“Jesus,” Bryce said. “Wish you could testify to that.”
They were both silent. Then Robine sighed. “What about High Country Investments? How’s it provide a motive?”
Before Bryce could explain, Tal Whitman rushed in from the hall. “Bryce, could I have a word with you?” He glanced at Robine. “Uh, this better be in private.”
“Sure,” Robine said.
Tal closed the door behind the lawyer. “Bryce, do you know Dr. Jennifer Paige?”
“She set up practice in Snowfield sometime back.”
“Yeah. But what kind of person would you say she is?”
“I’ve never met her. I heard she’s a fine doctor, though. And folks up in those little mountain towns are glad they don’t have to drive all the way in to Santa Mira for a doctor any more.”
“I’ve never met her either. I was just wondering if maybe you’d heard anything about . . . about whether she drinks. I mean . . . booze.”
“No, I haven’t heard any such thing. Why? What’s going on?”
“She called a couple of minutes ago. She says there’s been a disaster up in Snowfield.”
“Disaster? What’s she mean?”
“Well, she says she doesn’t know.”
Bryce blinked. “Did she sound hysterical?”
“Frightened, yeah. But not hysterical. She doesn’t want to say much of anything to anyone but you. She’s on line three right now.”
Bryce reached for the phone.
“One more thing,” Tal said, worry lines creasing his forehead.
Bryce paused, hand on the receiver.
Tal said: “She did tell me one thing, but it doesn’t make sense. She said . . .”
“She said that everyone’s dead up there. Everyone in Snowfield. She said she and her sister are the only ones alive.”
Sisters and Cops
Jenny and Lisa left the Oxley house the same way they had entered: through the window.
The night was growing colder. The wind had risen once more.
They walked back to Jenny’s house at the top of Skyline Road and got jackets to ward off the chill.
Jenny tried the car phone in her Trans Am. It didn’t work.
Then they went downhill again to the sheriff’s substation. A wooden bench was bolted to the cobblestones by the curb in front of the town jail, and they sat waiting for help from Santa Mira.
“How long will it take them to get here?” Lisa asked.
“Well, Santa Mira is more than thirty miles away, over some pretty twisty roads. And they’ve got to take some unusual precautions.” Jenny looked at her wristwatch. “I guess they’ll be here in another forty-five minutes. An hour at most.”
“It’s not so long, honey.”
The girl turned up the collar of her fleece-lined, denim jacket. “Jenny, when the phone rang at the Oxley place and you picked it up . . .”
“Who was calling?”
“What did you hear?”
“Nothing,” Jenny lied.
“From the look on your face, I thought someone was threatening you or something.”
“Well, I was upset, of course. When it rang, I thought the phones were working again, but when I picked it up and it was only another dead line, I felt . . . crushed. That was all.”
“Then you got a dial tone?”
She probably doesn’t believe me, Jenny thought. She thinks I’m trying to protect her from something. And, of course, I am. How can I explain the feeling that something evil was on that phone with me? I can’t even begin to understand it myself. Who or what was on that telephone? Why did he—or
finally let me have a dial tone?
A scrap of paper blew along the street. Nothing else moved.
A thin rag of cloud passed over one corner of the moon.
After a while, Lisa said, “Jenny, in case something happens to me tonight—”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you, honey.”
“But in case something
happen to me tonight,” Lisa insisted, “I want you to know that I . . . well . . . I really am . . . proud of you.”
Jenny put an arm around her sister’s shoulders, and they moved even closer together. “Sis, I’m sorry that we never had much time together over the years.”
“You got home as often as you could,” Lisa said. “I know it wasn’t easy. I must’ve read a couple of dozen books about what a person has to go through to become a doctor. I always knew there was a lot on your shoulders, a lot you had to worry about.”
Surprised, Jenny said, “Well, I still could’ve gotten home more often.”
She had stayed away from home on some occasions because she had not been able to cope with the accusation in her mother’s sad eyes, an accusation which was even more powerful and affecting because it was never bluntly put into words:
You killed your father, Jenny; you broke his heart, and that killed him.
Lisa said, “And Mom was always so proud of you, too.”
That statement not only surprised Jenny: It rocked her.
“Mom was always telling people about her daughter the doctor.” Lisa smiled, remembering. “I think there were times her friends were ready to throw her out of her bridge club if she said just one more word about your scholarships or your good grades.”
Jenny blinked. “Are you serious?”
“Of course, I’m serious.”
“But didn’t Mom . . .”
“Didn’t she what?” Lisa asked.
Well . . . didn’t she ever say anything about . . . about Dad? He died twelve years ago.”
“Jeez, I know that. He died when I was two and a half.” Lisa frowned. “But what’re you talking about?”
“You mean you never heard Mom blame me?”
“Blame you for what?”
Before Jenny could respond, Snowfield’s graveyard tranquillity was snuffed out. All the lights went off.
Three patrol cars set out from Santa Mira, headed into the night-enshrouded hills, toward the high, moon-bathed slopes of the Sierras, toward Snowfield, their red emergency lights flashing.
Tal Whitman drove the car at the head of the speeding procession, and Sheriff Hammond sat beside him. Gordy Brogan was in the back seat with another deputy, Jake Johnson.
Gordy was scared.
He knew his fear wasn’t visible, and he was thankful for that. In fact, he looked as if he didn’t know
to be afraid. He was tall, large-boned, slab-muscled. His hands were strong and as large as the hands of a professional basketball player; he looked capable of slam-dunking anyone who gave him trouble. He knew that his face was handsome enough; women had told him so. But it was also a rather rough-looking face, dark. His lips were thin, giving his mouth a cruel aspect. Jake Johnson had said it best:
Gordy, when you frown, you look like a man who eats live chickens for breakfast.
But in spite of his fierce appearance, Gordy Brogan was scared. It wasn’t the prospect of disease or poison that occasioned fear in Gordy. The sheriff had said that there were indications that the people in Snowfield had been killed not by germs or by toxic substances but
by other people.
Gordy was afraid that he would have to use his gun for the first time since he had become a deputy, eighteen months ago; he was afraid he would be forced to shoot someone—either to save his own life, the life of another deputy, or that of a victim.
He didn’t think he could do it.
Five months ago, he had discovered a dangerous weakness in himself when he had answered an emergency call from Donner’s Sports Shop. A disgruntled former employee, a burly man named Leo Sipes, had returned to the store two weeks after being fired, had beaten up the manager, and had broken the arm of the clerk who had been hired to replace him. By the time Gordy arrived on the scene, Leo Sipes—big and dumb and drunk—was using a woodsman’s hatchet to smash and splinter all of the merchandise. Gordy was unable to talk him into surrendering. When Sipes started after him, brandishing the hatchet, Gordy had pulled his revolver. And then found he couldn’t use it. His trigger finger became as brittle and inflexible as ice. He’d had to put the gun away and risk a physical confrontation with Sipes. Somehow, he’d gotten the hatchet away from him.
Now, five months later, as he sat in the rear of the patrol car and listened to Jake Johnson talking to Sheriff Hammond, Gordy’s stomach clenched and turned sour at the thought of what a .45-caliber hollow-nose bullet would do to a man. It would
take off his head. It would smash a man’s shoulder into rags of flesh and broken needles of bone. It would rip open a man’s chest, shattering the heart and everything else in its path. It would blow off a leg if it struck a kneecap, would turn a face to bloody slush. And Gordy Brogan, God help him, was just not capable of doing such a thing to anyone.
That was his terrible weakness. He knew there were people who would say that his inability to shoot another being was not a weakness but a sign of moral superiority. However, he knew that was not always true. There were times when shooting was a moral act. An officer of the law was sworn to protect the public. For a cop, the inability to shoot (when shooting was clearly justified) was not only weakness but madness, perhaps even sinful.
During the past five months, following the unnerving episode at Donner’s Sport Shop, Gordy had been lucky. He’d drawn only a few calls involving violent suspects. And fortunately, he had been able to bring his adversaries to heel by using his fists or his nightstick or threats—or by firing warning shots into the air. Once, when it had seemed that shooting someone was unavoidable, the other officer, Frank Autry, had fired first, winging the gunman, before Gordy had been confronted with the impossible task of pulling the trigger.
But now something unimaginably violent had transpired up in Snowfield. And Gordy knew all too well that violence frequently had to be met with violence.
The gun on his hip seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
He wondered if the time was approaching when his weakness would be revealed. He wondered if he would die tonight—or if he would cause, by his weakness, the unnecessary death of another.
He ardently prayed that he could beat this thing. Surely, it was possible for a man to be peaceful by nature and still possess the nerve to save himself, his friends, his kind.
Red emergency beacons flashing on their roofs, the three white and green squad cars followed the winding highway into the night-cloaked mountains, up toward the peaks where the moonlight created the illusion that the first snow of the season had already fallen.
Gordy Brogan was scared.
The streetlamps and all other lights went out, casting the town into darkness.
Jenny and Lisa bolted up from the wooden bench.
“Ssshh!” Jenny said.
But there was only continued silence.
The wind had stopped blowing, as if startled by the town’s abrupt blackout. The trees waited, boughs hanging as still as old clothes in a closet.
Thank God for the moon, Jenny thought.
Heart thudding, Jenny turned and studied the buildings behind them. The town jail. A small cafe. The shops. The townhouses.
All the doorways were so clotted with shadows that it was difficult to tell if the doors were open or closed—or if, just now, they were slowly, slowly coming open to release the hideous, swollen, demonically reanimated dead into the night streets.
Stop it! Jenny thought. The dead don’t come back to life.
Her eyes came to rest on the gate in front of the covered serviceway between the sheriff’s substation and the gift shop next door. It was exactly like the cramped, gloomy passageway beside Liebermann’s Bakery.
Was something hiding in this tunnel, too? And, with the lights out, was it creeping inexorably toward the far side of the gate, eager to come out onto the dark sidewalk?
That primitive fear again.
That sense of evil.
That superstitious terror.
“Come on,” she said to Lisa.
“In the street. Nothing can get us out here—”
“—without our seeing it coming,” Lisa finished, understanding.
They went into the middle of the moonlit roadway.
“How long until the sheriff gets here?” Lisa asked.
“At least fifteen or twenty minutes yet.”
The town’s lights all came on at once. A brilliant shower of electric radiance stung their eyes with surprise—then darkness again.
Jenny raised the pistol, not knowing where to point it.
Her throat was fear-parched, her mouth dry.
A blast of sound—an ungodly wail—slammed through Snowfield.
Jenny and Lisa both cried out in shock and turned, bumping against each other, squinting at the moon-tinted darkness.
Then another shriek.
“What?” Lisa asked.
It came again: a short burst of the piercing siren from the east side of St. Moritz Way, from the Snowfield Volunteer Fire Company stationhouse.
Jenny jumped again, twisted around.
“A church bell,” Lisa said.
“The Catholic church, west on Vail.”
The bell tolled once more—a loud, deep, mournful sound that reverberated in the blank windows along the dark length of Skyline Road and in other, unseen windows throughout the dead town.
“Someone has to pull a rope to ring a bell,” Lisa said. “Or push a button to set off a siren. So there
be someone else here besides us.”
Jenny said nothing.
The siren sounded again, whooped and then died, whooped and died, and the church bell began to toll again, and the bell and the siren cried out at the same time, again and again, as if announcing the advent of someone of tremendous importance.