Night chills, p.7
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       Night Chills, p.7
 

           Dean Koontz

  reverberated within his nearly fevered mind.

  Finally Dawson said, “Ernst? Will you help us get those magnetic tapes?”

  Klinger looked at Dawson for a long moment, then at Salsbury. A shudder—either of fear or pleasure; Ogden could not be certain which—passed through him. He said, “I’ll help.”

  Ogden sighed.

  “Champagne?” Dawson asked. “It’s a bit crude after brandy. But I believe that we should raise a toast to one another and to the project.”

  Fifteen minutes later, after a servant had brought a chilled bottle of Moêt et Chandon and he had uncorked it, after the three of them had toasted success, Klinger smiled at Dawson and said, “What if I’d been terrified of this drug? What if I’d thought your offer was more than I could handle?”

  “I know you well, Ernst,” Dawson said. “Perhaps better than you think I do. I’d be surprised if there was anything that you couldn’t handle.”

  “But suppose I’d balked, for whatever reason. Suppose I hadn’t wanted to come in with you.”

  Dawson rolled some champagne over his tongue, swallowed, inhaled through his mouth to savor the aftertaste, and said, “Then you wouldn’t have left this estate alive, Ernst. I’m afraid you’d have had an accident.”

  “Which you arranged for a week ago.”

  “Nearly that.”

  “I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me.”

  “You came with a gun?” Dawson asked.

  “A thirty-two automatic.”

  “It doesn’t show.”

  “It’s taped to the small of my back.”

  “You’ve practiced drawing it?”

  “I can have it in my hand in less than five seconds.”

  Dawson nodded approval. “And you would have used me as a shield to get off the estate.”

  “I would have tried.”

  They both laughed and regarded each other with something very near to affection. They were delighted with themselves.

  Jesus Christ! Salsbury thought. He nervously sipped his champagne.

  5

  Friday, August 19, 1977

  Paul and Mark sat cross-legged, side by side on the dew-damp mountain grass. They were as still as stones. Even Mark, who loathed inactivity and to whom patience was an irritant rather than a virtue, did no more than blink his eyes.

  Around them lay a breath-taking panorama of virtually unspoiled land. On three sides of their clearing, a dense, purple-green, almost primeval forest rose like walls. To their right the clearing opened at the head of a narrow valley; and the town of Black River, two miles away, shimmered like a patch of opalescent fungus on the emerald quilt of the wild land. The only other scar of civilization was the Big Union mill, which was barely visible, three miles on the other side of Black River. Even so, from this distance the huge buildings did not resemble millworks so much as they did the ramparts, gates, and towers of castles. The planned forests that supplied Big Union, and which were less attractive than the natural woods, were out of sight beyond the next mountain. Blue sky and fast-moving white clouds overhung what could have passed for a scene of Eden in a biblical film.

  Paul and Mark were not interested in the scenery. Their attention was fixed on a small, red-brown squirrel.

  For the past five days they had been putting out food for the squirrel—dry roasted peanuts and sectioned apples—hoping to make friends with it and gradually to domesticate it. Day by day it crept closer to the food, and yesterday it took a few bites before succumbing to fear and scampering away.

  Now, as they watched, it came forth from the perimeter of the woods, three or four quick yet cautious steps at a time, pausing again and again to study the man and boy. When it finally reached the food, it picked up a piece of the apple in its tiny forepaws and, sitting back on its haunches, began to eat.

  When the animal finished the first slice and picked up another, Mark said, “He won’t take his eyes off us. Not even for a second.”

  As the boy spoke the squirrel became suddenly as still as they were. It cocked its head and fixed them with one large brown eye.

  Paul had said they could whisper, breaking their rule of silence, if the squirrel had gained courage since yesterday and managed to stay at the food for more than a few seconds. If they were to domesticate it, the animal would have to become accustomed to their voices.

  “Please don’t be scared,” Mark said softly. Paul had promised that, if the squirrel could be tamed, Mark would be allowed to take it home and make a pet of it. “Please, don’t run away.”

  Not yet prepared to trust them, it dropped the slice of apple, turned, bounded into the forest, and scrambled to the upper branches of a maple tree.

  Mark jumped up. “Ah, heck! We wouldn’t have hurt you, you dumb squirrel!” Disappointment lined his face.

  “Stay calm. He’ll be back again tomorrow,” Paul said. He stood and stretched his stiff muscles.

  “He’ll never trust us.”

  “Yes, he will. Little by little.”

  “We’ll never tame him.”

  “Little by little,” Paul said. “He can’t be converted in one week. You’ve got to be patient.”

  “I’m not very good at being patient.”

  “I know. But you’ll learn.”

  “Little by little?”

  “That’s right,” Paul said. He bent over, picked up the apple slices and peanuts, and dropped them into a plastic bag.

  “Hey,” Mark said, “maybe he’s mad at us because we always take the food when we leave.”

  Paul laughed. “Maybe so. But if he got in the habit of sneaking back and eating after we’ve gone, he wouldn’t have any reason to come out while we’re here.”

  As they started back toward camp, which lay at the far end of the two-hundred-yard-long mountain meadow, Paul gradually became aware again of the beautiful day as if it were a mosaic for all the senses, falling into place around him, piece by piece. The warm summer breeze. White daisies gleaming in the grass, and here and there a butter-cup. The odor of grass and earth and wild flowers. The constant rustle of leaves and the gentle soughing of the breeze in the pine boughs. The trilling of birds. The solemn shadows of the forest. High above, a hawk wheeled into sight, the last piece of the mosaic; its shrill cry seemed filled with pride, as if it knew that it had capped the scene, as if it thought it had pulled down the sky with its wings.

  The time had come for their weekly trip into town to replenish their supply of perishable goods—but for a moment he didn’t want to leave the mountain. Even Black River—small, nearly isolated from the modern world, singularly peaceful—would seem raucous when compared to the serenity of the forest.

  But of course Black River offered more than fresh eggs, milk, butter, and other groceries: Jenny was there.

  As they drew near the camp, Mark ran ahead. He pushed aside a pair of yellow canvas flaps and peered into the large tent that they had erected in the shadow of several eight-foot hemlocks and firs. A second later he turned away from the tent, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Rya! Hey, Rya!”

  “Here,” she said, coming out from behind the tent. For an instant Paul couldn’t believe what he saw: a small young squirrel perched on her right arm, its claws hooked through the sleeve of her corduroy jacket. It was chewing on a piece of apple, and she was petting it gently.

  “How did you do it?” he asked.

  “Chocolate.”

  “Chocolate?”

  She grinned. “I started out trying to lure it with the same bait you and Mark have been using. But then I figured that a squirrel can probably get nuts and apples on his own. But he can’t get chocolate. I figured the smell would be irresistible—and it was! He was eating out of my hand by Wednesday, but I didn’t want you to know about him until I was sure he’d gotten over the worst of his fear of humans.”

  “He’s not eating chocolate now.”

  “Too much of it wouldn’t be good for him.”

  The squirrel raised
its head and looked quizzically at Paul. Then it continued gnawing on the piece of apple in its forepaws.

  “Do you like him, Mark?” Rya asked. As she spoke her grin melted into a frown.

  Paul saw why: the boy was close to tears. He wanted a squirrel of his own—but he knew they couldn’t take two of the animals home with them. His lower lip quivered; however, he was determined not to cry.

  Rya recovered quickly. Smiling, she said, “Well, Mark? Do you like him? I’ll be upset if you don’t. I went to an awful lot of trouble to get him for you.”

  You little sweetheart, Paul thought.

  Blinking back tears, Mark said, “For me?”

  “Of course,” she said.

  “You mean you’re giving him to me?”

  She feigned surprised. “Who else?”

  “I thought he was yours.”

  “Now what would I want with a pet squirrel?” she asked. “He’ll be a good pet for a boy. But he would be all wrong for a girl.” She put the animal on the ground and hunkered down beside it. Fishing a piece of candy from a pocket, she said, “Come on. You’ve got to feed him some chocolate if you really want to make friends with him.”

  The squirrel plucked the candy from Mark’s hand and nibbled it with obvious pleasure. The boy was also in ecstasy as he gently stroked its flanks and long tail. When the chocolate was gone, the animal sniffed first at Mark and then at Rya; and when it realized there would be no more treats today, it slipped out from between them and dashed toward the trees.

  “Hey!” Mark said. He ran after it until he saw that it was much faster than he.

  “Don’t worry,” Rya said. “He’ll come back tomorrow, so long as we have some chocolate for him.”

  “If we tame him,” Mark said, “can I take him into town next week?”

  “We’ll see,” Paul said. He looked at his watch. “If we’re going to spend today in town, we’d better get moving.”

  The station wagon was parked half a mile away, at the end of a weed-choked dirt lane that was used by hunters in late autumn and early winter.

  True to form, Mark shouted, “Last one to the car’s a dope!” He ran ahead along the path that snaked down through the woods, and in a few seconds he was out of sight.

  Rya walked at Paul’s side.

  “That was a very nice thing you did,” he said.

  She pretended not to know what he meant. “Getting the squirrel for Mark? It was fun.”

  “You didn’t get it for Mark.”

  “Sure I did. Who else would I get it for?”

  “Yourself,” Paul said. “But when you saw how much it meant to him to have a squirrel of his own, you gave it up.”

  She grimaced. “You must think I’m a saint or something! If I’d really wanted that squirrel, I wouldn’t have given him away. Not in a million years.”

  “You’re not a good liar,” he said affectionately.

  Exasperated, she said, “Fathers!” Hoping he wouldn’t notice her embarrassment, she ran ahead, shouting to Mark, and was soon out of sight beyond a dense patch of mountain laurel.

  “Children!” he said aloud. But there was no exasperation in his voice, only love.

  Since Annie’s death he had spent more time with the children than he might have done if she had lived—partly because there was something of her in Mark and Rya, and he felt that he was keeping in touch with her through them. He had learned that each of them was quite different from the other, each with his unique outlook and abilities, and he cherished their individuality. Rya would always know more about life, people, and the rules of the game than Mark would. Curious, probing, patient, seeking knowledge, she would enjoy life from an intellectual vantage point. She would know that especially intense passion—sexual, emotional, menta!—which none but the very bright ever experience. On the other hand, although Mark would face life with far less understanding than Rya, he was not to be pitied. Not for a moment! Brimming with enthusiasm, quick to laugh, overwhelmingly optimistic, he would live every one of his days with gusto. If he was denied complex pleasures and satisfactions—well, to compensate for that, he would ever be in tune with the simple joys of life in which Rya, while understanding them, would never be able to indulge herself fully without some self-consciousness. Paul knew that, in days to come, each of his children would bring him a special kind of happiness and pride—unless death took them from him.

  As if he had walked into an invisible barrier, he stopped in the middle of the trail and swayed slightly from side to side.

  That last thought had taken him completely by surprise. When he lost Annie, he had thought for a time that he had lost all that was worth having. Her death made him painfully aware that everything—even deeply felt, strong personal relationships that nothing in life could twist or destroy—was temporary, pawned to the grave. For the past three and a half years, in the back of his mind, a small voice had been telling him to be prepared for death, to expect it, and not to let the loss of Mark or Rya or anyone else, if it came, shatter him as Annie’s death had nearly done. But until now the voice had been almost subconscious, an urgent counsel of which he was only vaguely aware. This was the first time that he had let it pop loose from the subconscious. As it rose to the surface, it startled him. A shiver passed through him from head to foot. He had an eerie sense of precognition. Then it was gone as quickly as it had come.

  An animal moved in the underbrush.

  Overhead, above the canopy of trees, a hawk screamed.

  Suddenly the summer forest seemed much too dark, too dense, too wild: sinister.

  You’re being foolish, he thought. You’re no fortune teller. You’re no clairvoyant.

  Nevertheless, he hurried along the winding path, anxious to catch up with Mark and Rya.

  At 11:15 that morning, Dr. Walter Troutman was at the big mahogany desk in his surgery. He was eating an early lunch—two roast beef sandwiches, an orange, a banana, an apple, a cup of butterscotch pudding, and several glasses of iced tea—and reading a medical journal.

  As the only physician in Black River, he felt that he had two primary responsibilities to the people in the area. The first was to be certain that, in the event of a catastrophe at the mill or some other medical crisis, he would never find himself undernourished and in want of energy to fulfill his duties. The second was to be aware of all developments in medical techniques and theory, so that the people who came to him would receive the most modem treatment available. Scores of satisfied patients—and the reverence and affection with which the whole town regarded him—testified to his success in meeting his second responsibility. As for the first, he stood five eleven and weighed two hundred and seventy pounds.

  When an overweight patient, in the middle of one of the doctor’s lectures, had the temerity to mention Troutman’s own excess poundage, he was always countered with the same joke. “Obese? Me?” Troutman would ask, clearly astonished. “This isn’t fat I’m carrying. It’s stored energy, ready to be tapped if there’s ever a catastrophe up at the mill.” Then he would continue his lecture.

  In truth, of course, he was an almost compulsive eater and had been all his life. By the time he was thirty, he had given up dieting and psychotherapy as truly lost causes. The same year, having been guaranteed a handsome stipend by the Big Union Supply Company, he had come to Black River where the people were so pleased to have a doctor of their own that they didn’t care if he was fat, thin, white, black, or green. For twenty years now, he had been accommodating his compulsion, stuffing himself with cakes and cookies and pies and five square meals a day; and in sum he felt that his life held more enjoyment than that of any other man he knew.

  As he was about to enjoy it even more, as he was picking up the second roast beef sandwich, the telephone rang. He considered not answering it. But he was the kind of doctor who went out on house calls at any hour of the day or night. Even lunch had to be put aside if a patient needed help. He picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

  “Dr. Troutman?”


  “Yes.”

  The voice on the other end of the line was cold and sharp. “I am the key, Dr. Troutman.”

  “I am the lock,” Troutman said without hesitation.

  “Are you alone in the house?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where is your nurse, Miss MacDonald?”

  “I don’t know. At home, I suppose.”

  “When will she be coming to work?”

  “Half an hour before the office opens.”

  “And the office opens at one thirty?”

  “That’s correct,” Troutman said.

  “Are you expecting anyone else before one o’clock?”

  “No. No one.”

  The stranger was silent for a moment.

  Troutman listened to his desk clock ticking. He glanced at the food laid out on a linen napkin in front of him, picked a sliver of roast beef from the sandwich, and ate it quickly like a fish taking a fly.

  When the man on the other end of the line had decided on his approach, he said, “I’m going to ask you a number of important questions, Doctor. You will give me complete answers to the best of your ability. ”

  “Yes, of course.”

  “Have you recently had an epidemic of any sort in Black River?”

  “Yes, we have.”

  “Of what?”

  “Night chills.”

  “Explain what you mean by that term, Doctor.”

  “Severe chills, cold sweats, nausea but without vomiting—and the resultant insomnia. ”

  “When were the first cases reported to you?”

  “Wednesday, the tenth of this month. Nine days ago.”

  “Did any of your patients mention nightmares?”

  “Every one of them said he’d been awakened by a terrible dream.”

  “Could any of them remember what it was?”

  “No. None of them.”

  “What treatment did you provide?”

  “I gave placebos to the first few. But when 1 suffered the chills myself on Wednesday night, and when there were scores of new cases on Thursday, I began to prescribe a low-grade antibiotic.”

  “That had no effect, of course.”

  “None whatsoever.”

  “Did you refer any patients to another physician?”

  “No. The nearest other doctor is sixty miles away—and he’s in his late seventies. However, I did request an investigation by the State Health Authority.”

  The stranger was silent for a moment. Then: “You did that merely because there was an epidemic of rather mild influenza?”

  “It was mild,” Troutman said, “but decidedly unusual. No fever. No swelling of the glands. And yet, for as mild as it was, it spread throughout the town and the mill within twenty-four hours. Everyone had it. Of course I wondered if it might not be influenza at all but some sort of poisoning. ”

  “Poisoning?”

  “Yes. Of a common food or water supply.”

  “When did you contact the Health Authority?”

  “Friday the twelfth, late in the afternoon.”

 
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