Night Chills, p.4Dean Koontz
humble anywhere but in church—said, “Dear God.” He stared at Salsbury as a devout Catholic might have gazed upon the vision at Fatima. “Ogden, the two of us are going to—inherit the earth?” His face was suddenly split by an utterly humorless smile.
Saturday, August 13, 1977
In one of the third-floor guest bedrooms of the Edison house, Paul Annendale arranged his shaving gear on top of the dresser. From left to right: a can of foam, a mug containing a lather brush, a straight razor in a plastic safety case, a dispenser full of razor blades, a styptic pencil, a bottle of skin conditioner, and a bottle of after-shave lotion. Those seven items had been arranged in such an orderly fashion that they looked as if they belonged in one of those animated cartoons in which everyday items come to life and march around like soldiers.
He turned from the dresser and went to one of the two large windows. In the distance the mountains rose above the valley walls, majestic and green, mottled by purple shadows from a few passing clouds. The nearer ridges—decorated with stands of pines, scattered elms, and meadows—sloped gently toward the town. On the far side of Main Street, birch trees rustled in the breeze. Men in short-sleeved shirts and women in crisp summer dresses strolled along the sidewalk. The veranda roof and the sign for Edison’s store were directly below the window.
As his gaze moved back from the distant mountains, Paul became aware of his own reflection in the window glass. At five ten and one hundred fifty pounds, he was neither tall nor short, heavy nor thin. In some ways he looked older than thirty-eight, and in other ways he looked younger. His crinkly, almost frizzy light brown hair was worn full on the sides but not long. It was a hair style more suited to a younger man, but it looked good on him. His eyes were so blue that they might have been chips of mirrors reflecting the sky above. The expression of pain and loss lying beneath the surface brightness of those eyes belonged to a much older man. His features were narrow, somewhat aristocratic; but a deep tan softened the sharp angles of his face and saved him from a haughty look. He appeared to be a man who would feel at ease both in an elegant drawing room and in a waterfront bar.
He was wearing a blue workshirt, blue jeans, and black square-toed boots; however, he did not seem to be casually dressed. Indeed, in spite of the jeans, there was an air of formality about his outfit. He wore those clothes better than most men wore tuxedos. The sleeves of his shirt had been carefully pressed and creased. His open collar stood up straight and stiff, as if it had been starched. The silvery buckle on his belt had been carefully polished. Like his shirt, his jeans seemed to have been tailored. His low-heeled boots shone almost like patent leather.
He had always been compulsively neat. He couldn’t remember a time when his friends hadn’t kidded him about it. As a child he had kept his toy box in better order than his mother had kept the china closet.
Three and a half years ago, after Annie died and left him with the children, his need for order and neatness had become almost neurotic. On a Wednesday afternoon, ten months after the funeral, when he caught himself rearranging the contents of a cabinet in his veterinary clinic for the seventh time in two hours, he realized that his compulsion for neatness could become a refuge from life and especially from grief. Alone in the clinic, standing before an array of instruments—forceps, syringes, scalpels—he cried for the first time since he learned Annie was dead. Under the misguided belief that he had to hide his grief from the children in order to provide them with an example of strength, he had never given vent to the powerful emotions that the loss of his wife had engendered. Now he cried, shook, and raged at the cruelty of it. He rarely used foul language, but now he strung together all the vile words and phrases that he knew, cursing God and the universe and life—and himself. After that, his compulsive neatness ceased to be a neurosis and became, again, just another facet of his character, which frustrated some people and charmed others.
Someone knocked on the bedroom door.
He turned away from the window. “Come in.”
Rya opened the door. “It’s seven o’clock, Daddy. Suppertime. ”
In faded jeans and a short-sleeved white sweater, with her dark hair falling past her shoulders, she looked startlingly like her mother. She tilted her head to one side, just as Annie used to do, as if trying to guess what he was thinking.
“Is Mark ready?”
“Oh,” she said, “he was ready an hour ago. He’s in the kitchen, getting in Sam’s way.”
“Then we’d better get down there. Knowing Mark’s appetite, I’d say he has half the food eaten already.”
As he came toward her, she stepped back a pace. “You look absolutely marvelous, Daddy.”
He smiled at her and lightly pinched her cheek. If she had been complimenting Mark, she would have said that he looked “super,” but she wanted him to know that she was judging him by grown-up standards, and she had used grown-up language. “You really think so?” he asked.
“Jenny won’t be able to resist you,” she said.
He made a face at her.
“It’s true,” Rya said.
“What makes you think I care whether or not Jenny can resist me?”
Her expression said he should stop treating her as a child. “When Jenny came down to Boston in March, you were altogether different.”
“Different from what?”
“Different from the way you usually are. For two whole weeks,” she said, “when you came home from the clinic, you didn’t once grump about sick poodles and Siamese cats. ”
“Well, that’s because the only patients I had for those two weeks were elephants and giraffes.”
“And a pregnant kangaroo.”
Rya sat on the bed. “Are you going to ask her to marry you?”
She grinned, partly at the joke and partly at the way he was trying to evade the question. “I’m not sure I’d like a kangaroo for a mother,” she said. “But if the baby is yours, you’re going to have to marry her if you want to do the right thing. ”
“I swear it’s not mine,” he said. “I’m not romantically inclined toward kangaroos.”
“Toward Jenny?” she asked.
“Whether or not I’m attracted to her, the important question is whether Jenny likes me.”
“You don’t know?” Rya asked. “Well ... I’ll find out for you.”
Teasing her, he said, “How will you do that?”
“And make me look like Miles Standish?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’ll be subtle about it.” She got up from the bed and went to the door. “Mark must have eaten three-fourths of the food by now.”
She looked at him.
“Do you like Jenny?”
She grinned. “Oh, very much.”
For seven years, since Mark was two and Rya four, the Annendales had been taking their summer vacation in the mountains above Black River. Paul wanted to communicate to his children his own love of wild places and wild things. During these four- and six-week vacations, he educated them in the ways of nature so that they might know the satisfaction of being in harmony with it. This was a joyous education, and they looked forward to each outing.
The year that Annie died, he almost canceled the trip. At first it had seemed to him that going without her would only make their loss more evident. Rya had convinced him otherwise. “It’s like Mommy is still in this house,” Rya had said. “When I go from one room to another, I expect to find her there, all pale and drawn like she was near the end. If we go camping up beyond Black River, I guess maybe I’ll expect to see her in the woods too, but at least I won’t expect to see her pale and drawn. When we went to Black River, she was so pretty and healthy. And she was always so happy when we were out in the forest.” Because of Rya, they took their vacation as usual that year, and it proved to be the best thing they could have done.
Paul had met Jenny Edison just last year. Of course, Sam had mentioned his daughter many times. She had gone to Columbia and majored in music. In her senior year she married a musician and moved to California where he was playing in a band. But after more than seven years, the marriage had turned sour, and she had come home to get her wits about her and to decide what she wanted to do next. As proud a father as he had been, Sam had never shown pictures of her. That was not his style. On his first day in Black River last year, walking into Edison’s where she was waiting on children at the candy counter—and catching sight of her—Paul had for a moment been unable to get his breath.
It happened that quickly between them. Not love at first sight. Something more fundamental than love. Something more basic that had to come first, before love could develop. Instinctively, intuitively, even though he had been certain there could be no one after Annie, he had known that she was right for him. Jenny felt the attraction too, powerfully, immediately—but almost unwillingly.
If he had told all of this to Rya, she would have said, “So why aren’t you married?” If life were only that simple ...
After dinner, while Sam and the children washed the dishes, Paul and Jenny retired to the den. They propped their feet up on an antique woodcarver’s bench, and he put his arm around her shoulder. Their conversation had been free and easy at the table, but now it was stilted. She was hard and angular under his arm, tense. Twice, he leaned over and kissed her gently on the corner of the mouth, but she remained stiff and cool. He decided that she was inhibited by the possibility that Rya or Mark or her father might walk into the room at any moment, and he suggested they take a drive.
“I don’t know ...”
He stood up. “Come on. Some fresh night air will be good for you.”
Outside, the night was chilly. As they got in the car, she said, “We almost need the heater.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Just snuggle up and share body heat.” He grinned at her. “Where to?”
“I know a quiet little bar in Bexford.”
“I thought we were staying out of public places?”
“They don’t have the flu in Bexford,” she said.
“They don’t? It’s only thirty miles down the road.”
She shrugged. “That’s just one of the curiosities of this plague. ”
He put the car in gear and drove out into the street. “So be it. A quiet little bar in Bexford.”
She found an all-night Canadian radio station playing American swing music from the 1940s. “No more talk for a while,” she said. She sat close to him with her head against his shoulder.
The drive from Black River to Bexford was a pleasant one. The narrow black-top road rose and fell and twisted gracefully through the lightless, leafy countryside. For miles at a time, trees arched across the roadway, forming a tunnel of cool night air. After a while, in spite of the Benny Goodman music, Paul felt that they were the only two people in the world—and that was a surprisingly agreeable thought.
She was even lovelier than the mountain night, and as mysterious in her silence as some of the deep, unsettled northern hollows through which they passed. For such a slender woman, she had great presence. She took up very little space on the seat, and yet she seemed to dominate the car and overwhelm him. Her eyes, so large and dark, were closed, yet he felt as if she were watching him. Her face—too beautiful to appear in Vogue: she would have made the other models in the magazine look like horses—was in repose. Her full lips were slightly parted as she sang softly with the music; and this bit of animation, this parting of the lips had more sensual impact than a heavy-eyed, full-faced leer from Elizabeth Taylor. As she leaned against him, her dark hair fanned across his shoulder, and her scent—clean and soapy—rose to him.
In Bexford, he parked across the street from the tavern. She switched off the radio and kissed him once, quickly, as a sister might. “You’re a nice man.”
“What did I do?”
“I didn’t want to talk, and you didn’t make me.”
“It wasn’t any hardship,” he said. “You and me ... we communicate with silence as well as with words. Hadn’t you noticed?”
She smiled. “I’ve noticed.”
“But maybe you don’t put enough value on that. Not as much as you should.”
“I put a great deal of value on it,” she said.
“Jenny, what we have is—”
She put one hand on his lips. “I didn’t mean for the conversation to take such a serious turn,” she said.
“But I think we should talk seriously. We’re long overdue for that.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about us, not seriously. And because you’re such a nice man, you’re going to do what I want. ” She kissed him again, opened her door, and got out of the car.
The tavern was a warm, cozy place. There was a rustic bar along the left-hand wall, about fifteen tables in the center of the room, and a row of maroon leatherette booths along the right wall. The shelves behind the bar were lit with soft blue bulbs. Each of the tables in the center of the room held a tall candle in a red glass lantern, and an imitation stained-glass Tiffany lamp hung over each of the booths. The jukebox was playing a soulful country ballad by Charlie Rich. The bartender, a heavyset man with a walrus mustache, joked continuously with the customers. Without trying for it, without being aware of it, he sounded like W. C. Fields. There were four men at the bar, half a dozen couples at the tables, and other couples in the booths. The last booth was open, and they took it.
When they had ordered and received their drinks from a perky red-headed waitress—Scotch for him and a dry vodka martini for her—Paul said, “Why don’t you come up and spend a few days with us at camp? We have an extra sleeping bag.”
“I’d like that,” she said.
“Maybe next week.”
“I’ll tell the kids. Once they’re expecting you, you won’t be able to back out of it. ”
She laughed. “Those two are something else,” she said.
“Do you know what Rya said to me when she was helping me pour the coffee after dinner?” Jenny took a sip of her drink. “She asked if I had divorced my first husband because he was a lousy lover.”
“Oh, no! She didn’t really.”
“Oh, yes, she did.”
“I know that girl’s only eleven. But sometimes I wonder ...”
“Reincarnation?” Jenny asked.
“Maybe that’s it. She’s only eleven years old in this life, but maybe she lived to be seventy in another life. What did you say to her when she asked?”
Jenny shook her head as if she were amazed at her gullibility. Her black hair swung away from her face. “Well, when she saw that I was about to tell her it was none of her business whether or not my first husband was a lousy lover, she told me I mustn’t be cross with her. She said she wasn’t just being nosy. She said she was just a growing girl, a bit mature for her age, who had a perfectly understandable curiosity about adults, love and marriage. Then she really began to con me.”
Paul grimaced. “I can tell you the line she used: Poor little orphan girl
“So she’s used it on you.”
“And you fell for it?”
“Everyone falls for it. ”
“I sure did. I felt so sorry for her. She had a hundred questions—”
“All of them intimate,” Paul said.
“—and I answered all of them. And then I found out the whole conversation was meant to lead up to one line. After she had learned more about my husband than she could ever want to know, she told me that she and her mother had had long talks a year or so before Annie died, and that her mother told her you were just a fantastic lover.”
“I said to her, ‘Rya, I believe you’re trying to sell your father to me.’ She got indignant and said that was a terrible thing to think. I said, ‘Well, I can’t believe that your mother ever said anything of the sort to you. How old would you have been then? Six?’ and she said, ‘Six, that’s right. But even when I was six, I was very mature for my age.’”
When he was done laughing, Paul said, “Well, you can’t blame her. She’s only playing the matchmaker because she likes you. So does Mark.” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice slightly. “So do I.”
She looked down at her drink. “Read any good books lately?”
He stirred his Scotch and sighed. “Since I’m such a nice man, I’m supposed to let you change the subject that easily. ”
Jenny Leigh Edison distrusted romance and feared marriage. Her ex-husband, whose name she had gladly surrendered, was one of those men who despise education, work, and sacrifice, but who nonetheless think they deserve fame and fortune. Because, year after year, he achieved neither goal, he needed some excuse for failure. She made a good one. He said he hadn’t been able to put together a successful band because of her. He hadn’t been able to get a recording contract with a major company because of her. She was holding him back, he said. She was getting in his way, he said. After seven years of supporting him by playing cocktail-bar piano, she suggested that they would both be happier if the marriage were dissolved. At first, he accused her of deserting him. “Love and romance aren’t enough to make a marriage work,” she had once told Paul. “You need something else. Maybe it’s respect. Until I do know what it is, I’m in no hurry to get back to the altar.”
Like the nice man that he was, he had changed the subject at her request. They were talking about music when Bob and Emma Thorp came over to the booth and said hello.
Bob Thorp was chief of the four-man police force in Black River. Ordinarily, a town so small would have boasted no more than a single constable. But in Black River, more than a constable was needed to maintain order when the logging camp men came into town for some relaxation; therefore, Big Union Supply Company paid for the four-man force. Bob was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound ex-MP with martial arts training. With his square face, deep-set eyes, and low forehead, he looked both dangerous and dim-witted. He could be dangerous, but he was not stupid. He wrote an amusing column for Black River’s weekly newspaper, and the quality of thought and language in those pieces would have been a credit to any big city newspaper’s editorial page. This combination of brute strength and unexpected intelligence made Bob a match even for lumbermen much bigger than he was.
At thirty-five Emma Thorp was still the prettiest woman in Black River. She was a green-eyed blonde with a spectacular figure, a combination of beauty and sex appeal that had gotten her into the finals of the Miss U.S.A. Contest ten years ago. That achievement made her Black River’s only genuine celebrity. Her son, Jeremy, was the same age as Mark. Jeremy stayed at the Annendale camp for a few days every year. Mark valued him as a playmate—but valued him more because his mother was Emma. Mark was deeply in puppy love with Emma and mooned around her every chance he got.
“Are you here on vacation?” Bob asked.
“Just got in this afternoon.”
Jenny said, “We’d ask you to sit down, but Paul’s trying to keep an arm’s length from everyone who has the flu. If he picked it up, he’d just pass it on to the kids.”
“It’s nothing serious,” Bob said. “Not the flu, really. Just night chills.”
“Maybe you can live with them,” Emma said. “But I think they’re pretty serious. I haven’t had a good sleep all week. They aren’t just night chills. I tried to take a nap this afternoon, and I woke up shaking and sweating.”
Paul said, “You both look very good.”
“I tell you,” Bob said, “it’s nothing serious. Night chills. My grandmother used to complain of them.”
“Your grandmother complained of everything,” Emma said. “Night chills, rheumatiz, the ague, hot flashes ...”
Paul hesitated, smiled, and said, “Oh hell, sit down. Let me buy you a drink.”
Night Chills by Dean Koontz / Horror / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on48 votes