At the bottom of the steps, still twenty-five feet from the man with the shotgun, Sam held out a hand in greeting. When Thurston ignored it, Sam said, “Harry?”
Thurston’s shotgun didn’t waver. Neither did his expression. But he said, “Hello, Sam.”
“What are you doing here, Harry?”
“You know,” Thurston said.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Guarding you,” Thurston said.
“You’re here to keep us from escaping from our own house?” Sam grimaced. “Why would we want to escape from our own house? Harry, you aren’t talking sense.”
Thurston frowned. “I’m guarding you,” he said stubbornly.
“The police. I’ve been deputized.” “Deputized? By whom?”
“An hour.. . hour and a half.”
“Why does Bob want you to keep us in the house?”
“You know why,” Thurston said again.
“I’ve already told you that I don’t know.”
“You’ve done something.” “What have we done?” “Something wrong. Illegal.” “You know us better than that.” Thurston said nothing. “Don’t you, Harry?” Silence.
“What have we done?” Sam insisted. “I don’t know.”
“Bob didn’t tell you?”
“I’m just an emergency deputy.”
The shotgun looks nonetheless deadly for that, Paul thought.
“You don’t know what we’re supposed to have done?” Sam asked. “But you’re willing to shoot us if we try to leave?”
“Those are my orders.”
“How long have you known me?”
“Twenty years anyway.”
“A long time.”
“You’re willing to kill old friends just because someone tells you to?” Sam asked. He was probing, trying to discover the breadth and depth of Salsbury’s control.
Thurston couldn’t answer that question. His eyes flicked from one to the other of them, and he shuffled his feet in the wet grass. He was exceedingly nervous, confused, and exasperated— but he was determined to do what the chief of police had asked of him.
Unable to take his eyes off the finger that was curled tightly around the shotgun trigger, unable to look at Sam when he spoke to him, Paul said, “We better get on with this. I think maybe you’ve pushed him far enough.”
“I think so too,” Sam said tensely. And then to Thurston: “I am the key.”
“I am the lock.”
“Lower the gun, Harry.” Thurston obeyed.
“Thank God,” Jenny said. “Come here, Harry.”
Thurston went to Sam.
“I’ll be damned,” Jenny said.
A perfect zombie, Paul thought. A regular little tin soldier.. A chill passed along his spine.
Sam said, “Harry, who really told you to come over here and keep a watch on us?”
“Tell me the truth.”
“It was Bob Thorp,” Thurston said, perplexed.
“It wasn’t a man named Salsbury?”
“Haven’t you met Salsbury?”
“No. Who are you talking about?” “Maybe he called himself Albert Deighton.” “Who did?” Thurston asked. “Salsbury.”
“I don’t know anyone named Deighton.”
Jenny, Rya, and Paul came down the rain-slick steps and joined the two men.
“Salsbury’s obviously working through Bob Thorp,” Jenny said, “one way or another.”
“What are you people talking about?” Thurston asked.
Sam said, “Harry, I am the key.”
“I am the lock.”
Taking a moment to study Thurston and to decide upon his approach, Sam finally said, “Harry, we are going for a walk up toward Hattie Lange’s house. You won’t try to stop us. Is that clear?”
“I won’t stop you.”
“You won’t shoot us.”
“No. Of course not.”
“You won’t call out or make trouble of any kind.”
Thurston shook his head: no.
“When we leave here,” Sam said, “you’ll go back to the lilac bush. You’ll forget that we ever came out of the house. Is that clear?”
“I want you to forget that we’ve had this little talk. When the four of us leave here, I want you to forget every word that’s been spoken between us. Can you do that, Harry?”
“Sure. I’ll forget that we talked, that I saw any of you just now, all of it, like a you said.”
For a human robot, for an honest-to-God zombie, Paul thought, he seemed damned relaxed.
“You’ll think we’re still inside,” Sam said.
Thurston stared at the back of the general store.
“You’ll guard the place exactly as you were doing a few minutes ago,” Sam said.
“Guard it.. . That’s what Bob told me to do.”
“Then do it,” Sam said. “And forget you’ve seen us.”
Obediently, Harry Thurston returned to the man-size niche in the wall of lilac bushes. He stood with his feet apart. He held the shotgun in both hands, parallel to the ground, prepared to raise it and fire within a second if faced with a sudden threat.
“Incredible,” Jenny said.
“Looks like a storm trooper,” Sam said wearily. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Jenny followed him.
Paul took hold of Rya’s icy hand.
Her face drawn, a haunted look in her eyes, she squeezed his hand and said, “Will it be all right again?”
“Sure. Everything will be fine before much longer,” he told her, not certain if that was the truth or another lie.
They went west, across the rear lawns of the neighboring houses, walking fast and hoping they wouldn’t be seen.
With every step Paul expected someone to shout at them. And in spite of the manner in which Harry Thurson had behaved, he also expected to hear a shotgun blast close behind him, much too close behind him, inches from his shoulder blades: one sudden apocalyptic roar and then an endless silence.
Halfway down the block they came to the back of St. Luke’s, the town’s all-denominational church. It was a freshly painted, neatly kept rectangular white frame structure on a brick-faced foundation. There was a five-story-high bell tower at the front of the building, out on the Main Street side.
Sam tried the rear door and found it unlocked. They slipped inside, one at a time.
For two or three minutes they stood in the narrow, musty, windowless foyer, and waited to see if Harry Thurston or anyone else would follow them.
No one did.
“Small blessings,” Jenny said.
Sam led them into the chamber behind the altar. That room was even darker than the foyer. They accidentally knocked over a rack full of choir gowns—and stood very still until the echo
of the crash had faded away, until they were certain that they hadn’t revealed themselves.
Holding hands, forming a human chain, they stumbled out of that room and onto the altar platform. Because the storm clouds filtered the day into twilight before it was filtered again by the leaded stained-glass windows, the church proper was only marginally brighter than the room behind it, Nevertheless, there was sufficient light to allow them to break the chain; and they followed Sam along the center aisle, between the two ranks of pews, without having to feel their way as if they were blind people in a strange house.
At the rear of the nave, on the left-hand side, Sam pulled open a door. Beyond lay an enclosed spiral staircase. Sam went first; Jenny went next, then Rya.
Paul stood on the bottom step, staring out at the shadowy church for a minute or two. His revolver was ready in his right hand. When the big room remained silent and deserted, he closed the stairwell door and went up to join the others.
The top of the bell tower was a nine-foot-square platform. The bell—one yard wide at the mouth—was at the center of the platform, of course, suspended from the highest point of the arched ceiling. A chain was welded to the rim of the bell and trailed through a small hole in the floor, down to the base of the tower where the toiler could tug on it. The walls were only four feet high, open from there to the ceiling. A white pillar rose at each corner, supporting the peaked, slate-shingled roof. Because the roof overhung the wails by four feet on all sides, the rain hadn’t come in through the open spaces; and the belfry platform was dry.
‘When he reached the head of the stairs, Paul got on his hands and knees. People seldom looked up as they hurried about their business, especially when they were in a familiar place; however, there was no reason to risk being seen. He crawled around the bell to the opposite side of the platform.
Jenny and Rya were sitting on the floor, their back to the half-wall. The .22 rifle lay at Jenny’s side. She was talking to the girl in a low voice, telling her a joke or a story, trying to help
her ease her tensions and overcome some of her grief. Jenny glanced at Paul, smiled, but kept her attention focused on Rya.
That should be my job, Paul thought. Helping Rya. Reassuring her and comforting her, being with her.
And then he thought, No. For the time being, your job is to prepare yourself to kill at least one man. Maybe two or three. Maybe as many as half a dozen.
Suddenly he wondered how the violence past and the violence yet to come would affect his relationship with his daughter. Knowing he had killed several men, would Rya fear him as she now feared Bob Thorp? Knowing he was capable of the ultimate brutal act, would she ever be at ease with him again? Death had taken his wife and his son. Would alienation take his daughter from him?
Sam was on his knees, peering over the belfry wall.
Deeply disturbed but aware that this wasn’t the time to worry about more than a few hours of the future, easing in beside Sam, Paul looked eastward, to his left. He could see Edison’s General Store half a block away. Karkov’s service station and garage. The houses in the last section of town. The baseball diamond on the meadow near the river. At the end of the valley, near the bend in the highway, a police car was angled across both lanes.
Sam said, “I’ve seen it.”
“Salsbury does have us penned up.”
“And right now he’s probably wondering why the hell we haven’t tried to call the cops or leave Black River.”
To Paul’s right was the main part of town. The square. Ultman’s Cafe with its pair of enormous black oak trees. The municipal building. Beyond the square, more lovely houses:
brick houses and stone houses and white gingerbread Gothic houses and trim little bungalows. A couple of shops with striped awnings out in front. The telephone company office. St. Margaret Mary’s. The cemetery. The Union Theater with its old fashioned marquee. And then the road to the mill. The entire panorama, so recently scrubbed by the storm, looked crisp and
bright and quaint—and too innocent to contain the evil that he knew it harbored.
“You still think Salsbury’s holed up in the municipal building?” Paul asked.
“I guess so.”
“The chief’s office is the logical command center.”
Paul looked at his watch. “A quarter past five.”
“We’ll wait here until dark,” Sam said. “Nine o’clock or thereabouts. Then we’ll sneak across the street, get past his guards with the code phrase, and reach him before he’s seen us coming.”
“It sounds so easy.”
“It will be,” Sam said.
Lightning flashed like a fuse and thunder exploded and rain like shrapnel clattered on the tower roof and on the streets below.
Smiling as he had been told to smile, his arms folded across his broad chest, Bob Thorp leaned casually against the window sill and watched Salsbury, who was working at Bob’s desk
The infinity transmitter was connected to the office telephone. The line was open to Sam Edison’s place—or at least the number had been dialed, and the line should have been open.
Salsbury hunched over the chief’s desk, the receiver gripped so tightly in his right hand that his knuckles appeared to be about to slice through the pale skin that sheathed them. He listened closely for some sound, some insignificant tiny little sound of human origin, from the general store or from the living quarters on the two floors above the store.
“Come on,” he said impatiently.
Cursing the infinity transmitter, telling himself that the damned thing hadn’t worked, that it was a piece of crappy Belgian-made hardware and so what could you expect, he hung up. He checked to see if the wires were attached to the proper terminals, then dialed the Edisons’ number again.
The line opened: hissing, a soft roar not unlike the echo of your own circulation when you held a seashell to your ear.
In the background at the Edison’s place, a clock ticked rather noisily, hollowly.
He looked at his watch. 5:24
He hung up, dialed again.
He heard the ticking clock.
No one spoke over there. No one cried or laughed or sighed or coughed or yawned or moved.
Salsbury pressed the receiver to his ear as hard as he could, concentrated, strained with his whole body and attention to hear Edison or Annendale or one of the others.
They were over there. Dammit, they were!
He slammed the receiver into its cradle.
The bastards know I’m listening to them, he thought. They’re trying to be quiet, trying to worry me. That’s it. That has to be
He picked up the telephone and dialed the Edisons’ number.
A ticking clock. Nothing else.
He hung up the phone with a bang!
Suddenly he was drenched with perspiration.
Clammy and uncomfortable, he got to his feet. But he was frozen by rage; he couldn’t move.
He said to Thorp, “Even if they did get out of the store some way, somehow, they can’t have left town. That’s absolutely impossible. None of them’s a magician. They can’t have done it. I’ve got it all sewed up. Haven’t I?”