Night chills, p.31
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       Night Chills, p.31
 

           Dean Koontz
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  They had heard him coming up the stairs. They were ready and waiting for him.

  But how had they done it?

  Sick, trembling, aware that it was too late for him to save himself, he nevertheless turned to meet the danger.

  There was no one behind him. The storm conveniently provided another short burst of incandescent light, confirming that he saw what he thought he saw: he and the child were alone on the platform.

  “Hey, mister.”

  He looked up.

  A black form, like a monstrous bat, was suspended above him. The woman. Jenny Edison. He could not see her face, but he had no doubt about who she was. She had heard him coming up the stairs when he thought he was being so clever. She had climbed atop the bell and had braced herself in the steel bell supports, against the ceiling, at the highest point of the arch, six feet overhead, like a goddamned bat.

  It’s twenty-seven years since I was in Korea, he thought. I’m too old for commando raids. Too old ...

  He couldn’t see the gun she held, but he knew he was looking into the barrel of it.

  Behind him the Annendale girl scrambled out of the line of fire.

  It happened so fast, too fast.

  “Good riddance, you bastard,” the Edison woman said.

  He never heard the shot.

  Dawson landed on his back in the middle of the inclined ramp. Trapped in the other man’s clumsy but effective embrace, Paul fell on top of him, driving the breath from both of them.

  After a long shudder, the conveyor belt adjusted to their weight. It swiftly carried them headfirst toward the open mouth of the scrap furnace.

  Gasping, limp, Paul managed to raise his head from Dawson’s heaving chest. He saw a circle of yellow and orange and red flames flickering satanically thirty yards ahead.

  Twenty-five yards ...

  Winded, with a bullet wound in one shoulder, having cracked his head against the ramp when he fell, Dawson was not immediately in a fighting mood. He sucked air, choked on the fiercely heavy rain, and blew water from his nostrils.

  The belt clattered and thumped upward.

  Twenty yards ...

  Paul tried to roll off that highway of death.

  With his good hand Dawson held Paul by the shirt.

  Fifteen yards ...

  “Let go ... you ... bastard.” Paul twisted, squirmed, hadn’t the strength to free himself.

  Dawson’s fingers were like claws.

  Ten yards ...

  Tapping his last reserves of energy, the dregs from the barrel, Paul pulled back his fist and punched Dawson in the face.

  Dawson let go of him.

  Five yards ...

  Whimpering, already feeling the furnace heat, he threw himself to the right, off the ramp.

  How far to the ground?

  He fell with surprisingly little pain into a bed of weeds and mud beside the mill pond.

  When he looked up he saw Dawson—delirious, unaware of the danger until it was too late for him—dropping headfirst into that crackling, spitting, roiling, hellish pit of fire.

  If the man screamed, his voice was blotted out by a cymbal-like crash of thunder.

  THE ENDING

  Saturday, August 27, 1977

  5:00 A.M.

  The mess hall at the logging camp was a rectangle, eighty feet by forty feet. Sam and Rya sat behind a dining table at one end of the long room. A single-file line of weary lumbermen stretched from their table across the hall and out the door at the far end.

  As each man stepped up to the table, Sam used the power of the key-lock program to restructure his memory. When the new recollections were firmly implanted, he excused the man—and Rya struck a name from the Big Union Supply Company’s employee list.

  Between the thirtieth and the thirty-first subject, Rya said to Sam, “How do you feel?”

  “How do you feel?”

  “I’m not the one who was shot.”

  “You’ve been hurt too,” he said.

  “All I feel is—grown up.”

  “More than that.”

  “And sad,” she said.

  “And sad.”

  “Because it’ll never be the same. Not ever.” Her lips trembled. She cleared her throat. “Now, how’s your leg?”

  “About a yard long,” he said.

  He pulled on her chin.

  She pulled on his beard.

  He managed to get a smile from her, and that was better medicine than Doc Troutman’s antibiotics.

  6:30 A.M.

  The storm clouds had begun to break up two hours ago. Dawn brought welcome shafts of autumn sunlight.

  In the dense pine forest, half a mile above Black River, three men lowered the remains of Dawson, and the bodies of Salsbury and Klinger into a common grave.

  “All right,” Jenny told them. “Fill it in.”

  With each shovelful of dirt that struck the corpses, she felt more alive.

  9:30 A.M.

  After a refueling stop in Augusta, the hornetlike helicopter put down on the landing pad behind the Greenwich house at nine thirty in the morning.

  “Get it gassed up and serviced for a trip back to Black. River this evening,” Paul said.

  “Yes, sir,” Malcolm Spencer said.

  “Then go home and get some sleep. Be back here by seven o’clock this evening. That should give us both time to rest. ”

  “I can use it,” Spencer said.

  Paul got out of the helicopter and stretched. He had showered and shaved and changed clothes before leaving Maine, but that had refreshed him only temporarily. He was stiff, sore, and tired deep in his bones.

  He went to the rear door of the stone house and knocked.

  A servant answered. She was a plump, pleasant-faced woman in her fifties. Her hair was tied back in a bun. Her hands were white with flour. “Yes, sir?”

  “I am the key.”

  “I am the lock.”

  “Let me in.”

  She stepped out of his way.

  Inside, he said, “Where’s the computer?”

  “The what, sir?” she asked.

  “The computer. Dawson’s computer.”

  “I haven’t any idea, sir.”

  He nodded. “Okay. Forget about me. Go back to whatever you were doing.” He looked around the elaborately equipped kitchen. “Doing a bit of baking, I see. Go ahead with it. Forget that I was ever here.”

  Humming to herself, she returned to the counter beside the oven.

  He poked about on his own until he located the computer room. When he found it, he sat before one of the programming consoles and typed out the access code that he had gotten from Salsbury.

  The computer responded on all of its read-out screens:

  PROCEED

  Pecking at the typewriter keys with one finger, doing precisely what Salsbury had told him to do, he ordered it to:

  ERASE ALL STORED DATA

  Five seconds later the read-out screen flickered:

  ALL STORED DATA ERASED

  That message disappeared from the tubes, and his second order was displayed for a few seconds:

  ERASE ALL PROGRAMS

  It said:

  REQUEST CONFIRMATION

  OF LAST DIRECTIVE

  So weary that the letters on the keys blurred before him, Paul again typed:

  ERASE ALL PROGRAMS

  Those three words shimmered on the green background for perhaps half a minute. Then they blinked several times, vanished.

  He typed the words “Black River” and asked for a read-out and a full print-out of associated data.

  The computer did nothing.

  Next, he typed the words “key-lock” and asked for a read-out and a full print-out of all information in that file.

  Nothing.

  He requested that the computer run a systems check on itself and display its circuitry on the cathode-ray tubes.

  The tubes showed nothing.

  He leaned back in the programmer’s chair and closed
his eyes.

  Years ago, when he had been in high school, he had seen a boy lose a finger in woodworking shop. The boy had sliced it off on the band saw, a very even cut between the second and third knuckles. For two or three minutes, while everyone around him babbled in panic, the boy had treated the bloody stump as little more than a curiosity. He had even joked about it. And then, when his composure had infected those who were giving him first aid, he suddenly came to terms with what had happened, suddenly recognized the loss and the pain, began to scream and wail.

  In much the same fashion, the meaning of Mark’s death exploded in Paul, hit him with the emotional equivalent of a truck plowing through a stone wall. He doubled over in the chair and, for the first time since he’d come across the pathetic body in the freezer, he wept.

  6:00 P.M.

  When he got out of the car, Sam stood for a while, looking at the general store.

  Jenny said, “What’s the matter, Dad?”

  “Just deciding how much I can get for it.”

  “For the store? You’re selling?”

  “I’m selling.”

  “But ... it’s your life.”

  “I’m getting out of Black River,” he said. “I can’t stay here ... knowing that any time I want ... I can just open these people with the phrase ... use them ...”

  “You wouldn’t use them,” she said, taking him by the arm as Rya took his other arm.

  “But knowing that I could ... That sort of thing can eat at the soul, rot a man up inside ...” Flanked by them, he went up the porch steps. For the first time in his life, he felt like an old man.

  SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1, 1977

  The following headline appeared at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times:

  MRS. DAWSON HIRES INVESTIGATORS; DISSATISFIED WITH F.B.I.’S WORK

  SATURDAY, OCTOBER 8, 1977

  Two bellhops showed them to the honeymoon suite.

  On the desk in the parlor, there was an arrangement of carnations and roses, compliments of the management. Jenny made him savor the fragrances: first a rose by itself, then a carnation, then a rose and a carnation together.

  Later, they made love, taking their time about it, doing what most pleased each other. He seemed to float on her and she on him, he in her and she in him. It was a rich, full experience; and they were sated afterwards.

  For a while they were silent, lying on their backs, holding hands, eyes closed.

  At last she said, “It was different that time.”

  “Not bad, though,” he said. “At least not for me.”

  “Oh, no. Not bad. Not for me either.”

  “What then?”

  “Just... different. I don’t know. Maybe ... We’ve gained something—intensity, I think. But we’ve also lost something. There wasn’t any innocence to it this time. ”

  “We’re not innocent people anymore.”

  “I guess we aren’t,” she said.

  We’re killers, he thought. Children of the 1970s, sons and daughters of the great machine age, survivalists.

  All right, he told himself angrily. Enough. We’re killers. But even killers can grab hold of a little happiness. More important, even killers can give a little happiness. And isn’t that the most anyone can do in this life? Give a little happiness?

  He thought of Mark: the faked death certificate, the small grave next to Annie’s casket ...

  He turned to Jenny again and took her in his arms and let the world shrink until it was no larger than their two bodies.

 
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