Penniworth took the first room on the left. He went in and found the light switch by the time Loman reached that threshold.
It was a study with a desk, worktable, two chairs, cabinets, tall bookshelves crammed full of volumes with brightly colored spines, two computers. Loman moved in and covered the closet, where Penniworth warily rolled aside first one and then the other of two mirrored doors.
Barry Sholnick remained in the hallway, his 20-gauge leveled at the room they hadn't investigated. When Loman and Penniworth rejoined him, Sholnick shoved that door all the way open with the barrel of his shotgun. As it swung wide, he jerked back, certain that something would fly at him from the darkness, though nothing did. He hesitated, then stepped into the doorway, fumbled with one hand for the light switch, found it, said, "Oh, my God," and stepped quickly back into the hall.
Looking past his deputy into a large bedroom, Loman saw a hellish thing crouched on the floor and huddled against the far wall. it was a regressive, no doubt Peyser, but it did not look as much like the regressed Jordan Coombs as Loman expected. There were similarities, yes, but not many.
Easing by Sholnick, Loman crossed the threshold.
"Peys—" The thing at the other end of the room blinked at him, moved its twisted mouth. In a voice that was whispery yet guttural, savage yet tortured as only the voice of an at least halfway intelligent creature could be, it said, "Peyser, Peyser, Peyser, me, Peyser, me, me …"
The odor of urine was here, too, but that other scent was now the dominant one—sharp, musky.
Loman moved farther into the room. Penniworth followed. Sholnick stayed at the doorway. Loman stopped twelve feet from Peyser, and Penniworth moved off to one side, his 20-gauge held ready.
When they'd cornered Jordan Coombs in the shuttered movie theater back on September fourth, he had been in an altered state somewhat resembling a gorilla with a squat and powerful body. Mike Peyser, however, had a far leaner appearance, and as he crouched against the bedroom wall, his body looked more lupine than apelike. His h*ps were set at an angle to his spine, preventing him from standing or sitting completely erect, and his legs seemed too short in the thighs, too long in the calves. He was covered in thick hair but not so thick that it could be called a pelt.
"Peyser, me, me, me …"
Coombs's face had been partly human, though mostly that of a higher primate, with a bony brow, flattened nose, and thrusting jaw to accommodate large, wickedly sharp teeth like those of a baboon. Mike Peyser's hideously transformed countenance had, instead, a hint of the wolf in it, or dog; his mouth and nose were drawn forward into a deformed snout. His massive brow was like that of an ape, though exaggerated, and in his bloodshot eyes, set in shadowy sockets deep beneath that bony ridge, was a look of anguish and terror that was entirely human.
Raising one hand and pointing at Loman, Peyser said, "… help me, now, help, something wrong, wrong, wrong, help …"
Loman stared at that mutated hand with both fear and amazement, remembering how his own hand had begun to change when he had felt the call of regression at the Fosters' place earlier in the night. Elongated fingers. Large, rough knuckles. Fierce claws instead of fingernails. Human hands in shape and degree of dexterity, they were otherwise utterly alien.
Shit, Loman thought, those hands, those hands. I've seen them in the movies, or at least on the TV, when we rented the cassette of The Howling. Rob Bottin. That was the name of the special effects artist who created the werewolf. He remembered it because Denny had been a nut about special effects before the Change. More than anything else these looked like the goddamn hands of the werewolf in The Howling!
Which was too crazy to contemplate. Life imitating fantasy. The fantastic made flesh. As the twentieth century rushed into its last decade, scientific and technological progress had reached some divide, where mankind's dream of a better life often could be fulfilled but also where nightmares could be made real. Peyser was a bad, bad dream that had crawled out of the subconscious and become flesh, and now there was no escaping him by waking up; he would not disappear as did the monsters that haunted sleep.
"How can I help you?" Loman asked warily.
"Shoot him," Penniworth said.
Loman responded sharply: "No!"
Peyser raised both of his tine-fingered hands and looked at them for a moment, as if seeing them for the first time. A groan issued from him, then a thin and miserable wail. "… change, can't change, can't, tried, want, need, want, want, can't, tried, can't …"
From the doorway Sholnick said, "My God, he's stuck like that—he's trapped. I thought the regressives could change back at will."
"They can," Loman said.
"He can't," Sholnick said.
"That's what he said," Penniworth agreed, his voice quick and nervous. "He said he can't change."
Loman said, "Maybe, maybe not. But the other regressives can change, because if they couldn't, then we'd have found all of them by now. They retreat from their altered state and then walk among us."
Peyser seemed oblivious of them. He was staring at his hands, mewling in the back of his throat as if what he saw terrified him.
Then the hands began to change.
"You see," Loman said.
Loman had never witnessed such a transformation; he was gripped by curiosity, wonder, and terror. The claws receded. The flesh was suddenly as malleable as soft wax: It bulged, blistered, pulsed not with the rhythmic flow of blood in arteries but strangely, obscenely; it assumed new form, as if an invisible sculptor were at work on it. Loman heard bones crunching, splintering, as they, were broken down and remade; the flesh melted and resolidified with a sickening, wet sound. The hands became nearly human. Then the wrists and forearms began to lose some of their rawboned lupine quality. In Peyser's face were indications that the human spirit was struggling to banish the savage that was now in control; the features of a predator began to give way to a gentler and more civilized man. It was as if the monstrous Peyser was only a beast's reflection in a pool of water out of which the real and human Peyser was now rising.
Though he was no scientist, no genius of microtechnology, only a policeman with a high-school education, Loman knew that this profound and rapid transformation could not be attributed solely to the New People's drastically improved metabolic processes and ability to heal themselves. No matter what great tides of hormones, enzymes, and other biological chemicals Peyser's body could now produce at will, there was no way that bone and flesh could be re-formed so dramatically in such a brief period of time. Over days or weeks, yes, but not in seconds. Surely it was physically impossible. Yet it was happening. Which meant that another force was at work in Mike Peyser, something more than biological processes, something mysterious and frightening.
Suddenly the transformation halted. Loman could see that Peyser was straining toward full humanity, clenching his halfhuman yet still wolflike jaws together and grinding his teeth, a look of desperation and iron determination in his strange eyes, but to no avail. For a moment he trembled on the edge of human form. It seemed that if he could just push the transformation one step farther, just one small step, then he would cross a watershed after which the rest of the metamorphosis would take place almost automatically, without the strenuous exertion of will, as easily as a stream flowing downhill. But he could not reach that divide.
Penniworth made a low, strangled sound, as if he were sharing Peyser's anguish.
Loman glanced at his deputy. Penniworth's face glistened with a thin film of perspiration.
Loman realized he was perspiring too; he felt a bead trickle down his left temple. The bungalow was warm—an oil furnace kept clicking on and off—but not warm enough to wring moisture from them. This was a cold sweat of fear, but more than that. He also felt a tightness in his chest, a thickening in his throat that made it hard to swallow, and he was breathing fast, as if he'd sprinted up a hundred steps Letting out a thin, agonized cry, Peyser began to regress again with the brittle splintering noise of bones being remade, the oily-wet sound of flesh being rent and re-knit, the savage creature reasserted itself, and in moments Peyser was as he had been when they had first seen him a hellish beast.
Hellish, yes, and a beast, but enviably powerful and with an odd, terrible beauty of its own. The forward carriage of the large head was awkward by comparison to the set of the human head, and the thing lacked the sinuous inward curve of the human spine, yet it had a dark grace of its own.
They stood in silence for a moment.
Peyser huddled on the floor, head bowed.
From the doorway, Sholnick finally said, "My God, he is trapped. " Although Mike Peyser's problem could have been related to some glitch in the technology on which conversion from Old to New Person was based, Loman suspected that Peyser still possessed the power to reshape himself, that he could become a man if he wanted to badly enough, but that he lacked the desire to be fully human again. He had become a regressive because he found that altered state appealing, so maybe he found it so much more exciting and satisfying than the human condition that now he did not truly want to return to a higher state.
Peyser raised his head and looked at Loman, then at Penniworth, then at Sholnick, and finally at Loman again. His horror at his condition was no longer apparent. The anguish and terror were gone from his eyes. With his twisted muzzle he seemed to smile at them, and a new wildness—both disturbing and appealing—appeared in his eyes. He raised his hands before his face again and flexed the long fingers, clicked the claws together, studying himself with what might have been wonder.
"… hunt, hunt, chase, hunt, kill, blood, blood, need, need …"
"How the hell can we take him alive if he doesn't want to be taken?" Penniworth's voice was peculiar, thick and slightly slurred.
Peyser dropped one hand to his gen**als and scratched lightly, absentmindedly. He looked at Loman again, then at the night pressing against the windows.
"I feel …" Sholnick left the sentence unfinished.
Penniworth was no more articulate "If we … well, we could …"
The pressure in Loman's chest had grown greater. His throat was tighter, too, and he was still sweating.
Peyser let out a soft, ululant cry as eerie as any sound Loman had ever heard, an expression of longing, yet also an animal challenge to the night, a statement of his power and his confidence in his own strength and cunning. The wail should have been harsh and unpleasant in the confines of that bedroom, but instead it stirred in Loman the same unspeakable yearning that had gripped him outside of the Fosters' house when he had heard the trio of regressives calling to one another far away in the darkness.
Clenching his teeth so hard that his jaws ached, Loman strove to resist that unholy urge.
Peyser loosed another cry, then said, "Run, hunt, free, free, need, free, need, come with me, come, come, need, need…"
Loman realized that he was relaxing his grip on the 12-gauge. The barrel was tilting down. The muzzle was pointing at the floor instead of at Peyser.
"… run, free, free, need …"
From behind Loman came an unnerving, orgasmic cry of release.
He glanced back at the bedroom doorway in time to see Sholnick drop his shotgun. Subtle transformations had occurred in the deputy's hands and face. He pulled off his quilted, black uniform jacket, cast it aside, and tore open his shirt. His cheekbones and jaws dissolved and flowed forward, and his brow retreated as he sought an altered state.
When Harry Talbot finished telling them about the Boogeymen, Sam leaned forward on the high stool to the telescope eyepiece. He swung the instrument to the left, until he focused on the vacant lot beside Callan's, where the creatures had most recently put in an appearance.
He was not sure what he was looking for. He didn't believe that the Boogeymen would have returned to that same place at precisely this time to give him a convenient look at them. And there were no clues in the shadows and trampled grass and shrubs, where they had crouched only a few hours ago, to tell him what they might have been or on what mission they had been embarked. Maybe he was just trying to anchor the fantastic image of ape-dog-reptilian Boogeymen in the real world, tie them in his mind to that vacant lot, and thereby make them more concrete, so he could deal with them.
In any event Harry had another story besides that one. As they sat in the darkened room, as if listening to ghost stories around a burnt-out campfire, he told them how he'd seen Denver Simpson, Doc Fitz, Reese Dorn, and Paul Hawthorne overpower Ella Simpson, take her upstairs to the bedroom, and prepare to inject her with an enormous syringeful of some golden fluid.
Operating the telescope at Harry's direction, Sam was able to find and draw in tight on the Simpsons' house, on the other side of Conquistador and just north of the Catholic cemetery. All was dark and motionless.
From the bed where she still had the dog's head in her lap, Tessa said, "All of it's got to be connected somehow: these 'accidental' deaths, whatever those men were doing to Ella Simpson, and these … Boogeymen."
"Yes, it's tied together," Sam agreed. "And the knot is new Wave Microtechnology."
He told them what he had uncovered while working with the VDT in the patrol car behind the municipal building.
"Moonhawk?" Tessa wondered. "Conversions? What on earth are they converting people into?"
"I don't know."
"Surely not into … these Boogeymen?"
"No, I don't see the purpose of that, and besides, from what I turned up, I gather almost two thousand people in town have been … given this treatment, put through this change, whatever the hell it is. If there were that many of Harry's Boogeymen running loose, they'd be everywhere; the town would be crawling with them, like a zoo in the Twilight Zone."
"Two thousand," Harry said. "That's two-thirds of the town."
"And the rest by midnight," Sam said. "Just under twenty-one hours from now."
"Me, too, I guess?" Harry asked.
"Yeah. I looked you up on their lists. You're scheduled for conversion in the final stage, between six o'clock this coming evening and midnight. So we've got about fourteen and a half hours before they come looking for you."
"This is nuts," Tessa said.
"Yeah," Sam agreed. "Totally nuts."
"It can't be happening," Harry said. "But if it isn't happening, then why's the hair standing up on the back of my neck?"