He was glad to get out in the clean night air.
Sweating both from the chili-spiced dishes and the heat in the restaurant, he had wanted to take his jacket off, but he had not been able to do so because of the gun he was packing in a shoulder holster. Now he relished the chilling fog that was being harried eastward by a gentle but steady breeze.
Chrissie saw them enter the drainage channel, and for a moment she thought they were all going to clamber up the far side of it and off across the meadow in the direction she had been heading. Then one of them turned toward the mouth of the culvert. The figure approached the drain on all fours, in a few stealthy and sinuous strides. Though Chrissie could see nothing more of it than a shadowy shape, she had trouble believing that this thing was either one of her parents or the man called Tucker. But who else could it be?
Entering the concrete tunnel, the predator peered forward into the gloom. Its eyes shone softly amber-green, not as bright here as in moonlight, dimmer than glow-in-the-dark paint, but vaguely radiant.
Chrissie wondered how well it could see in absolute darkness. Surely its gaze could not penetrate eighty or a hundred feet of lightless pipe to the place where she crouched. Vision of that caliber would be SUPERNATURAL.
It stared straight at her.
Then again, who was to say that what she was dealing with here was not SUPERNATURAL? Perhaps her parents had become …
She was soaked in sour sweat. She hoped the stench of the dead animal would screen her body odor.
Rising from all fours into a crouch, blocking most of the silvery moonlight at the drain entrance, the stalker slowly came forward.
Its heavy breathing was amplified by the curved concrete walls of the culvert. Chrissie breathed shallowly through her open mouth lest she reveal her presence.
Suddenly, only ten feet into the tunnel, the stalker spoke in a raspy, whispery voice and with such urgency that the words were almost run together in a single long string of syllables: "Chrissie, you there, you, you? Come me, Chrissie, come me, come, want you, want, want, need, my Chrissie, my Chrissie."
That bizarre, frantic voice gave rise in Chrissie's mind to a terrifying image of a creature that was part lizard, part wolf, part human, part something unidentifiable. Yet she suspected that its actual appearance was even worse than anything she could imagine.
"Help you, want help you, help, now, come me, come, come. You there, there, you there?"
The worst thing about the voice was that, in spite of its cold hoarse note and whispery tone, in spite of its alienness, it was familiar. Chrissie recognized it as her mother's. Changed, yes, but her mother's voice just the same.
Chrissie's stomach was cramped with fear, but she was filled with another pain, too, that for a moment she could not identify. Then she realized that she ached with loss; she missed her mother, wanted her mother back, her real mother. If she'd had one of those ornate silver crucifixes like they always used in the fright films, she probably would have revealed herself, advanced on this hateful thing, and demanded that it surrender possession of her mother. A crucifix probably would not work because nothing in real life was as easy as in the movies; besides, whatever had happened to her parents was far stranger than vampires and werewolves and demons jumped up from hell. But if she'd had a crucifix, she would have tried it anyway.
"Death, death, smell death, stink, death …"
The mother-thing quickly advanced into the tunnel until it came to the place where Chrissie had stepped in a slippery, putrefying mass. The brightness of the shining eyes was directly related to the nearness of moonlight, for now they dimmed. Then the creature lowered its gaze to the dead animal on the culvert floor.
From beyond the mouth of the drain came the sound of something descending into the ditch. Footfalls and the clatter of stones were followed by another voice, equally as fearsome as that of the others the stalker now hunched over the dead animal. Calling into the pipe, it said, "She there, there, she? Whatfound, what, what?"
"… raccoon …"
"What, what it, what?"
"Dead raccoon, rotten, maggots, maggots," the first one said.
Chrissie was stricken by the macabre fear that she had left a tennis-shoe imprint in the rotting muck of the dead raccoon.
"Chrissie?" the second asked as it ventured into the culvert Tucker's voice. Evidently her father was searching for her across the meadow or in the next section of the forest Both stalkers were fidgeting constantly. Chrissie could hear them scraping—claws?—against the concrete floor of the pipe. Both sounded panicky, too. No, not panicky, really, because no fear was audible in their voices. Frantic. Frenzied. It was as if an engine in each of them was racing faster, faster, almost out of control.
"Chrissie there, she there, she?" Tucker asked.
The mother-thing raised its gaze from the dead raccoon and peered straight at Chrissie through the lightless tunnel.
You can't see me, Chrissie thought-prayed. I'm invisible.
The radiance of the stalker's eyes had faded to twin spots of finished silver.
Chrissie held her breath.
Tucker said, "Got to eat, eat, want eat."
The creature that had been her mother said, "Find girl, girl, find her first, then eat, then."
They sounded as if they were wild animals magically gifted with crude speech.
"Now, now, burning it up, eat now, now, burning," Tucker said urgently, insistently.
Chrissie was shaking so badly that she was half afraid they would hear the shudders that rattled her.
Tucker said, "Burning it up, little animals in meadow, hear them, smell them, track, eat, eat, now."
Chrissie held her breath.
"Nothing here," the mother-thing said. "Only maggots, stink, go, eat, then find her, eat, eat, then find her, go."
Both stalkers retreated from the culvert and vanished.
Chrissie dared to breathe.
After waiting a minute to be sure they were really gone, she turned and troll-walked deeper into the upsloping culvert, blindly feeling the walls as she went, hunting a side passage. She must have gone two hundred yards before she found what she wanted a tributary drain, half the size of the main line. She slid into it, feetfirst and on her back, then squirmed onto her belly and faced out toward the bigger tunnel. That was where she would spend the night. If they returned to the culvert to see if they could detect her scent in the cleaner air beyond the decomposing raccoon, she would be out of the downdraught that swept the main line, and they might not smell her.
She was heartened because their failure to probe deeper into the culvert was proof that they were not possessed of supernatural powers, neither all-seeing nor all-knowing. They were abnormally strong and quick, strange and terrifying, but they could make mistakes too. She began to think that when daylight came she had a fifty-fifty chance of getting out of the woods and finding help before she was caught.
In the lights outside of the Perez Family Restaurant, Sam Booker checked his watch. Only 7:10.
He went for a walk along Ocean Avenue, building up the courage to call Scott in Los Angeles. The prospect of that conversation with his son soon preoccupied him and drove all thoughts of the mannerless, gluttonous diners out of his mind.
At 7:30, he stopped at a telephone booth near a Shell service station at the corner of Juniper Lane and Ocean Avenue. He used his credit card to make a long-distance call to his house in Sherman Oaks.
At sixteen Scott thought he was mature enough to be home alone when his father was away on an assignment. Sam did not entirely agree and preferred that the boy stay with his Aunt Edna. But Scott won his way by making life pure hell for Edna, so Sam was reluctant to put her through that ordeal.
He had repeatedly drilled the boy in safety procedures—keep all doors and windows locked; know where the fire extinguishers are; know how to get out of the house from any room in an earthquake or other emergency—and had taught him how to use a handgun. In Sam's judgment Scott was still too immature to be home alone for days at a time; but at least the boy was well prepared for every contingency.
The number rang nine times. Sam was about to hang up, guiltily relieved that he'd failed to get through, when Scott finally answered.
"Hello. It's me, Scott. Dad."
Heavy-metal rock was playing at high volume in the background. He was probably in his room, his stereo cranked up so loud that the windows shook.
Sam said, "Could you turn the music down?"
"I can hear you," Scott mumbled.
"Maybe so, but I'm having trouble hearing you."
"I don't have anything to say, anyway."
"Please turn it down," Sam said, with emphasis on the "Please."
Scott dropped the receiver, which clattered on his nightstand. The sharp sound hurt Sam's ear. The boy lowered the volume on the stereo but only slightly. He picked up the phone and said, "Yeah?"
"How're you doing?"
"Everything all right there?"
"Why shouldn't it be?"
"I just asked."
Sullenly "If you called to see if I'm having a party, don't worry. I'm not."
Sam counted to three, giving himself time to keep his voice under control. Thickening fog swirled past the glass-walled phone booth. "How was school today?"
"You think I didn't go?"
"I know you went."
"You don't trust me."
"I trust you," Sam lied.
"You think I didn't go."
"Yeah. So how was it?"
"Ridiculous. The same old shit."
"Scott, please, you know I've asked you not to use that kind of language when you're talking to me," Sam said, realizing that he was being forced into a confrontation against his will.
"So sorry. Same old poop," Scott said in such a way that he might have been referring either to the day at school or to Sam.
"It's pretty country up here," Sam said.
The boy did not reply.
"Wooded hillsides slope right down to the ocean."
Following the advice of the family counselor whom he and Scott had been seeing both together and separately, Sam clenched his teeth, counted to three again, and tried another approach. "Did you have dinner yet?"
"Do your homework?"
"Don't have any."
Sam hesitated, then decided to let it pass. The counselor, Dr. Adamski, would have been proud of such tolerance and cool self-control.
Beyond the phone booth, the Shell station's lights acquired multiple halos, and the town faded into the slowly congealing mist. At last Sam said, "What're you doing this evening?"
"I was listening to music."
Sometimes it seemed to Sam that the music was part of what had turned the boy sour. That pounding, frenetic, unmelodic heavy-metal rock was a collection of monotonous chords and even more monotonous atonal rims, so soul-less and mind-numbing that it might have been the music produced by a civilization of intelligent machines long after man had passed from the face of the earth. After a while Scott had lost interest in most heavy-metal bands and switched allegiance to U2, but their simplistic social consciousness was no match for nihilism. Soon he grew interested in heavy-metal again, but the second time around he focused on black metal, those bands espousing—or using dramatic trappings of—satanism; he became increasingly self-involved, antisocial, and somber. On more than one occasion, Sam had considered confiscating the kid's record collection, smashing it to bits, and disposing of it, but that seemed an absurd overreaction. After all, Sam himself had been sixteen when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were coming on the scene, and his parents had railed against that music and predicted it would lead Sam and his entire generation into perdition. He'd turned out all right in spite of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and the Stones. He was the product of an unparalleled age of tolerance, and he did not want his mind to close up as tight as his parents' minds had been.
"Well, I guess I better go," Sam said.
The boy was silent.
"If any unexpected problems come up, you call your Aunt Edna."
"There's nothing she could do for me that I couldn't do myself."
"She loves you, Scott."
"She's your mother's sister; she'd like to love you as if you were her own. All you have to do is give her the chance." After more silence, Sam took a deep breath and said, "I love you, too, Scott"
"Yeah? What's that supposed to do—turn me all gooey inside?"
"'Cause it doesn't."
"I was just stating a fact."
Apparently quoting from one of his favorite songs, the boy said:
"Nothing lasts forever;
even love's a lie,
a tool for manipulation;
there's no God beyond the sky."
Sam stood for a moment, listening to the the dial tone. "Perfect." He returned the receiver to its cradle.
His frustration was exceeded only by his fury. He wanted to kick the shit out of something, anything, and pretend that he was savaging whoever or whatever had stolen his son from him.
He also had an empty, achy feeling in the pit of his stomach, because he did love Scott. The boy's alienation was devastating.
He knew he could not go back to the motel yet. He was not ready to sleep, and the prospect of spending a couple of hours in front of the idiot box, watching mindless sitcoms and dramas, was intolerable.
When he opened the phone-booth door, tendrils of fog slipped inside and seemed to pull him out into the night. For an hour he walked the streets of Moonlight Cove, deep into the residential neighborhoods, where there were no streetlamps and where trees and houses seemed to float within the mist, as if they were not rooted to the earth but tenuously tethered and in danger of breaking loose.
Four blocks north of Ocean Avenue, on Iceberry Way, as Sam walked briskly, letting the exertion and the chilly night air leech the anger from him, he heard hurried footsteps. Someone running. Three people, maybe four. It was an unmistakable sound, though curiously stealthy, not the straightforward slap-slap-slap of joggers' approach.
He turned and looked back along the gloom-enfolded street.
The footsteps ceased.
Because the partial moon had been engulfed by clouds, the scene was brightened mostly by light fanning from the windows of Bavarian-, Monterey-, English-, and Spanish-style houses nestled among pines and junipers on both sides of the street. The neighborhood was long-established, with great character, but the lack of big-windowed modern homes contributed to the murkiness. Two properties in that block had hooded, downcast Malibu landscape lighting, and a few had carriage lamps at the ends of front walks, but the fog damped those pockets of illumination. As far as Sam could see, he was alone on Iceberry Way.