Page 18


Converted? From what? To what? Was there something religious about this conspiracy? Some strange cult? Or maybe "converted" was used in some euphemistic sense or as a code.


The word gave him the creeps.


Sam discovered that he could either scroll through the list or access it in alphabetized chunks. He looked up the names of residents whom he either knew of or had met. Loman Watkins was on the converted list. So was Reese Dorn. Burt Peckham, the owner of Knight's Bridge Tavern, was not among the converted, but the entire Perez family, surely the same that operated the restaurant, was on that roster.


He checked Harold Talbot, the disabled vet with whom he intended to make contact in the morning. Talbot was not on the converted list.


Puzzled as to the meaning of it all, Sam closed out that file, returned to the main menu, and punched B. PENDING CONVERSION. This brought another list of names and addresses to the VDT, and the column was headed by the words 1104 PENDING CONVERSION. On this roster he found Burt Peckham and Harold Talbot.


He tried C. SCHEDULE OF CONVERSION - LOCAL, and a submenu of three headings appeared:


A. MONDAY, OCTOBER 13, 6:00 P.M.


THROUGH


TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14, 6:00 A.M.


B. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14, 6:00 A.M.


THROUGH


TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14, 6:00 P.M.


C. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14, 6:00 P.M.


THROUGH


MIDNIGHT


It was now 12:39 A.M. Wednesday, about halfway between the times noted in choice A, so he punched that one another list of names headed by the notation 380 CONVERSIONS SCHEDULED.


The fine hairs were bristling on the back of Sam's neck, and he didn't know why except that the word "conversions" unsettled him. It made him think of that old movie with Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


He also thought of the pack that had pursued him earlier in the night. Had they been … converted?


When he looked up Burt Peckham, he found the tavern owner on the schedule for conversion before 6:00 A.M. However, Harry Talbot was not listed.


The car shook.


Sam snapped his head up and reached for the revolver holstered under his jacket.


Wind. It was only wind. A series of hard gusts shredded holes in the fog and lightly rocked the car. After a moment the wind died to a strong breeze again, and the torn fabric of fog mended itself, but Sam's heart was still thudding painfully.


32


As Tessa put down the useless telephone, the doorknob stopped rattling. She stood by the bed for a while, listening, then ventured warily into the foyer to press her ear against the door.


She heard voices but not immediately beyond that portal. They were farther down the hallway, peculiar voices that spoke in urgent, raspy whispers. She could not make out anything they said.


She was sure they were the same ones who had stalked her, unseen, when she had gone for ice and a Diet Coke. Now they were back. And somehow they had knocked out the phones, so she couldn't call for help. It was crazy, but it was happening.


Such persistence on their part indicated to Tessa that they were not ordinary rapists or muggers, that they had focused on her because she was Janice's sister, because she was there to look into Janice's death. However, she wondered how they had become aware of her arrival in town and why they had chosen to move against her so precipitously, without even waiting to see if she was just going to settle Janice's affairs and leave. Only she and her mother knew that she intended to attempt a murder investigation of her own.


Gooseflesh prickled her bare legs, and she felt vulnerable in just a T-shirt and panties. She went quickly to the closet, pulled on jeans and a sweater.


She wasn't alone in the motel. There were other guests. Mr. Quinn had said so. Maybe not many, perhaps only another two or three. But if worse came to worst, she could scream, and the other guests would hear her, and her would-be assailants would have to flee.


She picked up her Rockports, in which she had stuffed the white athletic socks she'd been wearing, and returned to the door.


Low, hoarse voices hissed and muttered at the far end of the hall—then a bone-jarring crash slammed through the lodge, making her cry out and twitch in surprise. Another crash followed at once. She heard a door give way at another room.


A woman screamed, and a man shouted, but the oilier voices were what brought a chill of horror to Tessa. There were several of them, three or even four, and they were eerie and shockingly savage. The public corridor beyond her door was filled with harsh wolflike growls, murderous snarls, shrill and excited squeals, an icy keening that was the essence of blood hunger, and other less describable sounds, but worst of all was that those same inhuman voices, clearly belonging to beasts not men, nevertheless also spat out a few recognizable words: "… need, need … get her, get … get, get … blood, bitch, blood…"


Leaning against the door, holding on to it for support, Tessa tried to tell herself that the words she heard were from the man and woman whose room had been broken into, but she knew that was not true, because she also heard both a man and woman screaming. Their screams were horrible, almost unbearable, full of terror and agony, as if they were being beaten to death or worse, much worse, being torn apart, ripped limb from limb and gutted.


A couple of years ago Tessa had been in Northern Ireland, making a documentary about the pointlessness of the needless violence there, and she'd been unfortunate enough to be at a cemetery, at the funeral of one of the endless series of "martyrs"—Catholic or Protestant, it didn't matter any more, both had a surfeit of them—when the crowd of mourners had metamorphosed into a pack of savages. They had streamed from the churchyard into nearby streets, looking for those of a different faith, and soon they'd come across two British plain clothes army officers patrolling the area in an unmarked car. By its sheer size, the mob blocked the car's advance, encircled it, smashed in the windows, and dragged the would-be peacekeepers out onto the pavement. Tessa's two technical assistants had fled, but she had waded into the melee with her shoulder-mounted videotape camera, and through the lens she had seemed to be looking beyond the reality of this world into hell itself. Eyes wild, faces distorted with hatred and rage, grief forgotten and bloodlust embraced, the mourners had tirelessly kicked the fallen Britons, then pulled them to their feet only to pummel and stab them, slammed them repeatedly against the car until their spines broke and their skulls cracked, then dropped them and stomped them and tore at them and stabbed them again, though by that time they were both dead. Howling and shrieking, cursing, chanting slogans that degenerated into meaningless chains of sounds, mindless rhythms, like a flock of carrion-eating birds, they plucked at the shattered bodies, though they weren't like earthly birds, neither buzzards nor vultures, but like demons that had flown up from the pit, tearing at the dead men not only with the intention of consuming their flesh but with the hot desire to rip out and steal their souls. Two of those frenzied men had noticed Tessa, had seized her camera and smashed it, and had thrown her to the ground. For one terrible moment she was sure that they would dismember her in their frenzy. Two of them leaned down, grabbing at her clothes. Their faces were so wrenched with hatred that they no longer looked human, but like gargoyles that had come to life and had climbed down from the roofs of cathedrals. They had surrendered all that was human in themselves and let loose the gene-encoded ghosts of the primitives from whom they were descended. "For God's sake, no!" she had cried. "For God's sake, please!" Perhaps it was the mention of God or just the sound of a human voice that had not devolved into the hoarse gnarl of a beast, but for some reason they let go and hesitated. She seized that reprieve to scramble away from them, through the churning, blood-crazed mob to safety.


What she heard now, at the other end of the motel corridor, was just like that. Or worse.


33


Beginning to sweat even though the patrol car's heater was not on, still spooked by every sudden gust of wind, Sam called up submenu item B, which showed the conversions scheduled from 6:00 this coming morning until 6:00 p.m. that evening. Those names were preceded by the heading 450 CONVERSIONS SCHEDULED. Harry Talbot's name was not on that list either.


Choice C, six o'clock Thursday evening through midnight the same day, indicated that 274 conversions were scheduled. Harry Talbot's name and address were on that third and final list.


Sam mentally added the numbers mentioned in each of the three conversion periods—380, 450, and 274—and realized they totaled 1104, which was the same number that headed the list of pending conversions. Add that number to 1967, the total listed as already converted, and the grand total, 3071, was probably the population of Moonlight Cove. By the next time the clock struck midnight, a little less than twenty-three hours from now, the entire town would be converted—whatever the hell that meant.


He keyed out of the submenu and was about to switch off the car's engine and get out of there when the word ALERT appeared on the VDT and began to flash. Fear thrilled through him because he was sure they had discovered an intruder poking around in their system; he must have tripped some subtle alarm in the program.


Instead of opening the door and making a run for it, however, he watched the screen for a few more seconds, held by curiosity.


TELEPHONE SWEEP INDICATES FBI


AGENT IN MOONLIGHT COVE.


POINT OF CALL:


PAY PHONE. SHELL STATION,


OCEAN AVENUE.


The alert was related to him, though not because they knew he was currently sitting in one of their patrol cars and probing the New Wave/Moonhawk conspiracy. Evidently the bastards were tied into the phone company's data banks and periodically swept those records to see who had made calls from what numbers to what numbers—even from all of the town's pay telephones, which in ordinary circumstances could have been counted on to provide secure communications for a field agent. They were paranoid and security conscious and electronically connected to an extent and degree that proved increasingly astounding with each revelation.


TIME OF CALL:


7:31 P.M., MONDAY,


OCTOBER 13.


At least they didn't keep a minute-by-minute or even hour-by-hour link with the telephone company. Their computer obviously swept those records on a programmed schedule, perhaps every four or six or eight hours. Otherwise they would have been on the lookout for him shortly after he had made the call to Scott earlier in the evening.


After the legend CALL PLACED TO, his home phone number appeared, then his name and his address in Sherman Oaks. Followed by:


CALL PLACED BY:


SAMUEL H. BOOKER.


MEANS OF PAYMENT TELEPHONE CREDIT CARD.


TYPE OF CARD:


EMPLOYER-BILLED.


BILLING ADDRESS:


FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION,


WASHINGTON, D.C.


They would start checking motels in the entire county, but as he was staying in Moonlight Cove's only lodgings, the search would be a short one. He wondered if he had time to sprint back to Cove Lodge, get his car, and drive to the next town, Aberdeen Wells, where he could call the Bureau office in San Francisco from an unmonitored phone. He had learned enough to know that something damned strange was going on in this town, enough to justify an imposition of federal authority and a far-reaching investigation.


But the very next words that appeared on the VDT convinced him that if he went back to Cove Lodge to get his car, he would be caught before he could get out of town. And if they got their hands on him, he might be just one more nasty accidental-death statistic.


They knew his home address, so Scott might be in danger too—not right now, not down there in Los Angeles, but maybe by tomorrow.


DIALOGUE INVOKED


WATKINS: SHOLNICK, ARE YOU LINKED IN?


SHOLNICK: HERE.


WATKINS: TRY COVE LODGE.


SHOLNICK: ON MY WAY.


Already an officer, Sholnick, was on his way to see if Sam was a registered guest at Cove Lodge. And the cover story that Sam had established with the desk clerk—that he was a successful stockbroker from Los Angeles, contemplating early retirement in one coastal town or another—was blown.


WATKINS: PETERSON?


PETERSON: HERE.


They probably didn't have to type in their names. Each man's link would identify him to the main computer, and his name would be automatically printed in front of the brief input that he typed. Clean, swift, easy to use.


WATKINS: BACK UP SHOLNICK.


PETERSON: DONE.


WATKINS: DON'T KILL HIM UNTIL WE CAN QUESTION.


All over Moonlight Cove, cops in patrol cars were talking to one another by computer, off the public airwaves, where they could not be easily overheard. Even though Sam was eavesdropping on them without their knowledge, he felt that he was up against a formidable enemy nearly as omniscient as God.


WATKINS: DANBERRY?


DANBERRY: HERE. HQ.


WATKINS: BLOCK OCEAN AVENUE TO IN INTERSTATE.


DANBERRY: DONE.


SHADDACK: WHAT ABOUT THE FOSTER GIRL?


Sam was startled to see Shaddack's name appear on the screen. The alert apparently had flashed on his computer at home, perhaps also sounding an audible alarm and waking him.


WATKINS: STILL LOOSE.


SHADDACK: CAN'T RISK BOOKER STUMBLING ACROSS HER.


WATKINS: TOWN'S RINGED WITH SENTRIES. THEY'LL CATCH HER COMING IN.


SHADDACK: SHE'S SEEN TOO MUCH.


Sam had read about Thomas Shaddack in magazines, newspapers. The guy was a celebrity of sorts, the computer genius of the age, and somewhat geeky looking besides.


Fascinated by this revealing dialogue, which incriminated the famous man and his bought police force, Sam had not immediately picked up on the meaning of the exchanges between Chief Watkins and Danberry: Danberry … Here. HQ … Block Ocean Avenue to interstate … Done. He realized that Officer Danberry was at headquarters, HQ, which was the municipal building, and that any moment he was going to come out the back door and rush to one of the four patrol cars in the parking lot.


"Oh, shit." Sam grabbed the ignition wires, tearing them apart. The engine coughed and died, and the video-display went dark. A fraction of a second later, Danberry threw open the rear door of the municipal building and ran into the parking lot.


34


When the screaming stopped, Tessa broke out of a trance of terror and went straight to the phone again. The line was still dead.


Where was Quinn? The motel office was closed at this hour, but didn't the manager have an adjacent apartment? He would respond to the ruckus. Or was he one of the savage pack in the corridor?


They had broken down one door. They could break down hers too.


She grabbed one of the straight-backed chairs from the table by the window, hurried to the door with it, tilted it back, and wedged it under the knob.


She no longer thought they were after her just because she was Janice's sister and bent on uncovering the truth. That explanation didn't account for their attack on the other guests, who had nothing to do with Janice. It was nuts. She didn't understand what was happening, but she clearly understood the implications of what she had heard: a psychotic killer—no, several psychotics, judging by the noise they had made, some bizarre cult like the Manson family maybe, or worse—were loose in the motel. They had already killed two people, and they could kill her, too, evidently for the sheer pleasure of it. She felt as if she were in a bad dream.

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