Night chills, p.5
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       Night Chills, p.5
 

           Dean Koontz

  Glancing at his watch, Bob said, “Thanks, but we really can’t. They have a poker game in the back room here every Saturday night. Emma and I usually play. They’re expecting us.”

  “You play, Emma?” Jenny asked.

  “Better than Bob does,” Emma said. “Last time, he lost fifteen dollars, and I won thirty-two. ”

  Bob grinned at his wife and said, “Tell the truth now. It’s not so much skill. It’s just that when you’re playing, most of the men don’t spend enough time looking at their cards.”

  Emma touched the low-cut neckline of her sweater. “Well, bluffing is an important part of good poker playing. If the damn fools can be bluffed by some cleavage, then they just don’t play as well as I do.”

  On the way home, ten miles out of Bexford, Paul started to turn off the blacktop onto a scenic overlook that was a favorite lovers’ lane.

  “Please, don’t stop,” Jenny said.

  “Why not?”

  “I want you.”

  He put the car in park, half on the road, half off. “And that’s a reason not to stop?”

  She avoided looking at him. “I want you, but you aren’t the kind of man that can be satisfied with just the sex. You want something more from me. It’s got to be a deeper commitment with you—love, emotion, caring. I’m not up to that part of it.”

  Cupping her chin in his hand, he gently turned her face to him. “When you were down to Boston in March, you were very changeable. One moment you thought we could make it together, and the next moment you thought we couldn’t. But then, the last few days, just before you went home, you seemed to have made up your mind. You said that we were right for each other, that you just needed a little more time.” He had proposed to her last Christmas. Ever since, in bed and out, he had been trying to convince her that they were two halves of an organism, that neither of them could be whole without the other. In March, he thought he had made some headway. “Now,” he said, “you’ve changed your mind again.”

  She took his hand from her chin, and kissed the palm. “I’ve got to be sure.”

  “I’m not like your husband,” he said.

  “I know you’re not. You’re a—”

  “Very nice man?” he asked.

  “I need more time.”

  “How much more?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He studied her for a moment, then put the car in gear and drove back onto the blacktop. He switched on the radio.

  A few minutes later she said, “Are you angry?”

  “No. Just disappointed.”

  “You’re too positive about us,” she said. “You should be more careful. You should have some doubts like I do.”

  “I have no doubts,” he said. “We’re right for each other.”

  “But you should have doubts,” she said. “For instance, doesn’t it seem odd to you that I’m such a physical match for your first wife, for Annie? She was the same build as I am, the same size. She had the same color hair, the same eyes. I’ve seen those photographs of her.”

  He was a little upset by that. “Do you think I’ve fallen for you only because you remind me of her?”

  “You loved her a great deal.”

  “That has nothing to do with us. I just like sexy, dark women.” He smiled, trying to make a joke of it—both to convince her and to stop himself from wondering if she was at least partly right.

  She said, “Maybe.”

  “Dammit, there’s no maybe about it. I love you because you’re you, not because you’re like anyone else.”

  They rode in silence.

  The eyes of several deer glittered in the brush at the side of the road. When the car passed, the herd moved. Paul caught a glimpse of them in the rearview mirror—graceful, ghostly figures—as they crossed the pavement.

  At last Jenny said, “You’re so sure we’re meant for each other. Maybe we are—under the right circumstances. But Paul, all we’ve ever shared is good times. We’ve never known adversity together. We’ve never shared a painful experience. Marriage is full of big and little crises. My husband and I were fairly good together too, until the crises came. Then we were at each other’s throats. I just can’t ... I won’t gamble my future on a relationship that has never been tested with hard times.”

  “Should I start praying for sickness, financial ruin, and bad luck?”

  She sighed and leaned against him. “You make me sound foolish.”

  “I don’t mean to.”

  “I know.”

  Back in Black River, they shared one kiss and went to separate rooms to lie awake most of the night.

  4

  Twenty-eight Months Earlier: Saturday, April 12, 1975

  The helicopter—a plush, luxuriously appointed Bell JetRanger II—chopped up the dry Nevada air and flung it down at the Las Vegas Strip. The pilot gingerly approached the landing pad on the roof of the Fortunata Hotel, hovered over the red target circle for a moment, then put down with consummate skill.

  As the rotors stopped churning overhead, Ogden Salsbury slid open his door and stepped out onto the hotel roof. For a few seconds he was disoriented. The cabin of the JetRanger had been air-conditioned. Out here, the air was like a parching gust from a furnace. A Frank Sinatra album was playing on a stereo, blasting forth from speakers mounted on six-foot-high poles. Sunlight reflected from the rippling water in the roof-top pool, and Salsbury was partially blinded in spite of his sunglasses. Somehow, he had expected the roof to bobble and sway under him as the helicopter had done; and when it did not, he staggered slightly.

  The swimming pool and the glass-walled recreation room beside it were adjuncts to the enormous thirtieth-floor presidential suite of the Fortunata Hotel. This afternoon there were only two people using it: a pair of voluptuous young women in skimpy white string bikinis. They were sitting on the edge of the pool, near the deep end, dangling their legs in the water. A squat, powerfully built man in gray slacks and a short-sleeved white silk shirt was hunkered down beside them, talking to them. All three had the perfect nonchalance that, Ogden thought, came only with power or money. They appeared not even to have noticed the arrival of the helicopter.

  Salsbury crossed the roof to them. “General Klinger?”

  The squat man looked up at him.

  The girls didn’t seem to know that he existed. The blonde had begun to lather the brunette with tanning lotion. Her hands lingered on the other girl’s calves and knees, then inched lovingly along her taut brown thighs. Obviously, they were more than just good friends.

  “My name’s Salsbury.”

  Klinger stood up. He didn’t offer to shake hands. “I’ve got one suitcase. Be with you in a minute.” He walked back toward the glass-walled recreation room.

  Salsbury stared at the girls. They had the longest, loveliest legs he had ever seen. He cleared his throat and said, “I’ll bet you’re in show business.”

  Neither of them looked at him. The blonde squeezed lotion into her left hand and massaged the swelling tops of the brunette’s large breasts. Her fingers trailed under the bikini bra, flicked across the hidden nipples.

  Salsbury felt like a fool—as he always had around beautiful women. He was certain that they were making fun of him. You stinking bitches! he thought viciously. Some day I’ll have any of you I want. Some day I’ll tell you what I want, and you’ll do it, and you’ll love it because I’ll tell you to love it.

  Klinger returned, carrying one large suitcase. He had put on a two-hundred-dollar, blue-and-gray-plaid sportcoat.

  Looks like a gorilla dressed up for a circus act, Salsbury thought.

  In the passengers’ compartment of the helicopter, as they lifted away from the pool, Klinger pressed his face to the window and watched the girls dwindle into sexless specks. Then he sighed and sat back and said, “Your boss knows how to arrange a man’s vacation.”

  Salsbury blinked in confusion. “My boss?”

  Glancing at him, Klinger said, “Dawson.” He took a packet of c
heroots from an inside coat pocket. He fished one out and lit it for himself without offering one to Salsbury.

  “What did you think of Crystal and Daisy?”

  Salsbury took off his sunglasses. “What?”

  “Crystal and Daisy. The girls at the pool.”

  “Nice. Very nice.”

  Pausing for a long drag of his cheroot, Klinger blew out smoke and said, “You wouldn’t believe what those girls can do.”

  “I thought they were dancers,” Salsbury said.

  Klinger looked at him disbelievingly, and then threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, they are! They dance their little asses off every night in the Fortunata’s main show-room. But they’ve also been performing in the penthouse suite. And let me tell you, dancing is the least of their talents.”

  Salsbury was perspiring even though the cabin of the JetRanger was cool. Women... He feared them—and wanted them desperately. To Dawson, mind control meant unlimited wealth, a financial stranglehold on the entire world. To Klinger it might mean unrestricted power, the satisfaction of unquestioned command. But to Salsbury, it meant having sex as often as he wanted it, in as many ways as he wanted it, with any woman he desired.

  Blowing smoke at the cabin ceiling, Klinger said, “I’ll bet you’d like having those two in your bed, shoving it in them, one after the other. Would you like that?”

  “Who wouldn’t?”

  “They’re hard on a man,” Klinger said, chuckling. “Takes a man with real stamina to keep them happy. You think you could handle both Crystal and Daisy?”

  “I could give it a good try.”

  Klinger laughed loudly.

  Salsbury hated him for that.

  This crude bastard was nothing more than an influence peddler, Ogden thought. He could be bought—and his price was cheap. In one way or another, he helped Futurex International in its competitive bidding for Pentagon contracts. In return, he took free vacations in Las Vegas, and some sort of stipend was paid into a Swiss bank account. There was only one element of this arrangement that Salsbury was unable to reconcile with Leonard Dawson’s personal philosophy. He said to Klinger. “Does Leonard pay for the girls too?”

  “Well, I don’t. I’ve never had to pay for it.” He stared hard at Salsbury, until he was convinced that the scientist believed him. “The hotel picks up the tab. That’s one of Futurex’s subsidiaries. But both Leonard and I pretend he doesn’t know about the girls. Whenever he asks me how I enjoyed a vacation, he acts as if all I’ve done is sit around the pool, by myself, reading the latest books.” He was amused. He sucked on his cheroot. “Leonard is a Puritan, but he knows better than to let his personal feelings interfere with business.” He shook his head. “Your boss is some man.”

  “He’s not my boss,” Salsbury said.

  Klinger didn’t seem to have heard him.

  “Leonard and I are partners,” Salsbury said.

  Klinger looked him up and down. “Partners.”

  “That’s right.”

  Their eyes met.

  Reluctantly, after a few seconds, Salsbury looked away.

  “Partners,” Klinger said. He didn’t believe it.

  We are partners, Salsbury thought. Dawson may own this helicopter, the Fortunata Hotel, Crystal, Daisy, and you. But he doesn’t own me, and he never will. Never.

  At the Las Vegas airport, the helicopter put down thirty yards from a dazzling, white Grumman Gulf Stream jet. Red letters on the fuselage spelled FUTUREX INTERNATIONAL.

  Fifteen minutes later they were airborne, on their way to an exclusive landing strip near Lake Tahoe.

  Klinger unbuckled his seat belt and said, “I understand you’re to give me a briefing.”

  “That’s right. We’ve got two hours for it.” He put his briefcase on his lap. “Have you ever heard of subliminal—”

  “Before we get going, I’d like a Scotch on the rocks.”

  “I believe there’s a bar aboard.”

  “Fine. Just fine.”

  “It’s back there.” Salsbury gestured over his shoulder.

  Klinger said, “Make mine four ounces of Scotch and four ice cubes in an eight-ounce glass.”

  At first Salsbury gazed at him uncomprehendingly. Then he got it: generals didn’t mix their own drinks. Don’t let him intimidate you, he thought. Against his will, however, he found himself getting up and moving toward the back of the plane. It was as if he were not in control of his body. When he returned with the drink, Klinger didn’t even thank him.

  “You say you’re one of Leonard’s partners?”

  Salsbury realized that, by acting more like a waiter than like a host, he had only reinforced the general’s conviction that the word “partner” did not fit him. The bastard had been testing him.

  He began to wonder if Dawson and Klinger were too much for him. Was he a bantam in a ring with heavyweights? He might be setting himself up for a knockout punch.

  He quickly dismissed that thought. Without Dawson and the general, he could not keep his discoveries from the government, which had financed them and owned them and would be jealous of them if it knew that they existed. He had no choice but to associate with these people; and he knew he would have to be cautious, suspicious, and watchful. But a man could safely make his bed with the devil so long as he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow.

  Couldn’t he?

  Pine House, the twenty-five-room Dawson mansion that overlooked Lake Tahoe, Nevada, had won two design awards for its architect and been featured in House Beautiful. It stood at the water’s edge on a five-acre estate, with a backdrop of more than one hundred towering pine trees; and it seemed to rise naturally from the landscape rather than intrude upon it, even though its lines were quite modem. The first level was large, circular, of stone and without windows. The second story—a circle the same size but not concentric to the first level—was a step up from the ground floor. Lakeside, at the back of the house, the second story overhung the first, sheltering a small boat dock; and here there was a twelve-foot-long window that provided a magnificent view of the water and the distant pine-covered slopes. The dome-shaped, black slate roof was crowned with a slender, needlelike eight-foot spire.

  When he first saw the place, Salsbury thought that it was a cousin to those futuristic churches that had been rising in wealthy and progressive parishes over the last ten or fifteen years. Without a thought for tact, he had said as much—and Leonard had taken the comment as a compliment. Having been refamiliarized with his host’s eccentricities during their weekly meetings over the past three months, Ogden was fairly certain that the house was supposed to resemble a church, that Dawson meant for it to be a temple, a holy monument to wealth and power.

  Pine House had cost nearly as much as a church: one and a half million dollars, including the price of the land. Nevertheless, it was only one of five houses and three large apartments that Dawson and his wife maintained in the United States, Jamaica, England, and Europe.

  After dinner the three men reclined in easy chairs in the living room, a few feet from the picture window. Tahoe, one of the highest and deepest lakes in the world, shimmered with light and shadow as the last rays of the sun, already gone behind the mountains, drained from the sky. In the morning the water had a clear, greenish cast. By afternoon it was a pure, crystalline blue. Now, soon to be as black as a vast spill of oil, it was like purple velvet folded against the shoreline. For five or ten minutes they enjoyed the view, speaking only to remark on the meal they had just finished and on the brandy they were sipping.

  At last Dawson turned to the general and said, “Ernst, what do you think of subliminal advertising?”

  The general had anticipated this abrupt shift from relaxation to business. “Fascinating stuff.”

  “You have no doubts?”

  “That it exists? None whatsoever. Your man here has the proof. But he didn’t explain what subliminal advertising has to do with me.”

  Sipping brandy, savoring it, Dawson nodded towa
rd Salsbury.

  Putting down his own drink, angry with Klinger for referring to him as Dawson’s man and angry with Dawson for not correcting the general, reminding himself not to address Klinger by his military title, Ogden said, “Ernst, we never met until this morning. I’ve never told you where I work—but I’m sure you know.”

  “The Brockert Institute,” Klinger said without hesitation.

  General Ernst Klinger supervised a division of the Pentagon’s vitally important Department of Security for Weapons Research. His authority within the department extended to the states of Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It was his responsibility to choose, oversee the installation of, and regularly inspect the traditional and electronic systems that protected all laboratories, factories, and test sites where weapons research was conducted within those fourteen states. Several laboratories belonging to Creative Development Associates, including the Brockert facility in Connecticut, came under his jurisdiction ; and Salsbury would have been surprised if the general had not known the name of the scientist in charge of the work at Brockert.

  “Do you know what sort of research we’re conducting up there?” Salsbury asked.

  “I’m’ responsible for the security, not the research,” Klinger said. “I only know what I need to know. Like the backgrounds of the people who work there, the layout of the buildings, and the nature of the surrounding countryside. I don’t need to know about your work.”

  “It has to do with subliminals.”

  Stiffening as if he had sensed stealthy movement behind him, some of the brandy-inspired color seeping from his face, Klinger said, “I believe you’ve signed a secrecy pledge like everyone else at Brockert.”

  “Yes, I have.”

  “You just now violated it.”

  “I am aware of that.”

  “Are you aware of the penalty?”

  “Yes. But I’ll never suffer it.”

  “You’re sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

  “Damned sure,” Salsbury said.

  “It makes no difference, you know, that I’m a general in the United States Army or that Leonard is a loyal and trusted citizen. You’ve still broken the pledge. Maybe they can’t put you away for treason when you’ve only talked to the likes of us—but they can at least give you eighteen months for declassifying information without the authority to do so.”

  Salsbury glanced at Dawson.

  Leaning forward in his chair, Dawson patted the general’s knee. “Let Ogden finish.”

  Klinger said, “This could be a setup.”

  “A what?”

  “A setup. A trap.”

  “To get you?” Dawson asked.

  “Could be.”

  “Why would I want to set you up?” Dawson asked. He seemed genuinely hurt by the suggestion.

  In spite of the fact, Salsbury thought, that he has probably set up and destroyed hundreds of men over the last thirty years.

  Klinger seemed to be thinking the same thing, although he shrugged and pretended that he had no answer to Dawson’s question.

  “That’s not the way I operate,” Dawson said, either unable or unwilling to conceal his bruised pride. “You know me better than that. My whole career, my whole life, is based on Christian principles.”

 
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