Page 25


After trying the phone and discovering that the line was dead, that not just the pay phones but the town's entire phone system had been interdicted, Sam and Tessa sat at a round table in one corner, at Harry's insistence, while he made a pot of good Colombian in a Mr. Coffee machine.


"You look cold," he said. "This'll do you good."


Chilled and tired, in need of the caffeine, Tessa did not decline the offer. Indeed, she was fascinated that Harry, with such severe disabilities, could function well enough to play the gracious host to unexpected visitors.


With his one good hand and some tricky moves, he got a package of apple-cinnamon muffins from the bread box, part of a chocolate cake from the refrigerator, plates and forks, and paper napkins. When Sam and Tessa offered to help, he gently declined their assistance with a smile.


She sensed that he was not trying to prove anything either to them or to himself. He was simply enjoying having company, even at this hour and under these bizarre circumstances. Perhaps it was a rare pleasure.


"No cream," he said.


"Just a carton of milk."


"That's fine," Sam said.


"And no elegant porcelain cream pitcher, I'm afraid," said Harry, putting the milk carton on the table.


Tessa began to consider shooting a documentary about Harry, about the courage required to remain independent in his circumstances She was drawn by the siren call of her art in spite of what had transpired in the past few hours. Long ago, however, she had learned that an artist's creativity could not be turned off; the eye of a filmmaker could not be capped as easily as the lens of her camera. In the midst of grief over her sister's death, ideas for projects had continued to come to her, narrative concepts, interesting shots, angles. Even in the terror of war, running with Afghan rebels as Soviet planes strafed the ground at their heels, she'd been excited by what she was getting on film and by what she would be able to make of it when she got into an editing room—and her three—man crew had reacted much the same. So she no longer felt awkward or guilty about being an artist on the make, even in times of tragedy; for her, that was just natural, a part of being creative and alive.


Customized to his needs, Harry's wheelchair included a hydraulic lift that raised the seat a few inches, bringing him nearly to normal chair height, so he could sit at an ordinary table or writing desk. He took a place beside Tessa and across from Sam.


Moose was lying in the corner, watching, occasionally raising his head as if interested in their conversation—though more likely drawn by the smell of chocolate cake. The Labrador did not come sniffing and pawing around, whining for handouts, and Tessa was impressed by his discipline.


As they passed the coffee pot and carved up the cake and muffins, Harry said, "You've told me what brings you here, Sam—not just my letter but all these so-called accidents." He looked at Tessa, and because she was on his right side, the permanent c**k of his head to the left made it seem as if he were leaning back from her, regarding her with suspicion or at least skepticism, though his true attitude was belied by his warm smile.


"But just where do you fit in, Miss Lockland?"


"Call me Tessa, please. Well … my sister was Janice Capshaw—"


"Richard Capshaw's wife, the Lutheran minister's wife?" he said, surprised.


"That's right."


"Why, they used to come to visit me. I wasn't a member of their congregation, but that's how they were. We became friends. And after he died, she still stopped by now and then. Your sister was a dear and wonderful person, Tessa." He put down his coffee cup and reached out to her with his good hand. "She was my friend."


Tessa held his hand. It was leathery and calloused from use, and very strong, as if all the frustrated power of his paralyzed body found expression through that single extremity.


"I watched them take her into the crematorium at Callan's Funeral Home," Harry said. "Through my telescope. I'm a watcher. That's what I do with my life, for the most part. I watch." He blushed slightly. He held Tessa's hand a bit tighter. "It's not just snooping. In fact it isn't snooping at all. It's … participating. Oh, I like to read, too, and I've got a lot of books, and I do a heavy load of thinking, for sure, but it's watching, mainly, that gets me through. We'll go upstairs later. I'll show you the telescope, the whole setup. I think maybe you'll understand. I hope you will. Anyway, I saw them take Janice into Callan's that night … though I didn't know who it was until two days later, when the story of her death was in the county paper. I couldn't believe she died the way they said she did. Still don't believe it."


"Neither do I," Tessa said. "And that's why I'm here."


Reluctantly, with a final squeeze, Harry let go of Tessa's hand. "So many bodies lately, most of them hauled into Callan's at night, and more than a few times with cops hanging around, overseeing things—it's strange as hell for a quiet little town like this."


From across the table, Sam said, "Twelve accidental deaths or suicides in less than two months."


"Twelve?" Harry said.


"Didn't you realize it was that many?" Sam asked.


"Oh, it's more than that."


Sam blinked.


Harry said, "Twenty, by my count."


50


After Watkins left, Shaddack returned to the computer terminal in his study, reopened his link to Sun, the supercomputer at New Wave, and set to work again on a problematic aspect of the current project. Though it was two-thirty in the morning, he would put in a few more hours, for the earliest he went to bed was dawn.


He had been at the terminal a few minutes when his most private phone line rang.


Until Booker was apprehended, the telephone company computer was allowing service only among those who had been converted, from one of their numbers to one of their numbers. Other lines were cut off, and calls to the outside world were interrupted before being completed. Incoming calls to Moonlight Cove were answered by a recording that pleaded equipment failure, promised a return to full service within twenty-four hours, and expressed regret at the inconvenience.


Therefore, Shaddack knew the caller must be among the converted and, because it was his most private line, must also be one of his closest associates at New Wave. A LED readout on the base of the phone displayed the number from which the call was being placed, which he recognized as that of Mike Peyser. He picked up the receiver and said, " Shaddack here."


The caller breathed heavily, raggedly into the phone but said nothing.


Frowning, Shaddack said, "Hello?"


Just the breathing.


Shaddack said, "Mike, is that you?"


The voice that finally responded to him was hoarse, guttural, but with a shrill edge, whispery yet forceful, Peyser's voice yet not his, strange: "… something wrong, wrong, something wrong, can't change, can't … wrong … wrong …"


Shaddack was reluctant to admit that he recognized Mike Peyser's voice in those queer inflections and eerie cadences. He said, "Who is this?"


"… need, need … need, want, I need …"


"Who is this?" Shaddack demanded angrily, but in his mind was another question: What is this?


The caller issued a sound that was a groan of pain, a mewl of deepest anguish, a thin cry of frustration, and a snarl, all twisted into one rolling bleat. The receiver dropped from his hand with a hard clatter.


Shaddack put his own phone down, turned back to the VDT, tapped into the police data system, and sent an urgent message to Loman Watkins.


51


Sitting on the stool in the dark third-floor bedroom, bent to the eyepiece, Sam Booker studied the rear of Callan's Funeral Home. All but scattered scrims of fog had blown away on the wind, which still blustered at the window and shook the trees all along the hillsides on which most of Moonlight Cove was built. The serviceway lamps were extinguished now, and the rear of Callan's lay in darkness but for the thin light radiating from the blind-covered windows of the crematorium wing. No doubt they were busily feeding the flames with the bodies of the couple who had been murdered at Cove Lodge.


Tessa sat on the edge of the bed behind Sam, petting Moose, who was lying with his head in her lap.


Harry was in his wheelchair nearby. He used a penlight to study a spiral-bound notebook in which he had kept a record of the unusual activities at the mortuary.


"First one—at least the first unusual one I noticed—was on the night of August twenty-eighth," Harry said. "Twenty minutes to midnight. They brought four bodies at once, using the hearse and the city ambulance. Police accompanied them. The corpses were in body bags, so I couldn't see anything about them, but the cops and the ambulance attendants and the people at Callan's were visibly … well … upset. I saw it in their faces. Fear. They kept looking around at the neighboring houses and the alleyway, as if they were afraid someone was going to see what they were up to, which seemed peculiar because they were only doing their jobs. Right? Anyway, later, in the county paper, I read about the Mayser family dying in a fire, and I knew that was who'd been brought to Callan's that night. I supposed they didn't die in a fire any more than your sister killed herself."


"Probably not," Tessa said.


Still watching the back of the funeral home, Sam said, "I have the Maysers on my list. They were turned up in the investigation of the Sanchez-Bustamante case."


Harry cleared his throat and said, "Six days later, September third, two bodies were brought to Callan's shortly after midnight. And this was even weirder because they didn't come in a hearse or an ambulance. Two police cars pulled in at the back of Callan's, and they unloaded a body from the rear seat of each of them, wrapped in blood-streaked sheets."


"September third?" Sam said. "There's no one on my list for that date. Sanchez and the Bustamantes were on the fifth. No death certificates were issued on the third. They kept those two off the official records."


"Nothing in the county paper about anyone dying then, either," Harry said.


Tessa said, "So who were those two people?"


"Maybe they were out-of-towners who were unlucky enough to stop in Moonlight Cove and stumble into something dangerous," Sam said. "People whose deaths could be completely covered up, so no one would know where they'd died. As far as anyone knows, they just vanished on the road somewhere."


"Sanchez and the Bustamantes were on the night of the fifth," Harry said, "and then Jim Armes on the night of the seventh."


"Armes disappeared at sea," Sam said, looking up from the telescope and frowning at the man in the wheelchair.


"They brought the body to Callan's at eleven o'clock at night," Harry said, consulting his notebook for details. "The blinds weren't drawn at the crematorium windows, so I could see straight in there, almost as good as if I'd been right there in that room. I saw the body the mess it was in. And the face. Couple of days later, when the paper ran a story about Armes's disappearance, I recognized him as the guy they'd fed to the furnace."


The large bedroom was dressed in cloaks of shadow except for the narrow beam of the penlight, which was half shielded by Harry's hand and confined to the open notebook. Those white pages seemed to glow with light of their own, as if they were the leaves of a magic or holy—or unholy—book.


Harry Talbot's careworn countenance was more dimly illumined by the backwash from those pages, and the peculiar light emphasized the lines in his face, making him appear older than he was. Each line, Sam knew, had its provenance in tragic experience and pain. Profound sympathy stirred in him. Not pity. He could never pity anyone as determined as Talbot. But Sam appreciated the sorrow and loneliness of Harry's restricted life. Watching the wheelchair-bound man, Sam grew angry with the neighbors. Why hadn't they done more to bring Harry into their lives? Why hadn't they invited him to dinner more often, drawn him into their holiday celebrations? Why had they left him so much on his own that his primary means of participating in the life of his community was through a telescope and binoculars?


Sam was cut by a pang of despair at people's reluctance to reach out to one another, at the way they isolated themselves and one another. With a jolt, he thought of his inability to communicate with his own son, which only left him feeling bleaker still.


To Harry, he said, "What do you mean when you say Armes's body was a mess?"


"Cut. Slashed."


"He didn't drown?"


"Didn't look it."


"Slashed … Exactly what do you mean?" Tessa asked.


Sam knew that she was thinking about the people whose screams she had heard at the motel—and about her own sister.


Harry hesitated, then said: "Well, I saw him on the table in the crematorium, just before they slipped him into the furnace. He'd been … disemboweled. Nearly decapitated. Horribly … torn. He looked as bad as if he'd been standing on an antipersonnel mine when it went off and been riddled by shrapnel."


They sat in mutual silence, considering that description.


Only Moose seemed unperturbed. He made a soft, contented sound as Tessa gently scratched behind his ears.


Sam thought it might not be so bad to be one of the lower beasts, a creature mostly of feelings, untroubled by a complex intellect. Or at the other extreme … a genuinely intelligent computer, all intellect and no feelings whatsoever. The great dual burden of emotion and high intelligence was singular to humankind, and it was what made life so hard; you were always thinking about what you were feeling instead of just going with the moment, or you were always trying to feel what you thought you should feel in a given situation. Thoughts and judgment were inevitably colored by emotions—some of them on a subconscious level, so you didn't even entirely understand why you made certain decisions, acted in certain ways. Emotions clouded your thinking; but thinking too hard about your feelings took the edge off them. Trying to feel deeply and think perfectly clearly at the same time was like simultaneously juggling six Indian clubs while riding a unicycle backward along a high wire.


"After the story in the paper about Armes disappearing," Harry said, "I kept waiting for a correction, but none was printed, and that's when I began to realize that the odd goingson at Callan's weren't just odd but probably criminal, as well and that the cops were part of it."


"Paula Parkins was torn apart too," Sam said.


Harry nodded. "Supposedly by her Dobermans."

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