Page 17


What in the hell would a small police force in rural California need with all those sources of information?


And there was more data to which even fully computerized police agencies in cities like Los Angeles would not have easy access. By law, some of it was stuff that police could not obtain without a court order, such as the files at TRW, the nation's premier credit-reporting firm. The Moonlight Cove Police department's ability to access TRW's data base at will had to be a secret kept from TRW itself, for the company would not have cooperated in a wholesale disgorgement of its files without a subpoena. The system also offered entrance to CIA data bases in Virginia, which were supposedly secured against access from any computer beyond the Agency's walls, and to certain FBI files which were likewise believed to be inviolate.


Shaken, Sam retreated from the OUTSYSTEM MODEM options and returned to the main menu.


He stared out at the parking lot, thinking.


When briefing Sam a few days ago, Morrie Stein had suggested that Moonlight Cove's police might somehow be trafficking in drugs, and that New Wave's generosity with computer systems might indicate complicity on the part of certain unidentified officers of that firm. But the Bureau was also interested in the possibility that New Wave was illegally selling sensitive high technology to the Soviets and that it had bought the Moonlight Cove police because, through these law-enforcement contacts, the company would be alerted at the earliest possible moment to a nascent federal probe into its activities. They had no explanation of how either of those crimes accounted for all the recent deaths, but they had to start with some theory.


Now Sam was ready to discount both the idea that New Wave was selling to the Soviets and that some executives of the firm were in the drug trade. The far-reaching web of data bases that the police had made available to themselves through their modem—one hundred and twelve were listed on that menu!—was greatly in excess of anything they would require for either drug trafficking or sniffing out federal suspicions of possible Soviet connections at New Wave.


They had created an informational network more suitable to the operational necessities of an entire state government—or, even more accurately, a small nation. A small, hostile nation. This data web was designed to provide its owner with enormous power. It was as if this picturesque little town suffered under the governing hand of a megalomaniac whose central delusion was that he could create a tiny kingdom from which he would eventually conquer vast territory.


Today, Moonlight Cove; tomorrow, the word.


"What the f*ck are they doing?" Sam wondered aloud.


29


Safely locked in her room at Cove Lodge—dressed for bed in pale yellow panties and a white T-shirt emblazoned with Kermit the Frog's smiling face—Tessa drank Diet Coke and tried to watch a repeat of the Tonight show, but she couldn't get interested in the conversations that Johnny Carson conducted with a witless actress, a witless singer, and a witless comedian. Diet thought to accompany Diet Coke.


The more time that passed after her unsettling experience in the motel's halls and stairwells, the more she wondered if indeed she had imagined being stalked. She was distraught about Janice's death, after all, preoccupied by the thought that it was murder rather than suicide. And she was still dyspeptic from the cheeseburger she'd eaten for dinner, which had been so greasy that it might have been deep-fried, bun and all, in impure yak lard. As Scrooge had first believed of Marley's ghost, so Tessa now began to view the phantoms that had frightened her earlier Perhaps they'd been nothing more than an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.


As Carson's current guest talked about a weekend he'd spent at an arts festival in Havana with Fidel Castro—"a great guy, a funny guy, a compassionate guy"—Tessa got up from the bed and went to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. As she was squeezing Crest onto the brush, she heard someone try the door to her room.


The small bath was off the smaller foyer. When she stepped to the threshold, she was within a couple of feet of the door to the hall, close enough to see the knob twisting back and forth as someone tested the lock. They weren't even being subtle about it. The knob clicked and rattled, and the door clattered against the frame.


She dropped her toothbrush and hurried to the telephone that stood on the nightstand.


No dial tone.


She jiggled the cutoff buttons, pressed 0 for operator, but nothing worked. The motel switchboard was shut down. The phone was dead.


30


Several times Chrissie had to scurry off the road, taking cover in the brush along the verge, until an approaching car or truck went past. One of them was a Moonlight Cove police car, heading toward town, and she was pretty sure it was the one that had come out to the house. She hunkered down in tall grass and milkweed stalks, and remained there until the black-and-white's taillights dwindled to tiny red dots and finally vanished around a turn.


A few houses were built along the first mile and a half of that two-lane blacktop. Chrissie knew some of the people who lived in them: the Thomases, the Stones, the Elswicks. She was tempted to go to one of those places, knock on the door, and ask for help. But she couldn't be sure that those people were still the nice folks they had once been. They might have changed, too, like her parents. Either something SUPERNATURAL or from outer space was taking possession of people in and around Moonlight Cove, and she had seen enough scary movies and read enough scary books to know that when those kind of forces were at work, you could no longer trust anyone.


She was betting nearly everything on Father Castelli at Our Lady of Mercy because he was a holy man, and no demons from hell would be able to get a grip on him. Of course, if the problem was aliens from another world, Father Castelli would not be protected just because he was a man of God.


In that case, if the priest had been taken over, and if Chrissie managed to get away from him after she discovered he was one of the enemy, she'd go straight to Mrs. Irene Tokawa, her teacher. Mrs. Tokawa was the smartest person Chrissie knew. If aliens were taking over Moonlight Cove, Mrs. Tokawa would have realized something was wrong before it was too late. She would have taken steps to protect herself, and she would be one of the last that the monsters would get their hooks into. Hooks or tentacles or claws or pincers or whatever.


So Chrissie hid from passing traffic, sneaked past the houses scattered along the county road, and proceeded haltingly but steadily toward town. The horned moon, sometimes revealed above the fog, had traversed most of the sky; it would soon be gone. A stiff breeze had swept in from the west, marked by periodic gusts strong enough to whip her hair straight up in the air as if it were a blond flame leaping from her head. Although the temperature had fallen to only about fifty degrees, the night felt much colder during those turbulent moments when the breeze temporarily became a blustering wind. The positive side was that the more miserable the cold and wind made her, the less aware she was of that other discomfort—hunger.


"Waif Found Wandering Hungry and Dazed After Encounter with Space Aliens," she said, reading that imagined headline from an issue of The National Enquirer that existed only in her mind.


She was approaching the intersection of the county route and Holliwell Road, feeling good about the progress she was making, when she nearly walked into the arms of those she was trying to avoid.


To the east of the county route, Holliwell was a dirt road leading up into the hills, under the interstate, and all the way to the old, abandoned Icarus Colony—a dilapidated twelve-room house, barn, and collapsing outbuildings where a group of artists had tried to establish an ideal communal society back in the 1950s. Since then it had been a horse-breeding facility (failed), the site of a weekly flea market and auction (failed), a natural food restaurant (failed), and had long ago settled into ruin. Kids knew all about it because it was a spooky place and thus the site of many tests of courage. To the west, Holliwell Road was paved and led along the edge of the town limits, past some of the newer homes in the area, past New Wave Microtech, and eventually out to the north point of the cove, where Thomas Shaddack, the computer genius, lived in a huge, weird-looking house. Chrissie didn't intend to go either east or west on Holliwell; it was just a milestone on her trek, and when she crossed it she would be at the northeast corner of the Moonlight Cove city limits.


She was within a hundred feet of Holliwell when she heard the low but swiftly swelling sound of a racing engine. She stepped away from the road, over a narrow ditch at the verge, waded through weeds, and took cover against the thick trunk of an ancient pine. Even as she hunkered down by the tree, she got a fix on the direction from which the vehicle was approaching—west—and then she saw its headlights spearing into the intersection just south of her. A truck pulled into view on Holliwell, ignoring the stop sign, and braked in the middle of the intersection. Fog whirled and plumed around it.


Chrissie could see that heavy-duty, black, extended-bed pickup fairly well because, as the junction of Holliwell and the county road was the site of frequent accidents, a single streetlight had been installed on the northeast corner for better visibility and as a warning to drivers. The truck bore the distinctive New Wave insignia on the door, which she could recognize even at a distance because she had seen it maybe a thousand times before: a white and blue circle the size of a dinner plate, the bottom half of which was a cresting blue wave. The truck had a large bed, and at the moment its cargo was men; six or eight were sitting in the back.


The instant that the pickup halted in the intersection, two men vaulted over the tailgate. One of them went to the wooded point at the northwest corner of the intersection and slipped into the trees, no more than a hundred feet south of the pine from which Chrissie was watching him. The other crossed to the southeast corner of the junction and took up a position in weeds and chaporral.


The pickup turned south on the county road and sped away.


Chrissie suspected that the remaining men in the truck would be let off at other points along the eastern perimeter of Moonlight Cove, where they would take up watch positions. Further more, the truck had been big enough to carry at least twenty men, and no doubt others had been dropped off as it had come eastward along Holliwell from the New Wave building in the west. They were surrounding Moonlight Cove with sentries. She was quite sure they were looking for her. She had seen something she had not been meant to see—her parents in the act of a hideous transformation, shucking off their human disguise—and now she had to be found and "converted"—as Tucker had put it—before she had a chance to warn the world.


The sound of the black truck receded.


Silence settled in like a damp blanket.


Fog swirled and churned and eddied in countless currents, but the overriding tidal forces in the air pushed it relentlessly toward the dark and serried hills.


Then the breeze abruptly ratcheted up until it became a real wind again, whispering in the tall weeds, soughing through the evergreens. It produced a soft and strangely forlorn thrumming from a nearby road sign.


Though Chrissie knew where the two men had gone to ground, she could not see them. They were well hidden.


31


Fog flew past the patrol car and eastward through the night, driven by a breeze that was swiftly becoming a full wind, and ideas flew through Sam's mind with the same fluidity. His thoughts were so disturbing that he would have preferred to have sat in mindless stupefaction.


From considerable prior computer experience, he knew that part of a system's capabilities could be hidden if the program designer simply deleted some choices from the task menus that appeared on the screen. He stared at the primary menu on the car's display—A, DISPATCHER; B, CENTRAL FILES; C. BULLETIN BOARD; D. OUTSYSTEM MODEM—and he pressed E, though no E task was offered.


Words appeared on the terminal HELLO, OFFICER DORN.


There was an E. He'd entered either a secret data base requiring ritual responses for access or an interactive information system that would respond to questions he typed on the keyboard. If the former was the case, if passwords or phrases were required, and if he typed the wrong response, he was in trouble; the computer would shut him out and sound an alarm in police headquarters to warn them that an impersonator was using Dorn's number.


Proceeding with caution, he typed HELLO.


MAY I BE OF ASSISTANCE?


Sam decided to proceed as if this was just what it seemed to be—a straightforward, question-and-answer program. He tapped the keyboard MENU.


The screen blanked for a moment, then the same words reappeared MAY I BE OF ASSISTANCE?


He tried again PRIMARY MENU.


MAY I BE OF ASSISTANCE?


MAIN MENU.


MAY I BE OF ASSISTANCE?


Using a system accessed by question and response, with which one was unfamiliar, meant finding the proper commands more or less by trial and error. Sam tried again FIRST MENU.


At last he was rewarded.


CHOOSE ONE


A. NEW WAVE PERSONNEL


B. PROJECT MOONHAWK


C. SHADDACK


He had found a secret connection between New Wave, its founder Thomas Shaddack, and the Moonlight Cove police. But he didn't know yet what the connection was or what it meant.


He suspected that choice C might link him to Shaddack's personal computer terminal, allowing him to have a dialogue with Shaddack that would be more private than a conversation conducted on police-band radio. If that was the case, then Shaddack and the local cops were indeed involved in a conspiracy so criminal that it required a very high degree of security. He did not punch C because, if he called up Shaddack's computer and got Mr. Big himself on the other end, there was no way he could successfully pretend to be Reese Dorn.


Choice A probably would provide him with a roster of New Wave's executives and department heads, and maybe with codes that would allow him to link up with their personal terminals as well. He didn't want to talk with any of them either.


Besides, he felt that he was on borrowed time. He surveyed the parking lot again and peered especially hard at the deeper pools of shadow beyond the reach of the sodium-vapor lamps. He'd been in the patrol car for fifteen minutes, and no one had come or gone from the municipal-building lot in that time. He doubted his luck would hold much longer, and he wanted to learn as much as possible in whatever minutes remained before he was interrupted.


PROJECT MOONHAWK was the most mysterious and interesting of the three choices, so he pushed B, and another menu appeared.


CHOOSE ONE:


A. CONVERTED


B. PENDING CONVERSION


C. SCHEDULE OF CONVERSION - LOCAL


D. SCHEDULE OF CONVERSION - SECOND STAGE


He punched choice A, and a column of names and addresses appeared on the screen. They were people in Moonlight Cove, and at the head of the column was the notation 1967 NOW CONVERTED.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***