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Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

Phantoms (2 page)

BOOK: Phantoms
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“I’m sure you won’t,” Jenny said, slowing the Trans Am as the road curved sharply, “because you’re only going to date local boys.”
Lisa sighed and shook her head in a theatrical display of frustration. “In case you haven’t noticed, Jenny, I passed through puberty while you’ve been gone.”
“Oh, that hasn’t escaped my attention.”
They rounded the curve. Another straightaway lay ahead, and Jenny accelerated again.
Lisa said, “I’ve even got boobs now.”
“I’ve noticed that, too,” Jenny said, refusing to be rattled by the girl’s blunt approach.
“I’m not a child any more.”
“But you’re not an adult, either. You’re an adolescent.”
“I’m a young woman.”
“Young? Yes. Woman? Not yet.”
“Jeez.”
“Listen, I’m your legal guardian. I’m responsible for you. Besides, I’m your sister, and I love you. I’m going to do what I think—what I
know
—is best for you.”
Lisa sighed noisily.
“Because I love you,” Jenny stressed.
Scowling, Lisa said, “You’re going to be just as strict as Mom was.”
Jenny nodded. “Maybe worse.”
“Jeez.”
Jenny glanced at Lisa. The girl was staring out the passenger-side window. Her face was only partly visible, but she didn’t appear to be angry; she wasn’t pouting. In fact, her lips seemed to be gently curved in a vague smile.
Whether they realize it or not, Jenny thought, all kids want to have rules put down for them. Discipline is an expression of concern and love. The trick is not to be too heavy-handed about it.
Looking at the road again, flexing her hands on the steering wheel, Jenny said, “I’ll tell you what I
will
let you do.”
“What?”
“I’ll let you tie your own shoes.”
Lisa blinked. “Huh?”
“And I’ll let you go to the bathroom whenever you want.”
Unable to maintain a pose of injured dignity any longer, Lisa giggled. “Will you let me eat when I’m hungry?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Jenny grinned. “I’ll even let you make your own bed every morning.”
“Positively permissive!” Lisa said.
At that moment the girl seemed even younger than she was. In tennis shoes, jeans, and a Western-style blouse, unable to stifle her giggles, Lisa looked sweet, tender, and terribly vulnerable.
“Friends?” Jenny asked.
“Friends.”
Jenny was surprised and pleased by the ease with which she and Lisa had been relating to each other during the long drive north from Newport Beach. After all, in spite of their blood tie, they were virtually strangers. At thirty-one, Jenny was seventeen years older than Lisa. She had left home before Lisa’s second birthday, six months before their father had died. Throughout her years in medical school and during her internship at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Jenny had been too over-worked and too far from home to see either her mother or Lisa with any regularity. Then, after completing her residency, she returned to California to open an office in Snowfield. For the past two years, she had worked extremely hard to establish a viable medical practice that served Snowfield and a few other small towns in the mountains. Recently, her mother had died, and only then had Jenny begun to miss not having had a closer relationship with Lisa. Perhaps they could begin to make up for all the lost years—now that only the two of them were left.
The county lane rose steadily, and the twilight temporarily grew brighter as the Trans Am ascended out of the shadowed mountain valley.
“My ears feel like they’re stuffed full of cotton,” Lisa said, yawning to equalize the pressure.
They rounded a sharp bend, and Jenny slowed the car. Ahead lay a long, up-sloping straightaway, and the county lane became Skyline Road, the main street of Snowfield.
Lisa peered intently through the streaked windshield, studying the town with obvious delight. “It’s not at all what I thought it would be!”
“What did you expect?”
“Oh, you know, lots of ugly little motels with neon signs, too many gas stations, that sort of thing. But this place is really, really neat!”
“We have strict building codes,” Jenny said. “Neon isn’t acceptable. Plastic signs aren’t allowed. No garish colors, no coffee shops shaped like coffee pots.”
“It’s super,” Lisa said, gawking as they drove slowly into town.
Exterior advertising was restricted to rustic wooden signs bearing each store’s name and line of business. The architecture was somewhat eclectic—Norwegian, Swiss, Bavarian, Alpine-French, Alpine-Italian-but every building was designed in one mountain-country style or another, making liberal use of stone, slate, bricks, wood, exposed beams and timbers, mullioned windows, stained and leaded glass. The private homes along the upper end of Skyline Road were also graced by flower-filled window boxes, balconies, and front porches with ornate railings.
“Really pretty,” Lisa said as they drove up the long hill toward the ski lifts at the high end of the town. “But is it always this quiet?”
“Oh, no,” Jenny said. “During the winter, the place really comes alive and . . .”
She left the sentence unfinished as she realized that the town was not merely quiet. It looked
dead.
On any other mild Sunday afternoon in September, at least a few residents would have been strolling along the cobblestone sidewalks and sitting on the porches and balconies that overlooked Skyline Road. Winter was coming, and these last days of good weather were to be treasured. But today, as afternoon faded into evening, the sidewalks, balconies, and porches were deserted. Even in those shops and houses where lights burned, there was no sign of life. Jenny’s Trans Am was the only moving car on the long street.
She braked for a stop sign at the first intersection. St. Moritz Way crossed Skyline Road, extending three blocks east and four blocks west. She looked in both directions, but she could see no one.
The next block of Skyline Road was deserted, too. So was the block after that.
“Odd,” Jenny said.
“There must be a terrific show on TV,” Lisa said.
“I guess there must be.”
They passed the Mountainview Restaurant at the corner of Vail Lane and Skyline. The lights were on inside and most of the interior was visible through the big corner windows, but there was no one to be seen. Mountainview was a popular gathering place for locals both in the winter and during the off season, and it was unusual for the restaurant to be completely deserted at this time of day. There weren’t even any waitresses in sight.
Lisa already seemed to have lost interest in the uncanny stillness, even though she had noticed it first. She was again gawking at and delighting in the quaint architecture.
But Jenny couldn’t believe that everyone was huddled in front of TV sets, as Lisa had suggested. Frowning, perplexed, she looked at every window as she drove farther up the hill. She didn’t see a single indication of life.
Snowfield was six blocks long from top to bottom of its sloping main street, and Jenny’s house was in the middle of the uppermost block, on the west side of the street, near the foot of the ski lifts. It was a two-story, stone and timber chalet with three dormer windows along the street side of the attic. The many-angled, slate roof was a mottled gray-blue-black. The house was set back twenty feet from the cobblestone sidewalk, behind a waist-high evergreen hedge. By one corner of the porch stood a sign that read JENNIFER PAIGE, M.D.; it also listed her office hours.
Jenny parked the Trans Am in the short driveway.
“What a nifty house!” Lisa said.
It was the first house Jenny had ever owned; she loved it and was proud of it. The mere sight of the house warmed and relaxed her, and for a moment she forgot about the strange quietude that blanketed Snowfield. “Well, it’s somewhat small, especially since half of the downstairs is given over to my office and waiting room. And the bank owns more of it than I do. But it sure does have character, doesn’t it?”
“Tons,” Lisa said.
They got out of the car, and Jenny discovered that the setting sun had given rise to a chilly wind. She was wearing a longsleeved, green sweater with her jeans, but she shivered anyway. Autumn in the Sierras was a succession of mild days and contrastingly crisp nights.
She stretched, uncramping muscles that had knotted up during the long drive, then pushed the door shut. The sound echoed off the mountain above and through the town below. It was the
only
sound in the twilight stillness.
At the rear of the Trans Am, she paused for a moment, staring down Skyline Road, into the center of Snowfield. Nothing moved.
“I could stay here forever,” Lisa declared, hugging herself as she happily surveyed the town below.
Jenny listened. The echo of the slammed car door faded away—and was replaced by no other sound except the soft soughing of the wind.
There are silences and silences. No one of them is like another. There is the silence of grief in velvet-draped rooms of a plushly carpeted funeral parlor, which is far different from the bleak and terrible silence of grief in a widower’s lonely bedroom. To Jenny, it seemed curiously as if there were cause for grieving in Snowfield’s silence; however, she didn’t know why she felt that way or even why such a peculiar thought had occurred to her in the first place. She thought of the silence of a gentle summer night, too, which isn’t actually a silence at all, but a subtle chorus of moth wings tapping on windows, crickets moving in the grass, and porch swings ever-so-faintly sighing and creaking. Snowfield’s soundless slumber was imbued with some of that quality, too, a hint of fevered activity—voices, movement, struggle—just beyond the reach of the senses. But it was more than that. There is also the silence of a winter night, deep and cold and heartless, but containing an expectation of the bustling, growing noises of spring.
This
silence was filled with expectation, too, and it made Jenny nervous.
She wanted to call out, ask if anyone was here. But she didn’t because her neighbors might come out, startled by her cry, all of them safe and sound and bewildered by her apprehension, and then she would look foolish. A doctor who behaved foolishly in public on Monday was a doctor without patients on Tuesday.
“. . . stay here forever and ever and ever,” Lisa was saying, still swooning over the beauty of the mountain village.
“It doesn’t make you . . . uneasy?” Jenny asked.
“What?”
“The silence.”
“Oh, I love it. It’s so peaceful.”
It was peaceful. There was no sign of trouble.
So why am I so damned jumpy? Jenny wondered.
She opened the trunk of the car and lifted out one of Lisa’s suitcases, then another.
Lisa took the second suitcase and reached into the trunk for a book bag.
“Don’t overload yourself,” Jenny said. “We’ve got to make a couple of more trips, anyway.”
They crossed the lawn to a stone walkway and followed that to the front porch where, in response to the amber-purple sunset, shadows were rising and opening petals as if they were night-blooming flowers.
Jenny opened the front door, and stepped into the dark foyer. “Hilda, we’re home!”
There was no answer.
The only light in the house was at the far end of the hall, beyond the open kitchen door.
Jenny put down the suitcase and switched on the hall light. “Hilda?”
“Who’s Hilda?” Lisa asked, dropping her suitcase and the book bag.
“My housekeeper. She knew what time we expected to arrive. I thought she’d be starting dinner about now.”
“Wow, a housekeeper! You mean, a live-in?”
“She has the apartment above the garage,” Jenny said, putting her purse and car keys on the small foyer table that stood beneath a large, brass-framed mirror.
Lisa was impressed. “Hey, are you rich or something?”
Jenny laughed. “Hardly. I can’t really afford Hilda—but I can’t afford to be without her, either.”
Wondering why the kitchen light was on if Hilda wasn’t here, Jenny headed down the hall, with Lisa following close behind.
“What with keeping regular office hours and making emergency house calls to three other towns in these mountains, I’d never eat more than cheese sandwiches and doughnuts if it wasn’t for Hilda.”
“Is she a good cook?” Lisa asked.
“Marvelous.
Too
good when it comes to desserts.”
The kitchen was a large, high-ceilinged room. Pots, pans, ladles, and other utensils hung from a gleaming, stainless-steel utility rack above a central cooking island with four electric burners, a grill, and a work area. The countertops were ceramic tile, and the cabinets were dark oak. On the far side of the room were double sinks, double ovens, a microwave oven, and the refrigerator.
Jenny turned left as soon as she stepped through the door, and she went to the built-in secretary where Hilda planned menus and composed shopping lists. It was there she would have left a note. But there was no note, and Jenny was turning away from the small desk when she heard Lisa gasp.
The girl had walked around to the far side of the central cooking island. She was standing by the refrigerator, staring down at something on the floor in front of the sinks. Her face was flour-white, and she was trembling.
Filled with sudden dread, Jenny stepped quickly around the island.
Hilda Beck was lying on the floor, on her back, dead. She stared at the ceiling with sightless eyes, and her discolored tongue thrust stiffly between swollen lips.
Lisa looked up from the dead woman, stared at Jenny, tried to speak, could not make a sound.
Jenny took her sister by the arm and led her around the island to the other side of the kitchen, where she couldn’t see the corpse. She hugged Lisa.
The girl hugged back. Tightly. Fiercely.
BOOK: Phantoms
13.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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