"… get her, get her, get, get, get …"
"… want, want, want it, want it …"
"… now, now, quick, now, quick, quick, quick …"
They were pulling at her sweat pants, trying to strip her, but she wasn't sure if they wanted to rape or devour her; perhaps neither; what they wanted was, in fact, beyond her comprehension. She just knew they were overcome by some tremendously powerful urge, for the chilly air was as thick with their need as with fog and darkness.
One of them pushed her face deeper into the wet sand, and the water was all around her now, only inches deep but enough to drown her, and they wouldn't let her breathe. She knew she was going to die, she was pinned now and helpless, going to die, and all because she liked to run at night.
On Monday, October 13, twenty-two days after the death of Janice Capshaw, Sam Booker drove his rental car from the San Francisco International Airport to Moonlight Cove. During the trip, he played a grim yet darkly amusing game with himself, making a mental list of reasons to go on living. Although he was on the road for more than an hour and a half, he could think of only four things Guinness Stout, really good Mexican food, Goldie Hawn, and fear of death.
That thick, dark, Irish brew never failed to please him and to provide a brief surcease from the sorrows of the world. Restaurants consistently serving first-rate Mexican food were more difficult to locate than Guinness; its solace was therefore more elusive. Sam had long been in love with Goldie Hawn—or the screen image she projected—because she was beautiful and cute, earthy and intelligent, and seemed to find life so much damn fun. His chances of meeting Goldie Hawn were about a million times worse than finding a great Mexican restaurant in a northern California coastal town like Moonlight Cove, so he was glad that she was not the only reason he had for living.
As he drew near his destination, tall pines and cypresses crowded Highway 1, forming a gray-green tunnel, casting long shadows in the late-afternoon light. The day was cloudless yet strangely forbidding; the sky was pale blue, bleak in spite of its crystalline clarity, unlike the tropical blue to which he was accustomed in Los Angeles. Though the temperature was in the fifties, hard sunshine, like glare bouncing off a field of ice, seemed to freeze the colors of the landscape and dull them with a haze of imitation frost.
Fear of death. That was the best reason on his list. Though he was just forty-two years old—five feet eleven, a hundred and seventy pounds, and currently healthy—Sam Booker had skated along the edge of death six times, had peered into the waters below, and had not found the plunge inviting.
A road sign appeared on the right side of the highway: OCEAN AVENUE, MOONLIGHT COVE, 2 MILES.
Sam was not afraid of the pain of dying, for that would pass in a flicker. Neither was he afraid of leaving his life unfinished; for several years he had harbored no goals or hopes or dreams, so there was nothing to finish, no purpose or meaning. But he was afraid of what lay beyond life.
Five years ago, more dead than alive on an operating-room table, he had undergone a near-death experience. While surgeons worked frantically to save him, he had risen out of his body and, from the ceiling, looked down on his carcass and the medical team surrounding it. Then suddenly he'd found himself rushing through a tunnel, toward dazzling light, toward the Other Side the entire near-death cliche that was a staple of sensationalistic supermarket tabloids. At the penultimate moment, the skillful physicians had pulled him back into the land of the living, but not before he had been afforded a glimpse of what lay beyond the mouth of that tunnel. What he'd seen had scared the crap out of him. Life, though often cruel, was preferable to confronting what he now suspected lay beyond it.
He reached the Ocean Avenue exit. At the bottom of the ramp, as Ocean Avenue turned west, under Pacific Coast Highway, another sign read MOONLIGHT COVE 1/2 MILE.
A few houses were tucked in the purple gloom among the trees on both sides of the two-lane blacktop; their windows glowed with soft yellow light even an hour before nightfall. Some were of that half-timbered, deep-eaved, Bavarian architecture that a few builders, in the 1940s and '50s, had mistakenly believed was in harmony with the northern California coast. Others were Monterey-style bungalows with white clapboard or shingle-covered walls, cedar-shingled roofs, and rich—if fairy-tale rococo—architectural details. Since Moonlight Cove had enjoyed much of its growth in the past ten years, a large number of houses were sleek, modern, many-windowed structures that looked like ships tossed up on some unimaginably high tide, stranded now on these hillsides above the sea.
When Sam followed Ocean Avenue into the six-block-long commercial district, a peculiar sense of wrongness immediately overcame him. Shops, restaurants, taverns, a market, two churches, the town library, a movie theater, and other unremarkable establishments lined the main drag, which sloped down toward the ocean, but to Sam's eyes there was an indefinable though powerful strangeness about the community that gave him a chill.
He could not identify the reasons for his instant negative reaction to the place, though perhaps it was related to the somber interplay of light and shadow. At this dying end of the autumn day, in the cheerless sunlight, the gray stone Catholic church looked like an alien edifice of steel, erected for no human purpose. A white stucco liquor store gleamed as if built from time-bleached bones. Many shop windows were cataracted with ice-white reflections of the sun as it sought the horizon, as if painted to conceal the activities of those who worked beyond them. The shadows cast by the buildings, by the pines and cypress, were stark, spiky, razor-edged.
Sam braked at a stoplight at the third intersection, halfway through the commercial district. With no traffic behind him, he paused to study the people on the sidewalks. Not many were in sight, eight or ten, and they also struck him as wrong, though his reasons for thinking ill of them were less definable than those that fanned his impression of the town itself. They walked briskly, purposefully, heads up, with a peculiar air of urgency that seemed unsuited to a lazy, seaside community of only three thousand souls.
He sighed and continued down Ocean Avenue, telling himself that his imagination was running wild. Moonlight Cove and the people in it probably would not have seemed the least unusual if he had just been passing by on a long trip and turned off the coast highway only to have dinner at a local restaurant. Instead, he had arrived with the knowledge that something was rotten there, so of course he saw ominous signs in a perfectly innocent scene.
At least that was what he told himself. But he knew better.
He had come to Moonlight Cove because people had died there, because the official explanations for their deaths were suspicious, and he had a hunch that the truth, once uncovered, would be unusually disturbing. Over the years he had learned to trust his hunches; that trust had kept him alive.
He parked the rented Ford in front of a gift shop.
To the west, at the far end of a slate-gray sea, the anemic sun sank through a sky that was slowly turning muddy red. Serpentine tendrils of fog began to rise off the choppy water.
In the pantry off the kitchen, sitting on the floor with her back against a shelf of canned goods, Chrissie Foster looked at her watch. In the harsh light of the single bare bulb in the ceiling socket, she saw that she had been locked in that small, windowless chamber for nearly nine hours. She had received the wristwatch on her eleventh birthday, more than four months ago, and she had been thrilled by it because it was not a kid's watch with cartoon characters on the face; it was delicate, ladylike, goldplated, with roman numerals instead of digits, a real Timex like her mother wore. Studying it, Chrissie was overcome by sadness. The watch represented a time of happiness and family togetherness that was lost forever.
Besides feeling sad, lonely, and a little restless from hours of captivity, she was scared. Of course, she was not as scared as she had been that morning, when her father had carried her through the house and thrown her into the pantry. Then, kicking and screaming, she had been terrified because of what she had seen. Because of what her parents had become. But that white-hot terror could not be sustained; gradually it subsided to a lowgrade fever of fear that made her feel flushed and chilled at the same time, queasy, headachy, almost as if she were in the early stages of flu.
She wondered what they were going to do to her when they finally let her out of the pantry. Well, no, she didn't worry about what they were going to do, for she was pretty sure she already knew the answer to that one They were going to change her into one of them. What she wondered about, actually, was how the change would be effected—and what, exactly, she would become. She knew that her mother and father were no longer ordinary people, that they were something else, but she had no words to describe what they had become.
Her fear was sharpened by the fact that she lacked the words to explain to herself what was happening in her own home, for she had always been in love with words and had faith in their power. She liked to read just about anything poetry, short stories, novels, the daily newspaper, magazines, the backs of cereal boxes if nothing else was at hand. She was in sixth grade at school, but her teacher, Mrs. Tokawa, said she read at a tenth-grade level. When she was not reading, she was often writing stories of her own. Within the past year she had decided she was going to grow up to write novels like those of Mr. Paul Zindel or the sublimely silly Mr. Daniel Pinkwater or, best of all, those of Ms. Andre Norton.
But now words failed; her life was going to be far different from what she had imagined. She was frightened as much by the loss of the comfortable, bookish future she had foreseen as she was by the changes that had taken place in her parents. Eight months shy of her twelfth birthday, Chrissie had become acutely aware of life's uncertainty, grim knowledge for which she was ill prepared.
Not that she had already given up. She intended to fight. She was not going to let them change her without resistance. Soon after she had been thrown into the pantry, once her tears had dried, she had looked over the contents of the shelves, searching for a weapon. The pantry contained mostly canned, bottled, and packaged food, but there were also laundry and first-aid and handyman supplies. She had found the perfect thing a small aerosol-spray can of WD-40, an oil-based lubricant. It was a third the size of an ordinary spray can, easily concealed. If she could surprise them, spray it in their eyes and temporarily blind them, she could make a break for freedom.
As though reading a newspaper headline, she said, "Ingenious Young Girl Saves Self with Ordinary Household Lubricant."
She held the WD-40 in both hands, taking comfort from it.
Now and then a vivid and unsettling memory recurred: her father's face as it had looked when he had thrown her into the pantry—red and swollen with anger, his eyes darkly ringed, nostrils flared, lips drawn back from his teeth in a feral snarl, every feature contorted with rage. "I'll be back for you," he had said, spraying spittle as he spoke. "I'll be back."
He slammed the door and braced it shut with a straight-backed kitchen chair that he wedged under the knob. Later, when the house fell silent and her parents seemed to have gone away, Chrissie had tried the door, pushing on it with all her might, but the tilted chair was an immovable barricade.
I'll be back for you. I'll be back.
His twisted face and bloodshot eyes had made her think of Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson's description of the murderous Hyde in the story of Dr. Jekyll, which she had read a few months ago. There was madness in her father; he was not the same man that he once had been.
More unsettling was the memory of what she had seen in the upstairs hall when she had returned home after missing the school bus and had surprised her parents. No. They were not really her parents any more. They were … something else.
She clutched the can of WD-40.
Suddenly, for the first time in hours, she heard noise in the kitchen. The back door of the house opened. Footsteps. At least two, maybe three or four people.
"She's in there," her father said.
Chrissie's heart stuttered, then found a new and faster beat.
"This isn't going to be quick," said another man. Chrissie did not recognize his deep, slightly raspy voice.
"You see, it's more complicated with a child. Shaddack's not sure we're even ready for the children yet. It's risky. She's got to be converted, Tucker." That was Chrissie's mother, Sharon, though she did not sound like herself. It was her voice, all right, but without its usual softness, without the natural, musical quality that had made it such a perfect voice for reading fairy tales.
"Of course, yes, she's got to be done," said the stranger, whose name was evidently Tucker.
"I know that. Shaddack knows it too. He sent me here, didn't he? I'm just saying it might take more time than usual. We need a place where we can restrain her and watch over her during the conversion."
"Right here. Her bedroom upstairs."
Trembling, Chrissie got to her feet and stood facing the door.
With a scrape and clatter, the tilted chair was removed from under the knob.
She held the spray can in her right hand, down at her side and half behind her, with her forefinger on top of the nozzle.
The door opened, and her father looked in at her.
Alex Foster. Chrissie tried to think of him as Alex Foster, not as her father, just Alex Foster, but it was difficult to deny that in some ways he was still her dad. Besides, "Alex Foster" was no more accurate than "father" because he was someone altogether new.
His face was no longer warped with rage. He appeared more like himself thick blond hair; a broad, pleasant face with bold features; a smattering of freckles across his cheeks and nose. Nevertheless, she could see a terrible difference in his eyes. He seemed to be filled with a strange urgency, an edgy tension. Hungry. Yes, that was it: Daddy seemed hungry … consumed by hunger, frantic with hunger, starving … but for something other than food. She did not understand his hunger but she sensed it, a fierce need that engendered a constant tension in his muscles, a need of such tremendous power, so hot, that waves of it seemed to rise from him like steam from boiling water.
He said, "Come out of there, Christine."
Chrissie let her shoulders sag, blinked as if repressing tears, exaggerated the shivers that swept through her, and tried to look small, frightened, defeated. Reluctantly she edged forward.
"Come on, come on," he said impatiently, motioning her out of the pantry.
Chrissie stepped through the doorway and saw her mother, who was beside and slightly behind Alex. Sharon was pretty—auburn hair, green eyes—but there was no softness or motherliness about her any more. She was hard looking and changed and full of the same barely contained nervous energy that filled her husband.