Night chills, p.8
“And they sent a man?”
“Not until Monday.”
“Was there still an epidemic at that time?”
“No,” Troutman said. “Everyone in town had the chills, the cold sweats, and the nausea again Saturday night. But ,no one was ill Sunday night. Whatever it was, it disappeared even more suddenly than it came.”
“Did the State Health Authority still run an investigation?”
Intently studying the food on the napkin, Troutman shifted in his chair and said, “Oh, yes. Dr. Evans, one of their junior field men, spent all of Monday and most of Tuesday interviewing people and taking tests.”
“Tests? You mean of food and water?”
“Yes. Blood and urine samples too.”
“Did he take water samples from the reservoir?”
“Yes. He filled at least twenty vials and bottles.”
“Has he filed his report yet?”
Troutman licked his lips and said, “Yes. He called me last evening to give me the results of the tests.”
“I suppose he found nothing?”
“That’s correct. All the tests were negative.”
“Does he have any theories?” the stranger asked, a vague trace of anxiety in his voice.
That bothered Troutman. The key should not be anxious. The key had all the answers. “He believes that we’ve experienced a rare case of mass psychological illness.”
“An epidemic of formulated hysteria?”
“Then he’s making no recommendations?”
“None that I know of.”
“He has terminated the investigation?”
“That’s what he told me.”
The stranger sighed softly. “Doctor, earlier you told me that everyone in town and at the mill had experienced the night chills. Were you speaking figuratively or literally?”
“Figuratively,” Troutman said. “There were exceptions. Perhaps twenty children, all under eight years of age. And two adults. Sam Edison and his daughter, Jenny.
“The people who run the general store?”
“They didn’t suffer from the chills at all?”
“Not at all.”
“Are they connected to the town’s water supply?”
“Everyone in town is.”
“All right. What about the lumbermen who work in the planned forests beyond the mill? Some of them virtually live out there. Were they affected?”
“Yes. That was something Dr. Evans wanted to know too,” Troutman said. “He interviewed all of them.”
The stranger said, “I’ve no more questions, Dr. Troutman, but I do have some orders for you. When you hang up your receiver, you will instantly wipe all memory of our conversation from your mind. Do you understand?”
“You’ll forget every word we’ve exchanged. You’ll erase this memory from both your conscious and subconscious, so that it can never be recalled no matter how much you might wish to recall it. Understood?”
Troutman nodded somberly. “Yes.”
“When you hang up your receiver, you will remember only that the phone rang—and that it was a wrong number. Is that clear?”
“A wrong number. Yes, that’s clear.”
“Very well. Hang up, Doctor.”
Carelessness, Troutman thought, a bit irritably, as he put down the receiver. If people paid attention to what they were doing, they wouldn’t dial so many wrong numbers or make one-tenth of the other mistakes that peppered their lives. How many patients, badly cut or burned, had he treated who had been injured only because they were inattentive, careless? Scores. Hundreds. Thousands! Sometimes, when he opened the door of his waiting room and peered inside, he had the feeling that he had just pulled a pan from the oven and was staring not at people but at a row of wall-eyed trout with gaping mouths. And now, tying up a doctor’s line with a wrong number, even for half a minute or so—well, that could be damned serious.
He shook his head, dismayed by the ineptitude and inefficiency of his fellow citizens.
Then he grabbed the roast beef sandwich and took an enormous bite from it.
At 11:45 Paul Annendale stepped into Sam Edison’s study on the second floor of the house, just above the general store. “Squire Edison, I wish to arrange to take your daughter to lunch.”
Sam was standing in front of a bookcase. A large volume lay open in his left hand, and he was paging through it with his right. “Sit down, vassal,” he said without looking up. “The squire will be with you in just a minute.”
If Sam had chosen to refer to this place as his library rather than his study, he would have been justified. Two lushly cushioned, somewhat tattered armchairs and two matching footstools stood in the center of the room, facing the only window. Two yellow-shaded floor lamps, one behind each chair, provided adequate but restful light, and a small rectangular table lay between the chairs. A pipe was turned upside down in a large ash tray on the table, and the air was redolent with the cherry scent of Sam’s tobacco. The room was only twelve feet by fifteen feet; but two entire walls, from floor to ceiling, were lined with thousands of books and hundreds of issues of various psychology journals.
Paul sat down and put his feet up on a stool.
He didn’t know the title of the volume that the other man was looking through, but he did know that ninety percent of these books dealt with Hitler, Nazism, and anything else that was even remotely related to that philosophical-political nightmare. Sam’s interest in the subject had been unwavering for thirty-two years.
In April of 1945, as a member of an American intelligence unit, Sam went into Berlin less than twenty-four hours behind the first Allied troops. He was shocked by the extent of the destruction. In addition to the ruin caused by Allied bombers, mortars, and tank fire, there was damage directly attributable to the Führer’s scorch-the-earth policy. In the final days of the war, the madman had decreed that the victors must be allowed to seize nothing of value, that Germany must be transformed into a barren plain of rubble, that not even one house could be left standing to come under foreign domination. Of course, most Germans were not prepared to take this final step into oblivion—although many of them were. It seemed to Sam that the Germans he saw in the devastated streets were survivors not merely of the war but also of the frenzied suicide of an entire nation.
On May 8, 1945, he was transferred to an intelligence unit that was collecting data on the Nazi death camps. As the full story of the holocaust became known, as it was discovered that millions of men and women and children had passed through the gas chambers and that hundreds of thousands of others had been shot in the back and buried in trenches, Sam Edison, a young man from the backwoods of Maine, found nothing within his experience to explain such mind-numbing horror. Why had so many once-rational, basically good people committed themselves to fulfilling the evil fantasies of an obvious lunatic and a handful of subordinate madmen? Why had one of the most professional armies in the world disgraced itself by fighting to protect the SS murderers? Why had millions of people gone with so little protest to the concentration camps and gas chambers? What did Adolf Hitler know about the psychology of the masses that had helped him to achieve such absolute power? The ruin of the German cities and the death camp data raised all of these questions but provided answers to none of them.
He was sent back to the States and mustered out of the service in October of 1945, and as soon as he was home he began to buy books about Hitler, the Nazis, and the war. He read everything of value he could find. Bits and pieces of explanations, theories and arguments seemed valid to him. But the complete answer that he sought eluded him; therefore, he extended his area of study and began collecting books on totalitarianism, militarism, war games, battle strategy, German history, German philosophy, bigotry, racism, paranoia, mob psychology, behavior modification, and mind control. His undiminishable fascination with Hitler did not have its roots in morbid curios
Sam suddenly closed the book through which he’d been paging for the past few minutes and returned it to the shelf. “Dammit, I know they’re here somewhere.”
From his armchair Paul said, “What are you looking for?”
His head tilted slightly to the right, Sam continued to read the titles on the bindings. “We’ve got a sociologist doing research in town. I know I’ve got several of his articles in my collection, but I’ll be damned if I can find them.”
“Sociologist? What sort of research?”
“I don’t know exactly. He came into the store early this morning. Had dozens of questions to ask. Said he was a sociologist, come all the way up from Washington, and was making a study of Black River. Said he’d rented a room at Pauline Vicker’s place and would be here for three weeks or so. According to him, Black River’s pretty special.”
“In what way?”
“For one thing, it’s a prosperous company town in an age when company towns have supposedly fallen into decay or vanished altogether. And because we’re geographically isolated, it’ll be easier for him to analyze the effects of television on our social patterns. Oh, he had at least half a dozen good reasons why we’re ripe material for sociological research, but I don’t think he got around to explaining his main thesis, whatever it is he’s trying to prove or disprove.” He took another book from the shelf, opened it to the table of contents, closed it almost at once, and put it back where he’d gotten it.
“Do you know his name?”
“Introduced himself as Albert Deighton,” Sam said. “The name didn’t ring a bell. But the face did. Meek-looking man. Thin lips. Receding hairline. Glasses as thick as the lenses on a telescope. Those glasses make his eyes look like they’re popping right out of his head. I know I’ve seen his picture several times in books or magazines, alongside articles he’s written.” He sighed and turned away from the bookshelves for the first time since Paul came into the room. With one hand he smoothed his white beard. “I can spend all evening up here picking through these books. Right now you want me to take over the counter downstairs so you can escort my daughter to the elegant, incomparable Ultman’s Cafe for lunch.”
Paul laughed. “Jenny tells me there’s no more flu in town. So the worst we can get at Ultman’s is food poisoning.”
“What about the kids?”
“Mark’s spending the afternoon with Bob Thorp’s boy. He’s been invited to lunch, and he’ll spend it mooning over Emma.”
“Still has a crush on her, does he?”
“He thinks he’s in love, but he’d never admit it.”
Sam’s craggy face was softened by a smile. “And Rya?”
“Emma asked her to come along with Mark. But if you don’t mind looking after her, she’d rather stay here with you.”
“Mind? Don’t be ridiculous.”
As he got up from the armchair, Paul said, “Why don’t you put her to work after lunch? She could come up here and pore through these books until she found Deighton’s name on a table of contents.”
“What a dull bit of work for a peppy girl like her!”
“Rya wouldn’t be bored,” Paul said. “It’s right down her alley. She likes working with books—and she’d enjoy doing you a favor.”
Sam hesitated, then shrugged and said, “Maybe I’ll ask her. When I’ve read what Deighton’s written, I’ll know where his interests lie, and I’ll have a better idea of what he’s up to now. You know me—as curious as the day is long. Once I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, I’ve just got to take it out and see whether it’s a worker, drone, queen, or maybe even a wasp.”
Ultman’s Cafe stood on the southwest comer of the town square, shaded by a pair of enormous black oak trees. The restaurant was eighty feet long, an aluminum and glass structure meant to look like an old-fashioned railroad passenger car. It had one narrow window row that ran around three sides; and tacked on the front was an entrance foyer that spoiled the railroad-car effect.
Inside, booths upholstered in blue plastic stood beside the windows. The table at each booth held an ash tray, a cylindrical glass sugar dispenser, salt and pepper shakers, a napkin dispenser, and a selector from the jukebox. An aisle separated the booths from the counter that ran the length of the restaurant.
Ogden Salsbury was in the comer booth at the north end of the cafe. He was drinking a second cup of coffee and watching the other customers.
At 1:50 in the afternoon, most of the lunch-hour rush had passed. Ultman’s was nearly deserted. In a booth near the door, an elderly couple was reading the weekly newspaper, eating roast beef and French fries, and quietly arguing politics. The chief of police, Bob Thorp, was on a stool at the counter, finishing his lunch and joking with the gray-haired waitress named Bess. At the far end of the room, Jenny Edison was in the other comer booth with a good-looking man in his late thirties; Salsbury didn’t know him but assumed he worked at the mill or in the logging camp.
Of the five other customers, Jenny was of the greatest interest to Salsbury. A few hours ago, when he talked to Dr. Troutman, he learned that neither Jenny nor her father had complained of the night chills. The fact that a number of children had also escaped them did not disturb him. The effect of the subliminals was, in part, directly proportionate to the subject’s language skills and reading ability; and he had expected that some children would be unaffected. But Sam and Jenny were adults, and they should not have gone untouched.
Possibly they hadn’t consumed any of the drug. If that was true, then they hadn’t drunk any water from the town system, hadn’t used it to make ice cubes, and hadn’t cooked with it. That was marginally possible, he supposed. Marginally. However, the drug had also been introduced into fourteen products at a food wholesaler’s warehouse in Bangor before those products were shipped to Black River, and it was difficult for him to believe that they could have been so fortunate as to have avoided, by chance, every contaminated substance.
There was a second possibility. It was conceivable, although highly improbable, that the Edisons had taken the drug but hadn’t come into contact with any of the sophisticated subliminal programming that had been designed with such care for the Black River experiment and that had inundated the town through half a dozen forms of print and electronic media for a period of seven days.
Salsbury was nearly certain that neither of these explanations was correct, and that the truth was both complex and technical. Even the most beneficial drugs did not have a benign effect on everyone; any drug could be counted upon to sicken or kill at least a tiny percentage of those people to whom it was administered. Moreover, for virtually every drug, there were some people, another extremely small group, who were either minimally affected or utterly untouched by it, owing to differences in metabolisms, variances in body chemistries, and unknown factors. More likely than not, Jenny and Sam Edison had taken the subliminal primer in water or food but hadn’t been altered by it—either not at all or not as they should have been—and subsequently were unimpressed by the subliminals because they hadn’t been made ready for them.
Eventually he would have to give the two of them a series of examinations and tests at a fully equipped medical clinic, with the hope that he could find what it was that made them impervious to the drug. But that could wait. During the next three weeks he would be quietly recording and studying the effects that the drug and subliminals produced in the other people of Black River.
Although Salsbury was more interested in Jenny than in any of the other customers, most of the time his attention was focused on the younger of Ultman’s two waitresses. She was a lean, lithe brunette with dark eyes and a honey complexion. Perhaps twenty-five years old. A captivating smile. A rich, throaty voice perfect for the bedroom. To Salsbury, her every movement was filled with sexual innuendo and an all but o
More important, however, the waitress reminded him of Miriam, the wife he had divorced twenty-seven years ago. Like Miriam, she had small, high-set breasts and very beautiful, supple legs. Her throaty voice resembled Miriam’s. And she had Miriam’s walk: an unstudied grace in every step, an unconscious and sinuous rolling of the hips that took his breath away.
He wanted her.
But he would never take her because she reminded him too much of Miriam, reminded him of the frustrations, angers, and disappointments of that awful five-year marriage. She stirred his lust—but she also stirred his somewhat suppressed, long-nurtured hatred of Miriam and, by extension, of women in general. He knew that, in the act, as he achieved penetration and began to move, her resemblance to Miriam would leave him impotent.
When she brought the check for his lunch, flashing that dazzling smile that had begun to seem smug and superior to him, he said, “I am the key.”
He was taking an unwarranted risk. He couldn’t defend it even to himself. Until he was certain that everyone in town, other than the Edisons and a handful of children, was properly programmed, he should restrict the use of the command phrase to telephone conversations, as with Troutman, and to situations wherein he was alone with the subject and free from fear of interruption. Only after three weeks of observation and individual contact could he even begin to assume there was no risk involved; and now, on one level, he was a bit disturbed that he was conducting himself irresponsibly on his first day in town. He didn’t particularly mind if absolute power corrupted him absolutely—just so it didn’t make him overconfident and careless. On the other hand, so long as they kept their voices low, there was little chance that they would be overheard. The elderly couple in the booth by the door was nearer to Salsbury than anyone else in the cafe, and they were half a room away. Besides, unwarranted risk or not, he couldn’t resist taking control of this woman. His emotions had unseated his reason, and he was riding with them.
“I am the lock,” she said.
“Keep your voice low.”
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“You’re lovely,” he said.
She said nothing.
“Smile for me, Alice.”
She smiled. She didn’t look the least bit dazed. Even her big, dark eyes held no hint of a trance. Yet she was unhesitatingly obedient.
He said, “You’ve got a nice body.”
“Do you like sex?”
“Do you like it very much?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“When you’re in bed with a man, is there anything you won’t let him do to you?”
“You won’t let him take you in the ass?”
She blushed and said, “Yeah. I don’t like that.”
“If I wanted you, I could have you.”
She stared at him.
“If I wanted you, I could have your right now, right here, on top of this table.”
“If I wanted to take you Greek-style, I could.”
She resisted the idea but finally said, “Is that what you want?”
“If I did want it, I could have it. You’d let me.”
It was his turn to smile. He glanced around the cafe. No one was looking at them; no one had heard. “Are you married, Alice?”
“Why did you get a divorce?”
“He couldn’t hold a job.”
“Your husband couldn’t?”
“Was he good in bed?”
She was even more like Miriam than he had thought.
After all these years he could still remember what Miriam had said to him the day she left. You’re not just bad in bed, Ogden. You’re terrible. And you’ve no inclination to learn. But you know, I could live with that if there were compensations. If you had money and could buy me things, maybe I could live with your fumbling sex. When I said I’d marry you, I thought you were going to make lots of money. Jesus Christ, you were at the top of your class at Harvard! When you completed your doctorate, everyone wanted to hire you. If you had any ambition whatsoever, you’d have already gotten your hands on a decent piece of money. You know what, Ogden? I think you’re as inept and unimaginative in your
Night Chills by Dean Koontz / Horror / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on48 votes