Night chills, p.20
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       Night Chills, p.20
 

           Dean Koontz
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  “Oh,” she said wearily. “Well, that sure is going to ruin my day. It sure is.”

  “Complaints, you mean?”

  “Each one nastier than the one before it. ”

  “If people complain, tell them that linemen from Bexford are working on the break. But there was a great deal of damage. The repairs will take hours. The job might not be done until tomorrow afternoon. Is that clear?”

  “They won’t like it.”

  “But is that clear?”

  “It’s clear.”

  “All right.” He sighed. “In a moment I’m going to go back to talk with the girls at the switchboard. Then upstairs to see your boss and his secretary. When I leave this room, you’ll forget everything we’ve said. You’ll remember me as a lineman from Bexford. I was just a lineman from Bexford who stopped in to tell you that my crew was already on the job. Understood?”

  “Yes.”

  “Go back to work. ”

  She returned to her desk.

  He walked behind the counter. He left the room by the hall door and went to talk to the switchboard operators.

  Paul felt like a burglar.

  You’re not here to steal anything, he told himself. Just your son’s body. If there is a body. And that belongs to you.

  Nevertheless, as he poked through the house, undeterred by the Thorps’ right to privacy, he felt like a thief.

  By 1:45 he and Sam had searched upstairs and down, through the bedrooms and baths and closets, through the living room and den and dining room and kitchen. There was no corpse.

  In the kitchen Paul opened the cellar door and switched on the light. “Down there. We should have looked down there first. It’s the most likely place.”

  “Even if Rya’s story is true,” Sam said, “this isn’t easy for me. This prying around. These people are old friends.”

  “It isn’t my style either.”

  “I feel like such a shit.”

  “It’s almost finished.”

  They descended the stairs.

  The first basement room was a well-used work center. The nearer end contained two stainless-steel sinks, an electric washer-dryer, a pair of wicker clothes baskets, a table large enough for folding freshly laundered towels, and shelves on which stood bottles of bleach, bottles of spot removers, and boxes of detergents. At the other end of the room there was a workbench equipped with vises and all of the other tools that Bob Thorp needed to tie flies. He was an enthusiastic and dedicated fly fisherman who enjoyed creating his own “bait”; but he also sold between two and three hundred pieces of his handiwork every year, more than enough to make his hobby a very profitable one.

  Sam peered into the shadowy cavity beneath the stairs and then searched the cupboards beside the washer-dryer.

  No corpse. No blood. Nothing.

  Paul’s stomach burned and gurgled as if he had swallowed a glassful of acid.

  He looked in the cabinets above and below the workbench, flinching each time he opened a door.

  Nothing.

  The second basement room, less than half the size of the first, was used entirely for food storage. Two walls were covered with floor-to-ceiling shelves; and these were lined with store-bought as well as home-canned fruits and vegetables. A large, chest-style freezer stood against the far wall.

  “In there or nowhere,” Sam said.

  Paul went to the freezer.

  He lifted the lid.

  Sam stepped in beside him.

  Frigid air rushed over them. Streams of ghostly vapor snaked into the room and were dissipated by the warmer air.

  The freezer contained two or three dozen plastic-wrapped and labeled packages of meat. These bundles weren’t stacked for optimum use of the space—and to Paul at least, that looked rather odd. Furthermore, they hadn’t been arranged according to size or weight or similarity of contents. They were merely dumped together every which way. They appeared to have been thrown into the freezer in great haste.

  Paul took a five-pound beef roast from the chest and dropped it on the floor. Then a ten-pound package of bacon. Another five-pound beef roast. Another roast. More bacon. A twenty-pound box of pork chops ...

  The dead boy had been placed in the bottom of the freezer, his arms on his chest and his knees drawn up; and the packages of meat had been used to conceal him. His nostrils were caked with blood. An icy, ruby crust of blood sealed his lips and masked his chin. He stared up at them with milky, frozen eyes that were as opaque as heavy cataracts.

  “Oh ... no. No. Oh, Jesus,” Sam murmured. He swung away from the freezer and ran. In the other room he turned on a faucet; the water splashed loudly.

  Paul heard him gagging and puking violently into one of the stainless-steel sinks.

  Strangely, he was now in full control of his emotions. When he saw his dead son, his intense anger and despair and grief were at once transformed into a deep compassion, into a tenderness that was beyond description.

  “Mark,” he said softly. “It’s okay. Okay now. I’m here. I’m here with you now. You aren’t alone anymore.”

  He took the remaining packages of meat from the freezer, one at a time, slowly excavating the grave.

  As Paul removed the last bundle from atop the body, Sam came to the doorway. “Paul? I’ll ... go upstairs. Use the phone. Call ... the state police.”

  Paul stared into the freezer.

  “Did you hear me?”

  “Yes. I heard you.”

  “Should I call the state police now?”

  “Yes. It’s time.”

  “How are you feeling?”

  “I’m all right, Sam.”

  “Will you be okay here—alone?”

  “Sure. Fine.”

  “Are you certain?”

  “Sure.”

  Sam hesitated, finally turned away. He took the steps two at a time, thunderously.

  Paul touched the boy’s cheek.

  It was cold and hard.

  Somehow he found the strength to pull the body, stiff as it was, out of the freezer. He balanced his son on the edge of the chest, got both arms under him and lifted him. He swung around and put the boy on the floor, in the center of the room.

  He blew on his hands to warm them.

  Sam came back, still as pale as the belly of a fish. He looked at Mark. His face twisted with pain, but he didn’t cry. He kept control of himself. “There seems to be some trouble with the telephones.”

  “What sort of trouble?”

  “Well, the lines have been blown down between here and Bexford.”

  Frowning, Paul said, “Blown down? It doesn’t seem windy enough for that.”

  “Not here it isn’t. But it probably is much windier farther on toward Bexford. In these mountains you can have a pocket of relative calm right next to a fierce storm.”

  “The lines to Bexford ...” Paul brushed strands of stiff, frozen, blood-crusted hair from his son’s white forehead. “What does that mean to us?”

  “You can ring up anyone you want in town or up at the mill. But you can’t place a long-distance call.”

  “Who told you?”

  “The operator. Mandy Ultman.”

  “Does she have any idea when they’ll get it fixed?”

  “Evidently, there’s been a lot of damage,” Sam said. “She tells me a crew of linemen from Bexford are already working. But they’ll need several hours to put things right.”

  “How many hours?”

  “Well, they’re not even sure they can patch it up any time before tomorrow morning.”

  Paul remained at his son’s side, kneeling on the concrete floor, and he thought about what Sam had said.

  “One of us should drive into Bexford and call the state police from there.”

  “Okay,” Paul said.

  “You want me to do it?”

  “If you want. Or I will. It doesn’t matter. But first we have to move Mark to your place.”

  “Move him?”

  “Of course.”
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br />   “But isn’t that against the law?” He cleared his throat. “I mean, the scene of the crime and all that.”

  “I can’t leave him here, Sam.”

  “But if Bob Thorp did this, you want him to pay for it. Don’t you? If you move—move the body, what proof do you have that you actually found it here?”

  Surprised by the steadiness of his own voice, Paul said, “The police forensic specialists will be able to find traces of Mark’s hair and blood in the freezer.”

  “But—”

  “I can’t leave him here!”

  Sam nodded. “All right.”

  “I just can’t, Sam.”

  “Okay. We’ll get him to the car.”

  “Thank you.”

  “We’ll take him to my place.”

  “Thank you.”

  “How will we carry him?”

  “You—take his feet.”

  Sam touched the boy. “So cold.”

  “Be careful with him, Sam.”

  Sam nodded as they lifted the body.

  “Be gentle with him, please.”

  “Okay. ”

  “Please. ”

  “I will,” Sam said. “I will.”

  5

  2:00 P.M.

  Thunder cannonaded, and rain shattered against the windows of the police chief’s office.

  Two men, employees of other governmental departments that shared the municipal building, stood with their backs to the windows, trying to look stem, authoritarian, and eminently reliable. Bob Thorp had provided them with bright yellow hooded rain slickers with POLICE stenciled across their shoulders and chests. Both men were in their middle or late thirties, yet they expressed an almost childish delight at the opportunity to wear these raincoats: adults playing cops and robbers.

  “Can you use a gun?” Salsbury asked them.

  They both said that they could.

  Salsbury turned to Bob Thorp. “Give them guns.”

  “Revolvers?” the police chief asked.

  “Do you have shotguns?”

  “Yes.”

  “I believe those would be better than revolvers,” Salsbury said. “Don’t you agree?”

  “For this operation?” Thorp said. “Yes. Much better.”

  “Then give them shotguns.”

  A brilliant explosion of lightning flashed against the windows. The effect was stroboscopic: everyone and every object in the room seemed to jump rapidly back and forth for an instant, although in reality nothing moved.

  Overhead the fluorescent lights flickered.

  Thorp went to the metal firearms cabinet behind his desk, unlocked it, and fetched two shotguns.

  “Do you know how to use these?” Salsbury asked the men in the yellow raincoats.

  One of them nodded.

  The other said, “Not much to it. These babies pack a hell of a lot of punch. You pretty much just have to point in the general direction of the target and pull the trigger.” He gripped the gun with both hands, admired it, smiled at it.

  “Good enough,” Salsbury said. “The two of you will go out to the parking lot behind this building, get in the spare patrol car, and drive to the east end of town. Understand me so far?”

  “To the east end,” one of them said.

  “A hundred yards short of the turn at the mouth of the valley, you’ll park the cruiser across the highway and block both lanes as best you can.”

  “A roadblock,” one of them said, obviously pleased with the way the game was developing.

  “Exactly,” Salsbury said. “If anyone wants to enter Black River—logging trucks, local citizens, maybe visitors from out of town, anyone at all—you’ll let them in. However, you’ll send them here, straight to this office. You’ll tell them that a state of emergency has been declared in Black River and that they absolutely must, without exception, check in with the chief of police before they go on about their business.”

  “What kind of emergency?”

  “You don’t need to know.”

  One of them frowned.

  The other said, “Everyone we stop will want to know.”

  “If they ask, tell them that the chief will explain it.”

  Both men nodded.

  Thorp distributed a dozen shotgun shells to each of them.

  “If anyone tries to leave Black River,” Salsbury said, “you’ll also direct them to the chief, and you’ll give them the same story about a state of emergency. Understood?”

  “Yes.”

  “Yes.”

  “Every time you send someone to see Bob, whether they were coming into town or trying to get out of it, you’ll radio this office. That way, if they don’t show up within a few minutes, we’ll know that we’ve got some renegades on our hands. Understood?”

  They both said, “Yes.”

  Salsbury took his handkerchief from his hip pocket and blotted the perspiration from his face. “If anyone leaving town tries to run your roadblock, stop them. If you can’t stop them any other way, use the guns.”

  “Shoot to kill?”

  “Shoot to kill,” Salsbury said. “But only if there’s no other way to stop them.”

  One of the men tried to look like John Wayne receiving orders at the Alamo, shook his head, solemnly, and said, “Don’t worry. You can count on us.”

  “Any questions?”

  “How long will we be in charge of this roadblock?”

  “Another team of men will relieve you in six hours,” Salsbury said. “At eight o’clock this evening.” He jammed his handkerchief back into his pocket. “One other thing. When you leave this room, you will forget that you ever met me. You’ll forget that I was here. You’ll remember everything I’ve said to you prior to what I’m saying to you now, every precious exchange of this conversation we’ve just had—but you’ll think that Bob Thorp gave you your instructions. Is that perfectly clear?”

  “Yes.”

  “Perfectly. ”

  “Then get moving. ”

  The two men went out of the room, forgetting him the moment they set foot in the corridor.

  A fiercely white pulse of lightning washed over the town, and a crack of thunder followed, rattling the windows.

  “Close those blinds,” Salsbury said irritably.

  Thorp did as he was told.

  Salsbury sat down behind the desk.

  When he had drawn the Venetian blinds, Bob Thorp returned to the desk and stood in front of it.

  Salsbury looked up at him and said, “Bob, I want to seal this burg up tight. Real tight.” He made a fist with his right hand by way of example. “I want to make damned sure that no one can get out of town. Is there anything else that I should block in addition to the highway?”

  Scratching his beetled brow, Thorp said, “You need two more men at the east end of the valley. One to watch the river. He should be armed with a rifle so he can pick off anyone in a boat if he has to do that. The other man should be stationed in the trees between the river and the highway. Give him a shotgun and tell him to stop anyone who tries to sneak out through the woods.”

  “The man at the river—he’d have to be an expert with a rifle, wouldn’t he?” Salsbury asked.

  “You wouldn’t need a master rifleman. But he would have to be a fairly good shot.”

  “Okay. We’ll use one of your deputies for that. They’re all good with a rifle, aren’t they?”

  “Oh, sure.”

  “Good enough for this?”

  “No doubt about it.”

  “Anything else?”

  Thorp thought about the situation for almost a minute. Finally he said, “There’s a series of old logging roads that lead up to the mountains and eventually hook up with a second series of roads that come from the lumber
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