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Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

Phantoms (35 page)

BOOK: Phantoms
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Sara Yamaguchi was a geneticist who had spent eleven years in recombinant DNA research. If it developed that Snowfield had been stricken by a man-made microorganism, Sara’s work would become central to the investigation. She would direct the study of the microbe’s morphology, and when that was completed, she would have a major role in attempting to determine the function of the bug.
Like Dr. Valdez, Sara Yamaguchi had begun to wonder if Isley and Arkham might become more essential to the investigation than she had thought. This morning, their area of expertise had seemed as exotic as voodoo. But now, in light of what had taken place since the team’s arrival in Snowfield, she was forced to admit that lsley’s and Arkham’s specialty seemed increasingly pertinent.
And like Dr. Valdez, she was worried.
 
 
Dr. Wilson Bettenby, chief of the civilian scientific arm of the CBW Civilian Defense Unit’s West Coast team, sat at a computer terminal, two seats away from Dr. Valdez.
Bettenby was running an automated analysis program on several water samples. The samples were inserted into a processor that distilled the water, stored the distillate, and subjected the filtered-out substances to spectrographic analysis and other tests. Bettenby was not searching for microorganisms; that would require different procedures than these. This machine only identified and quantified all mineral and chemical elements present in the water; the data was displayed on the cathode ray tube.
All but one of the water samples had been taken from taps in the kitchens and bathrooms of houses and businesses along Vail Lane. They proved to be free of dangerous chemical impurities.
The other water sample was the one that Deputy Autry had collected from the kitchen floor of the apartment on Vail Lane, sometime last night. According to Sheriff Hammond, puddles of water and saturated carpets had been discovered in several buildings. By this morning, however, the water had pretty much evaporated, except for a couple of damp carpets from which Bettenby wouldn’t have been able to obtain a clean sample. He put the deputy’s sample into the processor.
In a few minutes, the computer flashed up the complete chemical-mineral analysis of the water and of the residue that remained after all of the liquid in the sample had been distilled:
The computer went on at considerably greater length, flashing up the findings for every substance that might ordinarily be detected. The results were the same. In its undistilled state, the water contained absolutely no traces of any elements other than its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. And complete distillation and filtration had left behind no residue whatsoever, not even any trace elements. Autry’s sample couldn’t have come from the town’s water supply, for it was neither chlorinated nor fluoridated. It wasn’t bottled water, either. Bottled water would have had a normal mineral content. Perhaps there was a filtration system underneath the kitchen sink in that apartment—a Culligan unit—but even if there was, the water that passed through it would still possess more mineral content than this. What Autry had collected was the purest laboratory grade of distilled and multiply filtered water.
So . . . what was it doing all over that kitchen floor?
Bettenby stared at the computer screen, frowning.
Was the small lake at Brookhart’s liquor store also composed of this ultrapure water?
Why would anyone go around town emptying out gallons and gallons of distilled water?
And where would they find it in such quantity to begin with?
Strange.
 
 
Jenny, Bryce, and Lisa were at a table in one corner of the dining room at the Hilltop Inn.
Major Isley and Captain Arkham, who wore the decontamination suits that had no names on the helmets, were sitting on two stools, across the table. They had brought the news about Corporal Velazquez. They had also brought a tape recorder, which was now in the center of the table.
“I still don’t see why this can’t wait,” Bryce said.
“We won’t take long,” Major Isley said.
“I’ve got a search team ready to go,” Bryce said. “We’ve got to go through every building in this town, take a body count, find out how many are dead and how many are missing, and look for some clue as to what the hell killed all these people. There’s several days of work ahead of us, especially since we can’t continue with the search past sundown. I won’t let my men go prowling around at night, when the power might go off at any second. Damned if I will.”
Jenny thought of Wargle’s eaten face. The hollow eye sockets.
Major Isley said, “Just a few questions.”
Arkham switched on the tape recorder.
Lisa was staring hard at the major and at the captain.
Jenny wondered what was on the girl’s mind.
“We’ll start with you, Sheriff,” Major Isley said. “In the forty-eight hours prior to these events, did your office receive any reports of power failures or telephone service interruptions?”
“If there were problems of that nature,” Bryce said, “people would generally call the utility companies, not the sheriff.”
“Yes, but wouldn’t the utilities notify you? Aren’t power and telephone outages contributory to criminal activity?”
Bryce nodded. “Of course. And to the best of my knowledge, we didn’t receive any such alerts.”
Captain Arkham leaned forward. “What about difficulties with television and radio reception in this area?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Bryce said.
“Any reports of unexplainable explosions?”
“Explosions?”
“Yes,” Isley said. “Explosions or sonic booms or any unusually loud and untraceable noises.”
“No. Nothing like that.”
Jenny wondered what in the devil they were driving at.
Isley hesitated and said, “Any reports of unusual aircraft in the vicinity?”
“No.”
Lisa said, “You guys aren’t part of General Copperfield’s team, are you? That’s why you don’t have names on your helmets.”
Bryce said, “And your decontamination suits don’t fit as well as everyone else’s. Theirs are custom tailored. Yours are strictly off the rack.”
“Very observant,” Isley said.
“If you aren’t with the CBW project,” Jenny said, “what
are
you doing here?”
“We didn’t want to bring it up at the start,” Isley said. “We thought we might get straighter answers from you if you weren’t immediately aware of what we were looking for.”
Arkham said, “We’re not Army Medical Corps. We’re Air Force.”
“Project Skywatch,” Isley said. “We’re not exactly a secret organization, but . . . well . . . let’s just say we discourage publicity.”
“Skywatch?” Lisa said, brightening. “Are you talking about UFOs? Is that it? Flying saucers?”
Jenny saw Isley wince at the words “flying saucers.”
Isley said, “We don’t go around checking out every crackpot report of little green men from Mars. For one thing, we don’t have the funds to do that. Our job is planning for the scientific, social, and military aspects of mankind’s first encounter with an alien intelligence. We’re really more of a think tank than anything else.”
Bryce shook his head. “No one around here’s been reporting flying saucers.”
“But that’s just what Major Isley means,” Arkham said. “You see, our studies indicate the first encounter might start out in such a bizarre way that we wouldn’t even recognize it as a first encounter. The popular concept of spaceships descending from the sky . . . well, it might not be like that. If we find ourselves dealing with
truly
alien intelligences, their ships might be so different from our concept of a ship that we wouldn’t even be aware they’d landed.”
“Which is why we check into strange phenomena that don’t seem to be UFO related at first glance,” Arkham said. “Like last spring, up in Vermont, there was a house in which an extremely active poltergeist was at work. Furniture was levitated. Dishes flew across the kitchen and smashed against the wall. Streams of water burst from walls in which there were no water pipes. Balls of flame erupted out of empty air—”
“Isn’t a poltergeist supposed to be a ghost?” Bryce asked. “What could ghosts have to do with your area of interest?”
“Nothing,” Isley said. “We don’t believe in ghosts. But we wondered if perhaps poltergeist phenomena might result from an attempt at interspecies communication gone awry. If we were to encounter an alien race that communicated only by telepathy, and if we were unable to receive those telepathic thoughts, maybe the unreceived psychic energy would produce destructive phenomena of the sort sometimes attributed to malign spirits.”
“And what did you finally decide about the poltergeist up there in Vermont?” Jenny asked.
“Decide? Nothing,” Isley said.
“Just that it was . . . interesting,” Arkham said.
Jenny glanced at Lisa and saw that the girl’s eyes were very wide.
This
was something Lisa could grasp, accept, and cling to. This was a fear she had been thoroughly prepared for, thanks to movies and books and television. Monsters from outer space. Invaders from other worlds. It didn’t make the Snowfield killings any less gruesome. But it was a
known
threat, and that made it infinitely preferable to the unknown. Jenny strongly doubted this was mankind’s first encounter with creatures from the stars, but Lisa seemed eager to believe.
“And what about Snowfield?” the girl asked. “Is that what’s going on? Has something landed from . . .
out
there?”
Arkham looked uneasily at Major Isley.
Isley cleared his throat: As translated by the squawk box on his chest, it was a racheting, machinelike sound. “It’s much too soon to make any judgment about that. We
do
believe there’s a small chance the first contact between man and alien might involve the danger of biological contamination. That’s why we’ve got an information-sharing arrangement with Copperfield’s project. An inexplicable outbreak of an unknown disease might indicate an unrecognized contact with an extraterrestrial presence.”
“But if it is an extraterrestrial creature we’re dealing with,” Bryce said, obviously doubtful, “it seems damned savage for a being of ‘superior’ intelligence.”
“The same thought occurred to me,” Jenny said.
Isley raised his eyebrows. “There’s no guarantee that a creature with greater intelligence would be pacifistic and benevolent.”
“Yeah,” Arkham said. “That’s a common conceit: the notion that aliens would’ve learned how to live in complete harmony among themselves and with other species. As that old song says . . . it ain’t necessarily so. After all, mankind is considerably further along the road of evolution than gorillas are, but as a species we’re definitely more warlike than gorillas at their most aggressive.”
“Maybe one day we
will
encounter a benevolent alien race that’ll teach us how to live in peace,” Isley said. “Maybe they’ll give us the knowledge and technology to solve all our earthly problems and even to reach the stars. Maybe.”
“But we can’t rule out the alternative,” Arkham said grimly.
26
London, England
Eleven o’clock Monday morning in Snowfield was seven o’clock Monday evening in London.
A miserably wet day had flowed into a miserably wet night. Raindrops drummed on the window in the cubbyhole kitchen of Timothy Flyte’s two-room, attic apartment.
The professor was standing in front of a cutting board, making a sandwich.
After partaking of that magnificent champagne breakfast at Burt Sandler’s expense, Timothy hadn’t felt up to lunch. He had forgone afternoon tea, as well.
He’d met with two students today. He was tutoring one of them in hieroglyphics analysis and the other in Latin. Surfeited with breakfast, he had nearly fallen asleep during both sessions. Embarrassing. But, as little as his pupils were paying him, they could hardly complain too strenuously if, just once, he dozed off in the middle of a lesson.
As he put a thin slice of boiled ham and a slice of Swiss cheese on mustard-slathered bread, he heard the telephone ringing down in the front hall of the rooming house. He didn’t think it was for him. He received few calls.
But seconds later, there was a knock at the door. It was the young Indian fellow who rented a room on the first floor. In heavily accented English, he told Timothy the call was for him. And urgent.
“Urgent? Who is it?” Timothy asked as he followed the young man down the stairs. “Did he give his name?”
“Sand-leer,” the Indian said.
Sandler? Burt Sandler?
Over breakfast, they had agreed on terms for a new edition of
The Ancient Enemy
, one that was completely rewritten to appeal to the average reader. Following the original publication of the book, almost seventeen years ago, he had received several offers to popularize his theories about historical mass disappearances, but he had resisted the idea; he had felt that the issuance of a popularized version of
The Ancient Enemy
would be playing into the hands of all those who had so unfairly accused him of sensationalism, humbug, and money grubbing. Now, however, years of want had made him more amenable to the idea. Sandler’s appearance on the scene and his offer of a contract had come at a time when Timothy’s ever-worsening poverty had reached a critical stage; it was truly a miracle. This morning, they had settled on an advance (against royalties) of fifty thousand dollars. At the current rate of exchange, that amounted to a little more than thirty thousand pounds sterling. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was more money than Timothy had seen in a long, long time, and at the moment it seemed like wealth beyond counting.
BOOK: Phantoms
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