- Night Chills
Saturday, August 6, 1977
THE DIRT TRAIL was narrow. Drooping boughs of tamarack, spruce, and pine scraped the roof and brushed the side windows of the Land Rover.
“Stop here,” Rossner said tensely.
Holbrook was driving. He was a big, stem-faced man in his early thirties. He gripped the wheel so tightly that his knuckles were bloodless. He braked, pulled the Rover to the right, and coasted in among the trees. He switched off the headlamps and turned on a dash light.
“Check your gun,” Rossner said.
Each man wore a shoulder holster and carried a SIC-Petter, the finest automatic pistol in the world. They pulled the magazines, checked for a full complement of bullets, slammed the magazines back into the butts, and holstered the guns. Their movements seemed to be choreographed, as if they had practiced this a thousand times.
They got out and walked to the back of the car.
At three o’clock in the morning, the Maine woods were ominously dark and still.
Holbrook lowered the tailgate. A light winked on inside the Rover. He threw aside a tarpaulin, revealing two pairs of rubber hip boots, two flashlights, and other equipment.
Rossner was shorter, slimmer, and quicker than Holbrook.
He got his boots on first. Then he dragged the last two pieces of their gear from the car.
The main component of each device was a pressurized tank much like an aqualung cylinder, complete with shoulder straps and chest belt. A hose led from the tank to a stainless-steel, pinspray nozzle.
They helped each other into the straps, made certain their shoulder holsters were accessible, and paced a bit to get accustomed to the weight on their backs.
At 3:10 Rossner took a compass from his pocket, studied it in his flashlight beam, put it away, and moved off into the forest.
Holbrook followed, surprisingly quiet for such a large man. The land rose rather steeply. They had to stop twice in the next half hour to rest.
At 3:40 they came within sight of the Big Union sawmill. Three hundred yards to their right, a complex of two- and three-story clapboard and cinder-block buildings rose out of the frees. Lights glowed at all the windows, and arc lamps bathed the fenced storage yard in fuzzy purplish-white light. Within the huge main building, giant saws stuttered and whined continuously. Logs and cut planks toppled from conveyor belts and boomed when they landed in metal bins.
Rossner and Holbrook circled around the mill to avoid being seen. They reached the top of the ridge at four o’clock.
They had no difficulty locating the man-made lake. One end of it shimmered in the wan moonlight, and the other end was shadowed by a higher ridge that rose behind it. It was a neat oval, three hundred yards long and two hundred yards wide, fed by a gushing spring. It served as the reservoir for both the Big Union mill and the small town of Black River that lay three miles away in the valley.
They followed the six-foot-high fence until they came to the main gate. The fence was there to keep out animals, and the gate was not even locked. They went inside.
At the shadowed end of the reservoir, Rossner entered the water and walked out ten feet before it rose nearly to the tops
of his hip boots. The walls of the lake slanted sharply, and the depth at the center was sixty feet.
He unraveled the hose from a storage reel on the side of the tank, grasped the steel tube at the end of it, and thumbed a button. A colorless, odorless chemical exploded from the nozzle. He thrust the end of the tube underwater and moved it back and forth, fanning the fluid as widely as possible.
In twenty minutes his tank was empty. He wound the hose around the reel and looked toward the far end of the lake. Holbrook had finished emptying his tank and was climbing out onto the concrete apron.
They met at the gate. “Okay?” Rossner asked.
By 5:10 they were back at the Land Rover. They got shovels from the back of the car and dug two shallow holes in the rich black earth. They buried the empty tanks, boots, holsters, and guns.
For two hours Holbrook drove along a series of rugged dirt trails, crossed St. John River on a timber bridge, picked up a graveled lane, and finally connected with a paved road at half past eight.
From there Rossner took the wheel. They didn’t say more than a dozen words to each other.
At twelve thirty Holbrook got out at the Starlite Motel on Route 15 where he had a room. He closed the car door without saying good-by, went inside, locked the motel door, and sat by the telephone.
Rossner had the Rover’s tank filled at a Sunoco station and picked up Interstate 95 south to Waterville and past Augusta. From there he took the Maine Turnpike to Portland, where he stopped at a service area and parked near a row of telephone booths.
The afternoon sun made mirrors of the restaurant windows and flashed off the parked cars. Shimmering waves of hot air rose from the pavement.
He looked at his watch. 3:35.
He leaned back and closed his eyes. He appeared to be nap
ping, but every five minutes he glanced at his watch. At 3:55 he got out of the car and went to the last booth in the row.
At four o’clock the phone rang.
The voice at the other end of the line was cold and sharp:
“I am the key, Mr. Rossner.”
“I am the lock,” Rossner said dully.
“How did it go?”
“You missed the three-thirty call.”
“Only by five minutes.”
The man at the other end hesitated. Then: “Leave the turnpike at the next exit Turn right on the state route. Put the Rover up to at least one hundred miles an hour. Two miles along, the road takes a sudden turn, hard to the right; it’s banked by a fieldstone wall. Do not apply your brakes when you reach the curve. Do not turn with the road. Drive straight into that wall at a hundred miles an hour.”
Rossner stared through the glass wall of the booth. A young woman was crossing from the restaurant toward a little red sports car. She was wearing fight white shorts with dark stitching. She had nice legs.
“Do you understand me?”
“Repeat what I’ve said.”
Rossner went through it, almost word for word.
“Very good, Glenn. Now go do it.”
Rossner returned to the Land Rover and drove back onto the busy turnpike.
Holbrook sat quietly, patiently in the unlighted motel room. He switched on the television set, but he didn’t watch it. He got up once to use the bathroom and to get a drink of water, but that was the only break in his vigil.
At 4:10 the telephone rang.
He picked it up. “Holbrook.”
“I am the key, Mr. Holbrook.”
“I am the lock.”
The man on the other end of the line spoke for half a minute. “Now repeat what I’ve said.”
Holbrook repeated it.
“Excellent. Now do it.”
He hung up, went into the bathroom, and began to draw a tub full of warm water.
When he turned right onto the state route, Glenn Rossner pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor. The engine roared. The car’s frame began to shimmy. Trees and houses and other cars flashed past, mere blurs of color. The steering wheel jumped and vibrated in his hands.
For the first mile and a half, he didn’t look away from the road for even a second. When he saw the curve ahead, he glanced at the speedometer and saw that he was doing slightly better than a hundred miles per hour.
He whimpered, but he didn’t hear himself. The only things he could hear were the tortured noises produced by the car. At the last moment he gritted his teeth and shuddered.
The Land Rover hit the four-foot-high stone wall so hard that the engine was jammed back into Rossner’s lap. The car plowed part of the way through the wall. Stones shot up and rained back down. The Rover tipped onto its crushed front end, rolled over on its roof, slid across the ruined wall, and burst into flames.
Holbrook undressed and climbed into the tub. He settled down in the water and picked up the single-edge razor blade that lay on the porcelain rim. He held the blade by the blunt end, firmly between the thumb and first finger of his right hand, then slashed open the veins in his left wrist.
He tried to cut his right wrist. His left hand could not hold the blade. It slipped from his fingers.
He plucked it out of the darkening water, held it in his right hand once more, and cut across the bridge of his left foot.
Then he leaned back and closed his eyes.
Slowly, he drifted down a lightless tunnel of the mind, into ever deepening darkness, getting dizzy and weak, feeling surprisingly little pain. In thirty minutes he was comatose. In forty minutes he was dead.
Sunday, August 7, 1977
AFTER WORKING ALL WEEK on the midnight shift, Buddy Pellineri was unable to change his sleeping habits for the weekend. At four o’clock Sunday morning, he was in the kitchen of his tiny, two-room apartment. The radio, his most prized possession, was turned down low: music from an all-night Canadian station. He was sitting at the table, next to the window, staring fixedly at the shadows on the far side of the street. He had seen a cat running along the walk over there, and the hairs had stood up on the back of his neck.
There were two things that Buddy Pellineri hated and feared more than all else in life: cats and ridicule.
For twenty-five years he had lived with his mother, and for twenty years she had kept a cat in the house, first Caesar and then Caesar the Second. She had never realized that the cats were quicker and far more cunning than her son and, therefore, a bane to him. Caesar—first or second; it made no difference— liked to lie quietly atop bookshelves and cupboards and high-boys, until Buddy walked past. Then he leaped on Buddy’s back. The cat never scratched him badly; for the most part it was concerned with getting a good grip on his shirt so that he could not shake it loose. Every time, as if following a script, Buddy would panic and run in circles or dart from room to room in search of his mother, with Caesar spitting in his ear. He never suffered much pain from the game; it was the sudden-
ness of the attack, the surprise of it that terrified him. His mother said Caesar was only being playful. At times he confronted the cat to prove he was unafraid. He approached it as it sunned on a window sill and tried to stare it down. But he was always the first to look away. He couldn’t understand people all that well, and the alien gaze of the cat made him feel especially stupid and inferior.
He was able to deal with ridicule more easily than he could deal with cats, if only because it never came as a surprise. When he was a boy, other children had teased him mercilessly. He had learned to be prepared for it, learned how to endure it. Buddy was bright enough to know that he was different from others. If his intelligence quotient had been several points lower, he wouldn’t have known enough to be ashamed of himself, which was what people expected of him. If his I.Q. had been a few points higher, he would have been able to cope, at least to some extent, with both cats and cruel people. Because he fell in between, his life was lived as an apology for his stunted intellect— a curse he bore as a result of a malfunctioning hospital incubator where he had been placed after being born five weeks prematurely.
His father had died in a mill accident when Buddy was five, and the first Caesar had entered the house two weeks later. If his father hadn’t died, perhaps there would have been no cats. And Buddy liked to think that, with his father alive, no one would dare ridicule him.
Ever since his mother had succumbed to cancer ten years ago, when he was twenty-five, Buddy had worked as an assistant night watchman at the Big Union Supply Company mill. If he suspected that certain people at Big Union felt responsible for him and that his job was make-work, he had never admitted it, not even to himself. He was on duty from midnight to eight, five nights a week, patrolling the storage yards, looking for smoke, sparks, and flames. He was proud of his position. In the last ten years he had come to enjoy a measure of self-respect that would have been inconceivable before he had been hired.
Yet theme were times when he felt like a child again, humiliated by other children, the brunt of a joke he could not understand. His boss at the mill, Ed McGrady, the chief watchman on the graveyard shift, was a pleasant man. He was incapable of hurting anyone. However, he smiled when others did the teasing. Ed always told them to stop, always rescued his friend Buddy—but always got a laugh from it.
That was why Buddy hadn’t told anyone what he had seen Saturday morning, nearly twenty-four hours ago. He didn’t want them to laugh.
Around that time he left the storage yard and walked well off into the trees to relieve himself. He avoided the lavatory whenever he could because it was there the other men teased him the most and showed the least mercy. At a quarter to five, he was standing by a big pine tree, shrouded in darkness, taking a pee, when he saw two men coming down from the reservoir. They carried hooded flashlights that cast narrow yellow beams. In the backwash of the lights, as the men passed within five yards of him, Buddy saw they were wearing rubber hip boots, as if they had been fishing. They couldn’t fish in the reservoir, could they? There were no fish up there. Another thing .
each man wore a tank on his back, like skin divers wore on television. And they were carrying guns in shoulder holsters. They looked so out of place in the woods, so strange.
They frightened him. He sensed they were killers. Like on the television. If they knew they had been seen, they would kill him and bury him out here. He was sure of it. But then Buddy always expected the worst; life had taught him to think that way.
He stood perfectly still, watched them until they were out of sight, and ran back to the storage yard. But he quickly realized he couldn’t tell anyone what he had seen. They wouldn’t believe him. And by God, if he was going to be ridiculed for telling what was only the truth, then he would keep it secret!
Just the same he wished he could tell someone, if not the watchmen at the mill. He thought and thought about it but still could not make sense of those skin divers or whatever they were. -In fact, the more he thought about it, the more bizarre it
seemed. He was frightened by what he could not understand. He was certain that if he told someone, it could be explained to him. Then he wouldn’t be afraid. But if they laughed .
Well, he didn’t understand their laughter either, and that was even more frightening than the mystery men in the woods.
On the far side of Main Street, the cat scampered from the heavy purple shadows and ran east toward Edison’s General Store, startling Buddy out of his reverie. He pressed against the windowpane and watched the cat until it turned the corner. Afraid that it would try to sneak back and climb up to his third floor rooms, he kept a watch on the place where it had vanished. For the moment he had forgotten the men in the woods because his fear of cats was far greater than his fear of guns and strangers.