour the sky had come closer to the earth. From horizon to horizon, a solid mass of lowering gray-black clouds rolled eastward, driven by a strong high-altitude wind. Some of that wind had begun to sweep the streets of Black River, just enough of it to turn the leaves on the trees—a sign, according to folklore, of oncoming rain.

  No rain, please, Jeremy thought. We don’t want any damn rain. At least not before tonight. This summer a dozen kids had organized a series of bicycle races to be held every Friday. Last week he had placed second in the main event, the cross-town dash. But I’ll be first this week, he thought. I’ve been in training. Heavy training. Not wasting any time like those other kids. I’m sure to be the first this week—if it doesn’t rain.

  He glanced at his watch again. 10:26.

  A few seconds later, when he saw the station wagon coming back down the alley, Jeremy started walking east along Main Street at a brisk pace.

  As the car nosed out of the alley, just as Paul was about to turn right onto Main Street, Jenny said, “There’s Jeremy. ”

 
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