Night chills, p.18
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       Night Chills, p.18
 

          
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  Paul tapped the brakes. “Where?”

  “Across the street.”

  “Mark’s not with him.” He blew the horn, put down his window, and motioned for the boy to come to him.

  After he had looked both ways, Jeremy crossed the street. “Hi, Mr. Annendale. Hi, Jenny.”

  Paul said, “Your mother told me you and Mark were playing basketball behind the theater.”

  “We started to. But it wasn’t much fun, so we went up to Gordon’s Woods.”

  “Where’s that?”

  They were in the final block of Main Street; but the road continued to the west. It rose with the land, rounded a bluff, and went on until it reached the mill and after that the logging camp.

  Jeremy pointed to the forest atop the bluff. “That’s Gordon’s Woods.”

  “Why would you want to go up there?” Paul asked.

  “We’ve got a treehouse in Gordon’s Woods.” The boy read Paul’s expression accurately, and he quickly said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Annendale. It’s not a rickety old place. It’s completely safe. Some of our fathers built it for all the kids in town.”

  “He’s right,” Jenny said. “It’s safe. Sam was one of the fathers who built it.” She smiled. “Even though his daughter is a bit too old for treehouses.”

  Jeremy grinned. He wore braces. Those and the freckles that peppered his face disarmed Paul. The boy clearly didn’t have the guile, the dark personality, or the experience to take part in a murder conspiracy.

  Paul felt somewhat relieved. When he hadn’t found Jeremy and Mark at the basketball court, that icy hand had settled once more, if briefly, on the back of his neck. He said, “Is Mark up at the treehouse now?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Why aren’t you there?”

  “Me and Mark and a couple of other kids want to play Monopoly. So I’m going home to get my set.”

  “Jeremy ...” How could he possibly find out what he wanted to know? “Did anything—happen in your kitchen this morning?”

  The boy blinked, a bit perplexed by the question. “We had breakfast.”

  Feeling more foolish than ever, Paul said, “Well ... You better get your Monopoly set. The other kids are waiting. ”

  Jeremy said good-by to Jenny and Paul and to Buster, turned, looked both ways, and crossed the street.

  Paul watched him until he turned the comer at the square.

  “Now what?” Jenny said.

  “Rya probably ran to Sam for sympathy and protection.” He sighed. “She’s had time to calm down. Maybe she realizes that she panicked. We’ll see what her story is now.”

  “If she didn’t run to Sam?”

  “Then there’s no use looking for her all over town. If she wants to hide from us, she can with little trouble. Sooner or later she’ll come to the store.”

  Sitting at the kitchen table, across from his mother, Jeremy recounted the conversation he’d had with Paul Annendale a few minutes ago.

  When the boy finished, Salsbury said, “And he believed it?”

  Jeremy frowned. “Believed what?”

  “He believed that Mark was at the treehouse?”

  “Well, sure. Isn’t he?”

  Okay. Okay, okay, Salsbury thought. This isn’t the end of the crisis. You’ve bought some time to think. An hour or two. Maybe three hours. Eventually Annendale will go looking for his son. Two or three hours. You’ve no time to waste. Be decisive. You’ve been wonderfully decisive so far. What you’ve got to do is be decisive and get this straightened out before you have to tell Dawson about it.

  Earlier, within twenty minutes of the boy’s death, he had edited the Thorp family’s memories, had erased all remembrance of the killing from their minds. That editing took no longer than two or three minutes—but it was only the first stage of a plan to conceal his involvement in the murder. If the situation were any less desperate, if a capital offense hadn’t been committed, if the entire key-lock program didn’t hang in the balance, he could have left the Thorps with blank spots in their memories, and he would have felt perfectly safe in spite of that. But the circumstances were such that he knew he should not merely wipe out the truth but that he should also replace it with a detailed set of false memories, recollections of routine events which might have happened that morning but which in reality did not.

  He decided to begin with the woman. To the boy he said, “Go into the living room and sit on the couch. Don’t move from there until I call for you. Understood?”

  “Yeah.” Jeremy left the room.

  Salsbury thought for a minute about how to proceed.

  Emma watched him, waited.

  Finally he said, “Emma, what time is it?”

  She looked at the clock-radio. “Twenty minutes of eleven. ”

  “No,” he said softly. “That’s wrong. It’s twenty minutes of nine. Twenty minutes of nine this morning.”

  “It is?”

  “Look at the clock, Emma.”

  “Twenty of nine,” she said.

  “Where are you, Emma?”

  “In my kitchen.”

  “Who else is here?”

  “Just you.”

  “No.” He sat in Jeremy’s chair. “You can’t see me. You can’t see me at all. Can you, Emma?”

  “No. 1 can’t see you.”

  “You can hear me. But you know what? Whenever our little conversation is over, you won’t remember we’ve had it. Every event that I describe to you in the next couple of minutes will become a part of your memories. You won’t remember that you were told these things. You will think that you actually experienced them. Is that clear, Emma?”

  “Yes.” Her eyes glazed. Her facial muscles went slack.

  “All right. What time is it?”

  “Twenty minutes of nine.”

  “Where are you?”

  “In my kitchen.”

  “Who else is here?”

  “No one.”

  “Bob and Jeremy are here.”

  “Bob and Jeremy are here,” she said.

  “Bob’s in that chair.”

  She smiled at Bob.

  “Jeremy’s sitting there. The three of you are eating breakfast. ”

  “Yes. Breakfast.”

  “Fried eggs. Toast. Orange juice.”

  “Fried eggs. Toast. Orange juice. ”

  “Pick up that glass, Emma.”

  She stared doubtfully at the tumbler.

  “It’s filled to the top with cold, sweet orange juice. Do you see it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Doesn’t it look good?”

  “Yes.”

  “Drink some of it, Emma.”

  She drank from the empty glass.

  He laughed aloud. The power ... It was going to work. He could make her remember whatever he wished. “How does it taste?”

  She licked her lips. “Delicious.”

  Lovely animal, he thought, suddenly giddy. Lovely, lovely little animal.

  3

  NOON

  In Buddy’s nightmare two men were filling the town’s reservoir with cats. In the deepest shadows of the night, just before sunrise, they were standing at the edge of the pool, opening cages and pitching the animals into the water. The felines squalled about this assault on their dignity and comfort. Soon the reservoir was teeming with cats: alley cats, Siamese cats, Angora cats, Persian cats, black cats and gray cats and white cats and yellow cats, striped cats, spotted cats, old cats and kittens. Below the reservoir in Black River, Buddy innocently turned on the cold water tap in his kitchen—and cats, dozens upon dozens of fiercely angry cats, began to spill into the sink, full-sized cats that had somehow, miraculously, passed through the plumbing, through narrow-gauge pipe and rat traps and elbow joints and filter screens. Screeching, wailing, hissing, biting, scratching cats fell over one another and clawed the porcelain and scrambled inexorably out of the sink as new streams of cats poured in behind them. Cats on the counter. Cats on the breadbox. Cats in the dish rack. They leapt
to the floor and clambered atop the cupboards. One of them jumped on Buddy’s back as he turned to run. He tore it loose and threw it against the wall. The other cats were outraged by this cruelty. They swarmed after Buddy, all of them spitting and snarling. He reached the bedroom/living room inches ahead of them, slammed and locked the door. They threw themselves against the far side of the barrier and yammered incessantly, but they weren’t strong enough to force their way through it. Relieved that he had escaped them, Buddy turned—and saw ten-yard-square cages full of cats, scores of green eyes studying him intensely, and behind the cages two men wearing shoulder holsters, holding pistols, and dressed in black rubber scuba suits.

  He woke up, sat up, and screamed. He flailed at the mattress, wrestled with the sheets, and pounded his fists into the pillows for a few seconds until, gradually, he realized that none of these things was a cat.

  “Dream,” he mumbled.

  Because Buddy slept in the mornings and early afternoons, the drapes were heavy, and there was virtually no light in the room. He quickly switched on the bedside lamp.

  No cats.

  No men in scuba suits.

  Although he knew that he had been dreaming, although he’d had this same dream on each of the last three days, Buddy got out of bed, stepped into a pair of slippers that were as large as most men’s boots, and lumbered into the kitchen to check the water faucets. There were no cats streaming out of them, and that was a good thing to know.

  However, he was badly shaken. He was no less affected by the dream for having endured it on two other occasions. All week his sleep had been disturbed by dreams of one sort or another; and he never was able to fall back to sleep once brought awake by a vivid nightmare.

  The wall clock showed 12:13. He came home from the mill at half past eight and went to bed at half past nine, five days a week, as if he were a clockwork mechanism. Which meant that he had gotten barely three hours of sleep.

  He went to the kitchen table, sat down, and opened the travel magazine that he had bought at the general store last Monday. He studied the photographs of divers in scuba suits.

  Why? he thought. Divers. Seamen. Guns. At the reservoir. Why? So late. Late at night. Dark, Divers. Why? Figure it. Come on. Figure it. Can’t. Can. Can’t. Can. Can’t. Divers. In woods. Night. So crazy. Can’t figure it.

  He decided to shower, get dressed, and walk across the street to Edison’s General Store. It was time he asked Sam to figure it for him.

  At 12:05 Rya watched a man in thick glasses, gray trousers, and a dark blue shirt enter Pauline Vicker’s rooming house. He was the man who had ordered Bob Thorp to kill Mark.

  At 12:10 she went to St. Margaret Mary’s and hid in one of the confessionals at the right rear comer of the nave. Last week she had heard Emma mention the Friday lunch and card club that met all afternoon in the church basement. Through a chink in the crimson velveteen confessional curtains, she could look across the back of the nave to the steps that led down to the recreation room. Women in bright summer dresses and pantsuits, many of them carrying umbrellas, arrived singly and in pairs for the next fifteen minutes—and Emma Thorp came through the foyer arch promptly at twelve thirty. Rya recognized her even in the dim light. As soon as Emma disappeared down the stairs. Rya left the confessional.

  For a moment she was transfixed by the sight of the crucifix at the far end of the chamber. The wooden Christ seemed to be staring over all the pews, directly at her.

  You could have saved my mother, she thought. You could have saved Mark. Why did you put killers on earth?

  Of course the crucifix had no answer.

  God helps those who help themselves, she thought. Okay. I’m going to help myself. I’m going to make them pay for what they did to Mark. I’m going to get proof of it. You wait and see if I don’t. You wait and see.

  She was beginning to tremble again, and she felt tears at the corners of her eyes. She took a minute to calm herself, then walked out of the nave.

  In the foyer she discovered that one of the main doors was open, and that the lowest of its four hinges had been removed. A toolbox stood on the foyer floor, and a variety of tools were spread out around it. The workman apparently had gone to get some piece of material that he had forgotten on his first trip.

  She turned and looked through the archway at the twelve-foot-high crucifix.

  The wooden eyes still seemed to be staring at her, a terribly sad expression in them.

  Quickly, worried that the workman might return at any moment, she bent down, peered into the toolbox, and plucked a heavy wrench from it. She slipped the wrench into a pocket of her windbreaker and left the church.

  At 12:35 she strolled past the municipal building which was at the northeast corner of the square. The police chief’s office was toward the rear of the first floor, and it had two large windows. The venetian blinds were raised. As she passed she saw Bob Thorp sitting at his desk, facing the windows; he was eating a sandwich and reading a magazine.

  At 12:40 she stood in front of Ultman’s Cafe and watched as a dozen kids cycled north on Union Road toward the macadamed alley where some of the Friday races were held. Jeremy Thorp was one of the cyclists.

  At 12:45, at the southern end of Union Road, Rya crossed the street, walked under the grapevine arbor, and went around to the back of the Thorp place. The lawn ended in brush and trees, no parallel streets and no buildings in that direction. There was no house to her left—just the lawn and the garage and the river. To her right the nearest dwelling was set closer to Union Road than was the Thorp house; therefore, she was not in anyone’s line of sight.

  A polished copper knocker gleamed in the center of the door. To one side of that, near the knob, were three decorative windows, each six inches wide and nine inches long.

  She knocked loudly.

  No one answered.

  When she tried the door she found that it was locked. She had expected as much.

  She took the stolen wrench from her windbreaker, gripped it tightly in one hand, and used it to smash the middle pane in the vertical row of three. The blow made considerably more noise than she had anticipated—although not sufficient noise to discourage her. When she had broken every shard of glass out of the frame, she pocketed the wrench, reached through the window, and felt for the latch. She began to despair of ever locating the mechanism—and then her fingers touched cool metal. She fumbled with the lock for almost a minute, finally released it, withdrew her arm from the window, and shoved open the door.

  Standing on the stoop, staring warily into the shadow-hung kitchen, she thought: What if one of them comes back home and finds me in there?

  Go ahead, she urged herself. You better go inside before you lose your courage.

  I’m scared. They killed Mark.

  You ran away this morning. Are you going to run away again? Are you going to run away from everything that scares you, from now until the day you die?

  She walked into the kitchen.

  Glass crunched underfoot.

  When she reached the electric range where the murder had taken place, she stood quite still, poised to flee, and listened closely for movement. The refrigerator and the upright freezer rumbled softly, steadily. The clock-radio hummed. A loose window rattled as a gust of wind rushed along the side of the house. In the living room a grandfather clock, running a few minutes late, solemnly chimed the third quarter of the hour; the note reverberated long after the pipe had been struck. The house was filled with noises; but none of them had a human source; she was alone.

  Having broken the law, having violated the sanctity of another person’s home, with the first and most dangerous step already taken, she couldn’t decide what to do next. Well ... Search the house. Of course. Search it from top to bottom. Look for the body. But where to begin?

  At last, when she realized that her indecision was an outgrowth of the fear which she was determined to overcome, when she realized that she was desperately afraid of finding Mark’s corpse even thou
gh she had come here to do precisely that, she began the search in the kitchen. There were only a few places in that room where the body of a nine-year-old boy might possibly be concealed. She looked in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and then in the freezer, but she uncovered nothing out of the ordinary.

  When she opened the cabinet beneath the sink, however, she saw a bucket full of bloody rags. Not rags, really. Dish towels. They had used the towels to clean up, had thrown them in the bucket—and then apparently had forgotten to destroy the evidence. She picked up one of the cloths. It was wet, cold, and heavy with blood. She dropped it and gazed at her stained hand.

  “Oh, Mark,” she said sadly, a bit breathlessly. A pain rose from deep inside of her, filled her chest. “Little Mark ... You never ever hurt anyone. Not anyone. What they did to you. What an awful thing they did to you. Why?”

  She stood up. Her knees felt weak.

  Find the body, she thought.

  No, she told herself.

  You came here to find the body.

  I’ve changed my mind. Find the body? No. No, that’s just ... too much. Much too much. Finding him ... Mark ... with his skull cracked open ... and his eyes rolled back in his head ... and dried blood all over his face ... Too much. Even strong girls can’t deal with everything in life. Even strong girls have their limits, don’t they? This is mine. My limit. I can’t go looking ... all through the house ... just can’t ...

  Beginning to cry, beginning to shake, she picked up the bucket and left the house.

  At 12:45 Salsbury carried his briefcase down from his room and went to the parlor.

  Pauline Vicker was sitting in the largest of the three arm-chairs. She was a heavyset woman in her early sixties. Fluffy gray hair. Ruddy complexion. Double chin. Merry eyes and a nearly constant smile. She had the archetypal grandmother’s face, the model for grandmothers’ faces in storybooks and movies. Her bare feet were propped up on a hassock. She was eating candies and watching a television soap opera.

  From the doorway he said, “Mrs. Vicker.”

  She glanced up, chewing a caramel. She had some trouble swallowing. Then: “Good afternoon, Mr. Deighton. If you’ve a complaint about your room or anything—do you think perhaps it could wait for just a bit, a few minutes—not longer than that mind you—just until this show ends? It’s one of my favorite shows and—”

  “I am the key,” he said impatiently.

  “Oh,” she said, disappointed that she wasn’t going to be able to finish watching the program. “I am the lock.”

  “Get up, Mrs. Vicker.”

  She struggled out of the chair.

  Fat old cow, he thought.

  “What do you need?” she asked pleasantly.

 
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