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She edged toward the first of those vehicles with the caution of a blind girl, hands out in front of her, afraid of knocking something over. The car was unlocked. She slipped inside behind the wheel, leaving the door open for the welcome glow of the interior lamp. She supposed a trace of that light might be visible at the garage windows if anyone in the house woke up and looked out, but she had to risk it.


She searched the glove compartment, the map-storage panels on the doors, and under the seats, hoping to find food, because most people kept candy bars or bags of nuts or crackers or something to snack on in their cars. Though she had eaten midafternoon, while locked in the pantry, she'd had nothing for ten hours. Her stomach growled. She wasn't expecting to find a hot fudge sundae or the fixings for a jelly sandwich, but she certainly hoped to do better than a single stick of chewing gum and one green Lifesaver that, retrieved from beneath the seat, was furry with dirt, lint, and carpet fuzz.


As if reading tabloid headlines, she said, "Starvation in the Land of Plenty, A Modern Tragedy, Young Girl Found Dead in Garage, 'I Only Wanted a Few Peanuts' Written in Her Own Blood."


In the other car she found two Hershey's bars with almonds.


"Thank you, God. Your friend, Chrissie."


She hogged down the first bar but savored the second one in small bites, letting it melt on her tongue.


While she ate, she thought about ways to get into Moonlight Cove. By the time she finished the chocolate—


CHOCOHOLIC YOUNG GIRL FOUND DEAD IN GARAGE FROM TERMINAL CASE OF GIANT ZITS


—she had devised a plan.


Her usual bedtime had passed hours ago, and she was exhausted from all the physical activity with which the night had been filled, so she just wanted to stay there in the car, her belly full of milk chocolate and almonds, and sleep for a couple of hours before putting her plan into effect. She yawned and slumped down in the seat. She ached all over, and her eyes were as heavy as if some overanxious mortician had weighted them with coins.


That image of herself as a corpse was so unsettling that she immediately got out of the car and closed the door. If she dozed off in the car, she most likely wouldn't wake until someone found her in the morning. Maybe the people who kept their cars in this garage were converted, like her own parents, in which case she'd be doomed.


Outside, shivering as the wind nipped at her, She headed back to the county road and turned north. She passed two more dark and silent houses, another stretch of woods, and came to a fourth house, another single-story ranch-style place with shake-shingle roof and redwood siding.


She knew the people who lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Eulane. Mrs. Eulane managed the cafeteria at school. Mr. Eulane was a gardener with many accounts in Moonlight Cove. Early every morning, Mr. Eulane drove into town in his white truck, the back of which was loaded with lawnmowers and hedge clippers and rakes and shovels and bags of mulch and fertilizer and everything else a gardener might need; only a few students had arrived by the time he dropped Mrs. Eulane off at school, then went about his own work. Chrissie figured she could find a place to hide in the back of the truck—which had board sides—among Mr. Eulane's gardening supplies and equipment.


The truck was in the Eulanes' garage, which was unlocked, just as the other one had been. But this was the country, after all, where people still trusted one another—which was good except that it gave invading aliens an extra edge.


The only window was small and in the wall that could not be seen from the house, so Chrissie risked turning on the overhead light when she stepped inside. She quietly scaled the side of the truck and made her way in among the gardening equipment, which was stored in the rear two-thirds of the cargo bed, nearest the tailgate. Toward the front, against the back wall of the truck cab, flanked by fifty-pound bags of fertilizer, snail bait, and potting soil, was a three-foot-high stack of folded burlap tarps in which Mr. Eulane bundled grass clippings that had to be hauled to the dump. She could use some tarps as a mattress, others as blankets, and bed down until morning, remaining hidden in the burlap and between the piles of fifty-pound bags all the way to Moonlight Cove.


She climbed out of the truck, switched off the garage lights, then returned in the dark and carefully climbed aboard once more. She made a nest for herself in the tarps. The burlap was a little scratchy. After years of use it was permeated with the scent of new-mown grass, which was nice at first but quickly palled. At least a few layers of tarps trapped her body heat, and in minutes she was warm for the first time all night.


And as the night deepened (she thought), young Chrissie, masking her telltale human odors in the scent of grass that saturated the burlap, cleverly concealed herself from the pursuing aliens—or maybe werewolves—whose sense of smell was almost as good as that of hounds.


39


Sam took temporary refuge on the unlighted playground of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Palomino Street on the south side of town. He sat on one of the swings, holding the suspension chains with both hands, actually swinging a bit, while he considered his options.


He could not leave Moonlight Cove by car. His rental was back at the motel, where he'd be apprehended if he showed his face. He could steal a car, but he remembered the exchange on the computer when Loman Watkins had ordered Danberry to establish a blockade on Ocean Avenue, between town and the interstate. They'd have sealed off every exit.


He could go overland, sneaking from street to street, to the edge of the town limits, then through the woods and fields to the freeway. But Watkins had also said something about having ringed the entire community with sentries, to intercept the "Foster girl." Although Sam was confident of his instincts and survival abilities, he had not had experience in taking evasive action over open territory since his service in the war more than twenty years ago. If men were stationed around the town, waiting to intercept the girl, Sam was likely to walk straight into one or more of them.


Though he was willing to risk getting caught, he must not fall into their hands until he had placed a call to the Bureau to report and to ask for emergency backup. If he became a statistic in this accidental-death capital of the world, the Bureau would send new men in his place, and ultimately the truth could come out—but perhaps too late.


As he swung gently back and forth through the rapidly thinning fog, pushed mostly by the wind, he thought about those schedules he had seen on the VDT. Everyone in town would be "converted" in the next twenty-three hours. Although he had no idea what the hell people were being converted to, he didn't like the sound of it. And he sensed that once those schedules had been met, once everyone in town was converted, getting to the truth in Moonlight Cove would be no easier than cracking open an infinite series of laser-welded, titanium boxes nested in Chinese-puzzle fashion.


Okay, so the first thing he had to do was get to a phone and call the Bureau. The phones in Moonlight Cove were compromised, but he did not care if the call was noted in a computer sweep or even recorded word for word. He just needed thirty seconds or a minute on the line with the office, and massive reinforcements would be on the way. Then he'd have to keep moving around, dodging cops for a couple of hours, until other agents arrived.


He couldn't just walk up to a house and ask to use their phone because he didn't know whom he could trust. Morrie Stein had said that after being in town a day or two, you were overcome with the paranoid feeling that eyes were on you wherever you went and that Big Brother was always just an arm's reach away. Sam had attained that stage of paranoia in only a few hours and was rapidly moving beyond it to a state of constant tension and suspicion unlike anything he'd known since those jungle battlegrounds two decades ago.


A pay phone. But not the one at the Shell station that he had used earlier. A wanted man was foolish to return to a place he was known to have frequented before.


From his walks around town, he remembered one or maybe two other pay phones. He got up from the swing, slipped his hands in his jacket pockets, hunched his shoulders against the chilling wind, and started across the schoolyard toward the street beyond.


He wondered about the Foster girl to whom Shaddack and Watkins referred on the computer link. Who was she? What had she seen? He suspected she was a key to understanding this conspiracy. Whatever she had witnessed might explain what they meant by "conversion."


40


The walls appeared to be bleeding. Red ooze, as if seeping from the Sheetrock, tracked down the pale yellow paint in many rivulets.


Standing in that second-floor room at Cove Lodge, Loman Watkins was repelled by the carnage … but also strangely excited.


The male guest's body was sprawled near the disarranged bed, hideously bitten and torn. In worse condition, the dead woman lay outside the room, in the second-floor hall, a scarlet heap on the orange carpet.


The air reeked of blood, bile, feces, urine—a melange of odors with which Loman was becoming increasingly familiar, as the victims of the regressives turned up more frequently week by week and day by day. This time, however, as never before, an alluring sweetness lay under the acrid surface of the stench. He drew deep breaths, unsure why that terrible redolence should have any appeal whatsoever. But he was unable to deny—or resist—its attraction any more than a hound could resist the fox's scent. Though he could not withstand the tempting fragrance, he was frightened by his response to it, and the blood in his veins seemed to grow colder as his pleasure in the biological stirring grew more intense.


Barry Sholnick, the officer Loman had dispatched to Cove Lodge via computer link to apprehend Samuel Booker, and who had found this death and destruction instead of the Bureau agent, now stood in the corner by the window, staring intently at the dead man. He had been at the motel longer than anyone, almost half an hour, long enough to have begun to regard the victims with the detachment that police had to cultivate, as if dead and ravaged bodies were no more remarkable a part of the scene than the furniture. Yet Sholnick could not shift his gaze from the eviscerated corpse, the gore-spattered wreckage, and the blood-streaked walls. He was clearly electrified by that horrendous detritus and the violence of which it was a remembrance.


We hate what the regressives have become and what they do, Loman thought, but in some sick way we're also envious of them, of their ultimate freedom.


Something within him—and, he suspected, in all of the New People—cried out to join the regressives. As at the Foster place, Loman felt the urge to employ his newfound bodily control not to elevate himself, as Shaddack had intended, but to devolve into a wild state. He yearned to descend to a level of consciousness in which thoughts of the purpose and meaning of life would not trouble him, in which intellectual challenge would be nonexistent, in which he would be a creature whose existence was defined almost entirely by sensation, in which every decision was made solely on the basis of what would give him pleasure, a condition untroubled by complex thought. Oh, God, to be freed from the burdens of civilization and higher intelligence!


Sholnick made a low sound in the back of his throat.


Loman looked up from the dead man.


In Sholnick's brown eyes a wild light burned.


Am I as pale as he? Loman wondered. As sunken-eyed and strange?


For a moment Sholnick met the chiefs gaze, then looked away as if he had been caught in a shameful act.


Loman's heart was pounding.


Sholnick went to the window. He stared out at the lightless sea. His hands were fisted at his sides.


Loman was trembling.


The smell, darkly sweet. The smell of the hunt, the kill.


He turned away from the corpse and walked out of the room, into the hallway, where the sight of the dead woman—half naked, gouged, lacerated—was no relief. Bob Trott, one of several recent additions to the force when it expanded to twelve men last week, stood over the battered body. He was a big man, four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Loman, with a face of hard planes and chiseled edges. He looked down at the cadaver with a faint, unholy smile.


Flushed, his vision beginning to blur, his eyes smarting in the harsh fluorescent glare, Loman spoke sharply "Trott, come with me." He set off along the hall to the other room that had been broken into. With evident reluctance, Trott finally followed him.


By the time Loman reached the shattered door of that unit, Paul Amberlay, another of his officers, appeared at the head of the north stairs, returning from the motel office where Loman had sent him to check the register.


"The couple in room twenty-four were named Jenks, Sarah and Charles," Amberlay reported. He was twenty-five, lean and sinewy, intelligent. Perhaps because the young officer's face was slightly pointed, with deep-set eyes, he had always reminded Loman of a fox.


"They're from Portland."


"And in thirty-six here?"


"Tessa Lockland from San Diego."


Loman blinked.


"Lockland?"


Amberlay spelled it.


"When did she check in?"


"Just tonight."


"The minister's widow, Janice Capshaw," Loman said.


"Her maiden name was Lockland. I had to deal with her mother by phone, and she was in San Diego. Persistent old broad. A million questions. Had some trouble getting her to consent to cremation. She said her other daughter was out of the country, somewhere really remote, couldn't be reached quickly, but would come around within a month to empty the house and settle Mrs. Capshaw's affairs. So this is her, I guess."


Loman led them into Tessa Lockland's room, two doors down from unit forty, in which Booker was registered. Wind huffed at the open window. The place was littered with broken furniture, torn bedding, and the glass from a shattered TV set, but unmarked by blood. Earlier they had checked the room for a body and found none; the open window indicated that the occupant fled before the regressives had managed to smash through the door.


"So Booker's out there," Loman said, "and we've got to assume he saw the regressives or heard the killing. He knows something's wrong here. He doesn't understand it, but he knows enough … too much."


"You can bet he's busting his ass to get a call out to the damn Bureau," Trott said.


Loman agreed.


"And now we've also got this Lockland bitch, and she's got to be thinking her sister never committed suicide, that she was killed by the same things that killed the couple from Portland—"


"Most logical thing for her to do," Amberlay said, "is come straight to us—to the police. She'll walk right into our arms. Maybe," Loman said, unconvinced. He began to pick through the rubble.


"Help me find her purse. With them bashing down the door, she'd have gone out the window without pausing to grab her purse."

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