Page 7

Wind suddenly gusted strongly through the alley, whipping dead leaves and a few scraps of paper ahead of it.

The cop's eyes had become so radiantly green, there seemed to be a light source behind them, a fire within his skull. And the pupils had changed, too, until they were elongated and strange like those of a cat.

The dog's growl became a frightened whine.

In the nearby ravine the eucalyptus trees shook in the wind, and their soft soughing grew into a roar like that of an angry mob.

It seemed to Janet that the creature masquerading as a cop had commanded the wind to rise to lend more drama to his threat, though surely he did not have so much power as that.

“When I come for you at sunrise, I'll break open your bodies, eat your hearts.”

His voice had changed as completely as had his eyes. It was deep, gravelly, the malevolent voice of something that belonged in Hell.

He took a step toward them.

Janet backed up two steps, pulling Danny along. Her heart was hammering so hard, she knew her tormentor could hear it.

The dog also retreated, alternately whining and growling, his tail tucked between his legs.

"At dawn, you sorry bitch. You and your snotnosed little brat.

Sixteen hours. Only sixteen hours, bitch. Ticktock... ticktock...


The wind died in an instant. The whole world fell silent. No rustling of trees. No distant thunder.

A twig, bristling with half a dozen long eucalyptus leaves, hung in the air a few inches to her right and a foot in front of her face. It was motionless, abandoned by the whooping wind that had supported it, but still magically suspended like the dead scorpion in the souvenir acrylic paperweight that Vince had once bought at an Arizona truckstop.

The cop's freckled face stretched and bulged with amazing elasticity, like a rubber mask behind which a great pressure had been exerted. His green, catlike eyes appeared ready to pop out of his wildly deformed skull.

Janet wanted to run for the car, her haven, home, lock the door, safe in their home, and drive like hell, but couldn't do it, dared not turn her back on him. She knew she would be brought down and torn apart in spite of the promised sixteenhour head start, because he wanted her to watch his transformation, demanded it, and would be furious if ignored.

The powerful were intensely proud of their power. The gods of fear needed to preen and to be admired, to see how their power humbled and terrified those who were powerless before them.

The cop's distended face melted, his features running together, eyes liquefying into red pools of hot oil, the oil soaking into his doughy cheeks until he was eyeless, nose sliding into his mouth, lips spreading out across his chin and cheeks, then no chin or cheeks any more, just an oozing mass. But his warlike flesh didn't steam or drip to the ground, so the presence of heat was probably an illusion.

Maybe all of it was an illusion, hypnosis. That would explain a lot, raise new questions, yes, but explain a lot.

His body was pulsing, writhing, changing inside his clothes.

Then his clothes were dissolving into his body, as if they had never been real clothes but just another part of him. Briefly the new form he assumed was covered with matted black fur: an immense elongated head began taking shape on a powerful neck, hunched and gnarled shoulders, baleful yellow eyes, a ferocity of wicked teeth and twoinch claws, a movie werewolf.

On each of the four previous occasions this thing had appeared before her, it had 'manifested itself differently, as if to impress her with its repertoire. But she was unprepared for what it became now.

It relinquished the wolf incarnation even before that body had completely taken form, and assumed a human guise once more, though not the cop. Vince. Even though the facial features were less than half developed, she believed it was going to become her dead husband. The dark hair was the same, the shape of the forehead, the color of one malevolent pale eye.

The resurrection of Vince, buried beneath Arizona sands for the past year, shookJanet more than anything else the creature had done or become, and at last she cried out in fear. Danny screamed, too, and clung even more tightly to her.

The dog did not have the fickle heart of a stray. He stopped whining and responded as if he had been with them since he was a pup. He bared his teeth, snarled, and snapped at the air in warning.

Vince's face remained less than half formed, but his body took shape, and he wad na*ed as he had been when she had overwhelmed him in his sleep. In his throat, chest, and belly, she thought she saw the wounds left by the kitchen knife with which she had killed him: gaping gashes that were bloodless, but dark and raw and terrible.

Vince raised one arm, reaching toward her.

The dog attacked. Collarless life on the streets had not left Woofer weak or sickly. He was a strong, wellmuscled animal, and when he launched himself at the apparition, he seemed to take flight as readily as a bird.

His snarl was clipped off, and he was miraculously halted in midair, body in the arc of attack, as if he were only an image on a videotape after someone pushed the “pause” button. Flashfrozen.

Foamy slaver shone like frost on his black lips and in the fur around his muzzle, and his teeth gleamed as coldly as rows of small sharp icicles.

The eucalyptus twig, clothed in silverygreen leaves, hung unsupported to Janet's right, the dog to her left. The atmosphere seemed to have crystallized, trapping Woofer for eternity in his moment of courage, yet Janet was able to breathe when she remembered to try.

Still halfformed, Vince stepped toward her, passing the dog.

She turned and ran, pulling Danny with her, expecting to freeze in midstep. What would it feel like? Would darkness fall over her when she was paralyzed or would she still be able to see Vince walk into view from behind her and come eye to eye again? Would she drop into a well of silence or be able to hear the dead man's hateful voice? Feel the pain of each blow that he rained on her or be as insensate as the levitated eucalyptus twig?

Like flood waters, a tide of wind roared through the alleyway, nearly knocking her over. The world was filled with sound again.

She spun around and looked back in time to see Woofer return to life in midair and finish his interrupted leap. But there was no longer anyone for him to attack. Vince was gone. The dog landed on the pavement, slipped, skidded, rolled over, and sprang to his feet again, snapping his head around in fear and confusion, looking for his prey as if it had vanished before his eyes.

Danny was crying.

The threat seemed to have passed. The backstreet was deserted but for Janet, her boy, and the dog. Nevertheless, she hurried Danny toward the car, eager to get away, glancing repeatedly at the brush filled ravine and at the deep shadows between the huge trees as she passed them, half expecting the troll to climb out of its lair again, ready to feed on their hearts sooner than it had promised.

Lightning flickered. The roar of thunder was louder and closer than before.

The air smelled of the rain to come. That ozone taint reminded Janet of the stink of hot blood.

Harry Lyon was sitting at a corner table at the rear of the burger restaurant, clasping a water glass in his right hand, his left hand fisted on his thigh. Now and then he took a sip of water, and each sip seemed colder than the one before it, as if the glassabsorbed a chill, instead of heat, from his hand.

His gaze traveled over the toppled furniture, ruined plants, broken glass, scattered food, and congealing blood. Nine wounded had been carried away, but two dead bodies lay where they had fallen. A police photographer and lab technicians were at work.

Harry was aware of the room and the people in it, the periodic flash of the camera, but what he saw more clearly was the remembered moon face of the perpetrator peering down at him through the tangled limbs of the mannequins. The parted lips wet with blood. The twin windows of his eyes and the view of Hell beyond.

Harry was no less surprised to be alive now than when they had pulled the dead man and the departmentstore dummies off him.

His stomach still ached dully where the plaster hand of the mannequin had poked into him with the full weight of the perp behind It.

He'd thought he'd been shot. The perp had fired twice at close range, but evidently both rounds had been deflected by the intervening plaster torsos and limbs.

of the five rounds that Harry had fired, at least three had done major damage.

Plainclothes detectives and techs passed in and out of the nearby, bullettorn kitchen door, on their way to or from the second floor and attic. Some spoke to him or clapped him on the shoulder.

“Good work, Harry.”

“Harry, you okay?”

“Nice job, man.”

“You need anything, Harry?”

“Some shitstorm, huh, Harry?”

He murmured “thanks” or “yes” or “no” or just shook his head.

He wasn't ready for conversation with any of them, and he certainly wasn't ready to be a hero.

A crowd had gathered outside, pressing eagerly against police barriers, gawking through both broken and unbroken windows. He tried to ignore them because too many of them seemed to resemble the perp, their eyes shining with a fever glaze and their pleasant everyday faces unable to conceal strange hungers.

Connie came through the swinging door from the kitchen, righted an overturned chair, and sat at the table with him. She held a small notebook from which she read. "His name was James Ordegard.

Thirtyone. Unmarried. Lived in Laguna. Engineer. No police record.

Not even a traffic citation."

“What's his connection with this place? Exwife, girlfriend work here?”

“No. So far we can't find a connection. Nobody who works here remembers ever seeing him before.”

“Carrying a suicide note?”

“Nope. Looks like random violence.”

“They talk to anyone where he works?”

She nodded. “They're stunned. He was a good worker, happy-” “The usual model citizen.”

“That's what they say.”

The photographer took a few more shots of the nearest corpsea woman in her thirties. The strobe flashes were jarringly bright, and Harry realized that the day beyond the windows had grown overcast since he and Connie had come in for lunch.

“He have friends, family?” Harry asked.

“We have names, but we haven't talked to them yet. Neighbors either.”

She closed the notebook. “How you doin'?”

“I've been better.”

“How's your gut?”

“Not bad, almost normal. It'll be a lot worse tomorrow. Where the hell did he get the grenades?”

She shrugged. “We'll find out.”

The third grenade, dropped through the attic trapdoor into the room below, had caught a Laguna Beach officer by surprise. He was now in Hoag Hospital, desperately clinging to life.

“Grenades.” Harry was still disbelieving. “You ever hear anything like it?”

He was immediately sorry he had asked the question. He knew it would get her started on her favorite subjectthe premillennium cotillion, the continuing crisis of these new Dark Ages.

Connie frowned and said, “Ever hear anything like it? Not like, maybe, but just as bad, worse, lots worse. Last year in Nashville, a woman killed her handicapped boyfriend by setting his wheelchair on fire.”

Kl Harry sighed.

She said, "Eight teenagers in Boston raped and killed a woman.

You know what their excuse was? They were bored. Bored. The city was at fault, you see, for doing so little to provide kids with free leisure activities."

He glanced at the people crowding the crimescene barriers beyond the front windowthen quickly averted his eyes.

He said, “Why do you collect these nuggets?”

“Look, Harry, it's the Age of Chaos. Get with the times.”

“Maybe I'd rather be an old fogey.”

"To be a good cop in the nineties, you've gotta be of the nineties.

You gotta be in sync with the rhythms of destruction. Civilization is coming down around our ears. Everyone wants a license, no one wants responsibility, so the center won't hold. You've gotta know when to break a rule to save the systemand how to surf on every random wave of madness that comes along."

He just stared at her, which was easy enough, much easier than considering what she had said, because it scared him to think she might be right. He couldn't consider it. Wouldn't. Not right now, anyway.

And the sight of her lovely face was a welcome distraction.

Although she did not measure up to the current American standard of ultimate gorgeousness set by beercommercial bimbos on television, and though she did not possess the sweaty exotic allure of the female rock stars with mutant cl**vage and eight pounds of stage makeup who unaccountably aroused a whole generation of young males, Connie Gulliver was attractive. At least Harry thought so.

Not that he had any romantic interest in her. He did not. But he was a man, she was a woman, and they worked closely together, so it was natural for him to notice that her darkbrownalmostblack hair was beautifully thick with a silken luster though she cropped it short and combed it with her fingers. Her eyes were an odd shade of blue, violet when light struck them at a certain angle, and might have been irresistibly enticing if they had not been the watchful, suspicious eyes of a cop.

She was thirtythree, four years younger than Harry. In rare moments when she let her guard down, she looked twentyfive.

Most of the time, however, the dark wisdom acquired from police work made her seem older than she was.

“What're you staring at?” she asked.

“Just wondering if you're really as hard inside as you pretend to be.”

“You ought to know by now.”

“That's just itI ought to.”

“Don't get Freudian on me, Harry.”

“I won't.” He took a sip of water.

“One thing I like about you is, you don't try to psychoanalyze everyone. All that stuff's a load of crap.”

“I agree.”

He wasn't strrprised to find they shared an attitude. In spite of their many differences, they were enough alike to work well as partners. But because Connie avoided selfrevelation, Harry had no idea whether they had arrived at their similar attitudes for similaror totally opposedreasons.

Sometimes it seemed important to understand why she held certain convictions. At other times Harry was equally sure that encouraging intimacy would lead to a messier relationship. He hated messiness.

Often it was wise to avoid familiarity in a professional association, keep a comfortable distance, a buffer zonespecially when you were both carrying firearms.

In the distance, thunder rolled.

A cool draft slipped across the jagged edges of the big broken window and all the way to the back of the restaurant. Discarded paper napkins fluttered on the floor.