He began to walk again but went less than half a block before he heard the hurried footfalls. He swung around, but as before saw no one. This time the sound faded, as though the runners had moved off a paved surface onto soft earth, then between two of the houses.
Perhaps they were on another street. Cold air and fog could play tricks with sound.
He was cautious and intrigued, however, and he quietly stepped off the cracked and root-canted sidewalk, onto someone's front lawn, into the smooth blackness beneath an immense cypress. He studied the neighborhood, and within half a minute he saw furtive movement on the west side of the street. Four shadowy figures appeared at the corner of a house, running low, in a crouch. When they crossed a lawn that was patchily illuminated by a pair of hurricane lamps on iron poles, their freakishly distorted shadows leaped wildly over the front of a white stucco house. They went to ground again in dense shrubbery before he could ascertain their size or anything else about them.
Kids, Sam thought, and they're up to no good.
He didn't know why he was so sure they were kids, perhaps because neither their quickness nor behavior was that of adults. They were either engaged on some prank against a disliked neighbor—or they were after Sam. Instinct told him that he was being stalked.
Were juvenile delinquents a problem in a community as small and closely knit as Moonlight Cove?
Every town had a few bad kids. But in the semirural atmosphere of a place like this, juvenile crime rarely included gang activities like assault and battery, armed robbery, mugging, or thrill killing.
In the country, kids got into trouble with fast cars, booze, girls, and a little unsophisticated theft, but they did not prowl the streets in packs the way their counterparts did in the inner cities.
Nevertheless, Sam was suspicious of the quartet that crouched, invisible, among shadow-draped ferns and azaleas, across the street and three houses west of him. After all, something was wrong in Moonlight Cove, and conceivably the trouble was related to juvenile delinquents. The police were concealing the truth about several deaths in the past couple of months, and perhaps they were protecting someone; as unlikely as it seemed, maybe they were covering for a few kids from prominent families, kids who had taken the privileges of class too far and had gone beyond permissible, civilized behavior.
Sam was not afraid of them. He knew how to handle himself, and he was carrying a .38. Actually he would have enjoyed teaching the brats a lesson. But a confrontation with a group of teenage hoods would mean a subsequent scene with the local police, and he preferred not to bring himself to the attention of the authorities, for fear of jeopardizing his investigation.
He thought it peculiar that they would consider assaulting him in a residential neighborhood like this. One shout of alarm from him would bring people to their front porches to see what was happening. Of course, because he wanted to avoid calling even that much notice to himself, he would not cry out.
The old adage about discretion being the better part of valor was in no circumstance more applicable than in his. He moved back from the cypress under which he had taken shelter, away from the street and toward the lightless house behind him. Confident that those kids were not sure where he had gone, he planned to slip out of the neighborhood and lose them altogether.
He reached the house, hurried alongside it, and entered a rear yard, where a looming swing set was so distorted by shadows and mist that it looked like a giant spider stilting toward him through the gloom. At the end of the yard he vaulted a rail fence, beyond which was a narrow alley that serviced the block's detached garages. He intended to go south, back toward Ocean Avenue and the heart of town, but a shiver of prescience shook him toward another route. Stepping straight across the narrow back street, past a row of metal garbage cans, he vaulted another low fence, landing on the back lawn of another house that faced out on the street parallel to Iceberry Way.
No sooner had he left the alley than he heard soft, running footsteps on that hard surface. The juvies—if that's what they were sounded as swift but not quite as stealthy as they had been.
They were coming in Sam's direction from the end of the block. He had the odd feeling that with some sixth sense they would be able to determine which yard he had gone into and that they would be on him before he could reach the next street. Instinct told him to stop running and go to ground. He was in good shape, yes, but he was forty-two, and they were no doubt seventeen or younger, and any middle-aged man who believed he could outrun kids was a fool.
Instead of sprinting across the new yard, he moved swiftly to a side door on the nearby clapboard garage, hoping it would be unlocked. It was. He stepped into total darkness and pulled the door shut, just as he heard four pursuers halt in the alleyway in front of the big roll-up door at the other end of the building. They had stopped there not because they knew where he was, but probably because they were trying to decide which way he might have gone.
In tomblike blackness Sam fumbled for a lock button or dead-bolt latch to secure the door by which he had entered. He found nothing.
He heard the four kids murmuring to one another, but he could not make out what they were saying. Their voices sounded strange whispery and urgent.
Sam remained at the smaller door. He gripped the knob with both hands to keep it from turning, in case the kids searched around the garage and gave it a try.
They fell silent.
He listened intently.
The cold air smelled of grease and dust. He could see nothing, but he assumed a car or two occupied that space.
Although he was not afraid, he was beginning to feel foolish. How had he gotten himself into this predicament? He was a grown man, an FBI agent trained in a variety of self-defense techniques, carrying a revolver with which he possessed considerable expertise, yet he was hiding in a garage from four kids. He had gotten there because he had acted instinctively, and he usually trusted instinct implicitly but this was—
He heard furtive movement along the outer wall of the garage. He tensed. Scraping footsteps. Approaching the small door at which he stood. As far as Sam could tell, he was hearing only one of the kids.
Leaning back, holding the knob in both hands, Sam pulled the door tight against the jamb.
The footsteps stopped in front of him.
He held his breath.
A second ticked by, two seconds, three.
Try the damn lock and move on, Sam thought irritably.
He was feeling more foolish by the second and was on the verge of confronting the kid. He could pop out of the garage as if he were a jack-in-the-box, probably scare the hell out of the punk, and send him screaming into the night.
Then he heard a voice on the other side of the door, inches from him, and although he did not know what in God's name he was hearing, he knew at once that he had been wise to trust to instinct, wise to go to ground and hide. The voice was thin, raspy, utterly chilling, and the urgent cadences of the speech were those of a frenzied psychotic or a junkie long over-due for a fix:
"Burning, need, need…"
He seemed to be talking to himself and was perhaps unconscious of speaking, as a man in a fever might babble deliriously.
A hard object scraped down the outside of the wooden door. Sam tried to imagine what it was.
"Feed the fire, fire, feed it, feed," the kid said in a thin, frantic voice that was partly a whisper and partly a whine and partly a low and menacing growl. It was not much like the voice of any teenager Sam had ever heard—or any adult, for that matter.
In spite of the cold air, his brow was covered with sweat.
The unknown object scraped down the door again.
Was the kid armed? Was it a gun barrel being drawn along the wood? The blade of a knife? Just a stick?
"… burning, burning …"
That was a crazy idea. Yet he could not shake it. In his mind was the clear image of a sharp and hornlike claw—a talon-gouging splinters from the door as it carved a line in the wood.
Sam held tightly to the knob. Sweat trickled down his temples.
At last the kid tried the door. The knob twisted in Sam's grip, but he would not let it move much.
"… oh, God, it burns, hurts, oh God …"
Sam was finally afraid. The kid sounded so damned weird. Like a PCP junkie flying out past the orbit of Mars somewhere, only worse than that, far stranger and more dangerous than any angel-dust freak. Sam was scared because he didn't know what the hell he was up against.
The kid tried to pull the door open.
Sam held it tight against the jamb.
Quick, frenetic words "… feed the fire, feed the fire …"
I wonder if he can smell me in here? Sam thought, and under the circumstances that bizarre idea seemed no crazier than the image of the kid with claws.
Sam's heart was hammering. Stinging perspiration seeped into the corners of his eyes. The muscles in his neck, shoulders, and arms ached fiercely; he was straining much harder than necessary to keep the door shut.
After a moment, apparently deciding that his quarry was not in the garage after all, the kid gave up. He ran along the side of the building, back toward the alley. As he hurried away, a barely audible keening issued from him; it was a sound of pain, need … and animal excitement. He was struggling to contain that low cry, but it escaped him anyway.
Sam heard cat-soft footsteps approaching from several directions. The other three would-be muggers rejoined the kid in the alley, and their whispery voices were filled with the same frenzy that had marked his, though they were too far away now for Sam to hear what they were saying. Abruptly, they fell silent and, a moment later, as if they were members of a wolfpack responding instinctively to the scent of game or danger, they ran as one along the alleyway, heading north. Soon their sly footsteps faded, and again the night was grave-still.
For several minutes after the pack left, Sam stood in the dark garage, holding fast to the doorknob.
The dead boy was sprawled in an open drainage ditch along the county road on the southeast side of Moonlight Cove. His frostwhite face was spotted with blood. In the glare of the two tripod-mounted police lamps flanking the ditch, his wide eyes stared unblinkingly at a shore immeasurably more distant than the nearby Pacific.
Standing by one of the hooded lamps, Loman Watkins looked down at the small corpse, forcing himself to bear witness to the death of Eddie Valdoski because Eddie, only eight years old, was his godson. Loman had gone to high school with Eddie's father, George, and in a strictly platonic sense he had been in love with Eddie's mother, Nella, for almost twenty years. Eddie had been a great kid, bright and inquisitive and well behaved. Had been. But now … Hideously bruised, savagely bitten, scratched and torn, neck broken, the boy was little more than a pile of decomposing trash, his promising potential destroyed, his flame snuffed, deprived of life—and life of him.
Of the innumerable terrible things Loman had encountered in twenty-one years of police work, this was perhaps the worst. And because of his personal relationship with the victim, he should have been deeply shaken if not devastated. Yet he was barely affected by the sight of the small, battered body. Sadness, regret, anger, and a flurry of other emotions touched him, but only lightly and briefly, the way unseen fish might brush past a swimmer in a dark sea. Of grief, which should have pierced him like nails, he felt nothing.
Barry Sholnick, one of the new officers on the recently expanded Moonlight Cove police force, straddled the ditch, one foot on each bank, and took a photograph of Eddie Valdoski For an instant the boy's glazed eyes were silvery with a reflection of the flash.
Loman's growing inability to feel was, strangely, the one thing that evoked strong feelings: It scared the shit out of him. Lately he was increasingly frightened by his emotional detachment, an unwanted but apparently irreversible hardening of the heart that would soon leave him with auricles of marble and ventricles of common stone.
He was one of the New People now, different in many ways from the man he had once been. He still looked the same five-ten, squarely built, with a broad and remarkably innocent face for a man in his line of work—but he wasn't only what he appeared to be. Perhaps a greater control of emotions, a more stable and analytical outlook, was an unanticipated benefit of the Change. But was that really beneficial? Not to feel? Not to grieve?
Though the night was chilly, sour sweat broke out on his face, the back of his neck, and under his arms.
Dr. Ian Fitzgerald, the coroner, was busy elsewhere, but Victor Callan, owner of Callan's Funeral Home and the assistant coroner, was helping another officer, Jules Timmerman, scour the ground between the ditch and the nearby woods. They were looking for clues that the killer might have left behind.
Actually they were just putting on a show for the benefit of the score of area residents who had gathered on the far side of the road. Even if clues were found, no one would be arrested for the crime. No trial would ever take place. If they found Eddie's killer, they would cover for him and deal with him in their own way, in order to conceal the existence of the New People from those who had not yet undergone the Change. Because without doubt the killer was what Thomas Shaddack called a "regressive," one of the New People gone bad. Very bad.
Loman turned away from the dead boy. He walked back along the county road, toward the Valdoski house, which was a few hundred yards north and veiled in mist.
He ignored the onlookers, although one of them called to him "Chief? What the hell's going on, Chief?"
This was a semirural area barely within the town limits. The houses were widely separated, and their scattered lights did little to hold back the night. Before he was halfway to the Valdoski place, though he was within hailing distance of the men at the crime scene, he felt isolated. Trees, tortured by ages of sea wind on nights far less calm than this one, bent toward the two-lane road, their scraggly branches overhanging the gravel shoulder on which he walked. He kept imagining movement in the dark boughs above him, and in the blackness and fog between the twisted trunks of the trees.
He put his hand on the butt of the revolver that was holstered at his side.
Loman Watkins had been the chief of police in Moonlight Cove for nine years, and in the past month more blood had been spilled in his jurisdiction than in the entire preceding eight years and eleven months. He was convinced that worse was coming. He had a hunch that the regressives were more numerous and more of a problem that Shaddack realized—or was willing to admit.
He feared the regressives almost as much as he feared his own new, cool, dispassionate perspective.
Unlike happiness and grief and joy and sorrow, stark fear was a survival mechanism, so perhaps he would not lose touch with it as thoroughly as he was losing touch with other emotions. That thought made him as uneasy as did the phantom movement in the trees.