“The sheriff’s office can’t be far in a town this small,” Lisa said.
“A couple of blocks.”
“Why don’t we walk there?”
Jenny had intended to search the rest of the house, in case the Santinis were lying sick or injured somewhere. Now she wondered if someone
been on the telephone line with her, listening on an extension phone in another part of the house. That possibility changed everything. She didn’t take her medical vows lightly; actually, she enjoyed the special responsibilities that came with her job, for she was the kind of person who needed to have her judgment, wits, and stamina put to the test on a regular basis; she thrived on challenge. But right now, her first responsibility was to Lisa and to herself. Perhaps the wisest thing to do was to get the deputy, Paul Henderson, return here with him, and
search the rest of the house.
Although she wanted to believe it was only her imagination, she still sensed inquisitive eyes; someone watching . . . waiting.
“Let’s go,” she said to Lisa. “Come on.”
Clearly relieved, the girl hurried ahead, leading the way through the dining room and living room to the front door.
Outside, night had fallen. The air was cooler than it had been at dusk, and soon it would get downright cold—forty-five or forty degrees, maybe even a bit colder—a reminder that autumn’s tenancy in the Sierras was always brief and that winter was eager to move in and take up residency.
Along Skyline Road, the streetlamps had come on automatically with the night’s descent. In several store windows, after-hours lights also had come on, activated by light-sensing diodes that had responded to the darkening world outside.
On the sidewalk in front of the Santinis’ house, Jenny and Lisa stopped, struck by the sight below them.
Shelving down the mountainside, its peaked and gabled roofs thrusting into the night sky, the town was even more beautiful now than it had been at twilight. A few chimneys issued ghostly plumes of wood smoke. Some windows glowed with light from within, but most, like dark mirrors, cast back the beams of the streetlamps. The mild wind made the trees sway gently, in a lullaby rhythm, and the resultant susurration was like the soft sighs and dreamy murmurs of a thousand peacefully slumbering children.
However, it wasn’t just the beauty that was arresting. The perfect stillness, the silence—
was what made Jenny pause. On their arrival, she had found it strange. Now she found it ominous.
“The sheriff’s substation is on the main street,” she told Lisa. “Just two and a half blocks from here.”
They hurried into the unbeating heart of the town.
A single fluorescent lamp shone in the gloom of the town jail, but the flexible neck of it was bent sharply, focusing the light on the top of a desk, revealing little else of the big main room. An open magazine lay on the desk blotter, directly in the bar of hard, white light. Otherwise, the place was dark except for the pale luminescence that filtered through the mullioned windows from the streetlights.
Jenny opened the door and stepped inside, and Lisa followed close behind her.
“Hello? Paul? Are you here?”
She located a wall switch, snapped on the overhead lights—and physically recoiled when she saw what was on the floor in front of her.
Paul Henderson. Dark, bruised flesh. Swollen. Dead.
“Oh, Jesus!” Lisa said, quickly turning away. She stumbled to the open door, leaned against the jamb, and sucked in great shuddering breaths of the cool night air.
With considerable effort, Jenny quelled the primal fear that began to rise within her, and she went to Lisa. Putting a hand on the girl’s slender shoulder, she said, “Are you okay? Are you going to be sick?”
Lisa seemed to be trying hard not to gag. Finally she shook her head. “No. I w-won’t be sick. I’ll be all right. L-let’s get out of here.”
“In a minute,” Jenny said. “First I want to take a look at the body.”
to look at that.”
“You’re right. I don’t want to, but maybe I can get some idea what we’re up against. You can wait here in the doorway.”
The girl sighed with resignation.
Jenny went to the corpse that was sprawled on the floor, knelt beside it.
Paul Henderson was in the same condition as Hilda Beck. Every visible inch of the deputy’s flesh was bruised. The body was swollen: a puffy, distorted face; the neck almost as large as the head; fingers that resembled knotted links of sausage; a distended abdomen. Yet Jenny couldn’t detect even the vaguest odor of decomposition.
Unseeing eyes bulged from the mottled, storm-colored face. Those eyes, together with the gaping and twisted mouth, conveyed an unmistakable emotion:
Like Hilda, Paul Henderson appeared to have died suddenly—and in the powerful, icy grip of terror.
Jenny hadn’t been a close friend of the dead man’s. She had known him, of course, because everyone knew everyone else in a town as small as Snowfield. He had seemed pleasant enough, a good law officer. She felt wretched about what had happened to him. As she stared at his contorted face, a rope of nausea tied itself into a knot of dull pain in her stomach, and she had to look away.
The deputy’s sidearm wasn’t in his holster. It was on the floor, near the body. A 9mm pistol.
She stared at the gun, considering the implications. Perhaps it had slipped out of the leather holster as the deputy had fallen to the floor. Perhaps. But she doubted it. The most obvious conclusion was that Henderson had drawn the pistol to defend himself against an attacker.
If that were the case, then he hadn’t been felled by a poison or a disease.
Jenny glanced behind her. Lisa was still standing at the open door, leaning against the jamb, staring out at Skyline Road.
Getting off her knees, turning away from the corpse, Jenny crouched over the weapon for long seconds, studying it, trying to decide whether or not to touch it. She was not as worried about contagion as she had been immediately after finding Mrs. Beck’s body. This was looking less and less like a case of some bizarre plague. Besides, if an exotic disease
stalking Snowfield, it was frighteningly virulent, and Jenny almost surely was contaminated by now. She had nothing to lose by picking up the pistol and studying it more closely. What most concerned her was that she might obliterate incriminating fingerprints or other important evidence.
But even if Henderson
been murdered, it wasn’t likely that his killer had used the victim’s own gun, conveniently leaving fingerprints on it. Furthermore, Paul didn’t appear to have been shot; on the contrary, if any shooting had been done, he was probably the one who had pulled the trigger.
She picked up the gun and examined it. The magazine had a ten-round capacity, but three rounds were missing. The sharp odor of burnt gunpowder told her that the weapon had been fired recently; sometime today; maybe even within the past hour.
Carrying the pistol, scanning the blue tile floor, she rose and walked to one end of the reception area, then to the other end. Her eye caught a glint of brass, another, then another: three expended cartridges.
None of the shots had been fired downward, into the floor. The highly polished blue tiles were unmarred.
Jenny pushed through the swinging gate in the wooden railing, moving into the area that TV cops always called the “bull pen.” She walked down an aisle between facing pairs of desks, filing cabinets, and work tables. In the center of the room, she stopped and let her gaze travel slowly over the pale green walls and the white acoustic-tile ceiling, looking for bullet holes. She couldn’t find any.
That surprised her. If the gun hadn’t been discharged into the floor, and if it hadn’t been aimed at the front windows—which it hadn’t; no broken glass—then it had to have been fired with the muzzle pointing into the room, waist-high or higher. So where had the slugs gone? She couldn’t see any ruined furniture, no splintered wood or torn sheet-metal or shattered plastic, although she knew that a 9mm bullet would do considerable damage at the point of impact.
If the expended rounds weren’t in this room, there was only one other place they could be: in the man or men at whom Paul Henderson had taken aim.
But if the deputy had wounded an assailant—or two or three assailants—with three shots from a police handgun, three shots so squarely placed in the assailant’s body trunk that the bullets had been stopped and had not passed through, then there would have been blood everywhere. But there wasn’t a drop.
Baffled, she turned to the desk where the gooseneck fluorescent lamp cast light on an open issue of
A brass nameplate read SERGEANT PAUL J. HENDERSON. This was where he had been sitting, passing an apparently dull afternoon, when whatever happened had . . . happened.
Already sure of what she would hear, Jenny lifted the receiver from, the telephone that stood on Henderson’s desk. No dial tone. Just the electronic, insect-wing hiss of an open line.
As before, when she had attempted to use the telephone in the Santinis’ kitchen, she had the feeling that she wasn’t the only one on the line.
She put down the receiver—too abruptly, too hard.
Her hands were trembling.
Along the back wall of the room were two bulletin boards, a photocopier, a locked gun cabinet, a police radio, a fax machine, and a computer workstation. The fax seemed to be broken. She couldn’t make the radio come to life; although the power switch was in the
position, the indicator lamp would not light, and the microphone remained dead. The computer, with its modem, offered a communications link with the outside world—but it was not working, either.
Heading back to the reception area at the front of the room, Jenny saw that Lisa was no longer standing in the doorway, and for an instant her heart froze. Then she saw the girl hunkered down beside Paul Henderson’s body, peering intently at it.
Lisa looked up as Jenny came through the gate in the railing. Indicating the badly swollen corpse, the girl said, “I didn’t realize skin could stretch as much as this without splitting.” Her pose—scientific inquisitiveness, detachment, studied indifference to the horror of the scene—was as transparent as a window. Her darting eyes betrayed her. Pretending she didn’t find it stressful, Lisa looked away from the deputy and stood up.
“Honey, why didn’t you stay by the door?”
“I was disgusted with myself for being such a coward.”
“Listen, Sis, I told you—”
“I mean, I’m afraid something’s going to happen to us, something bad, right here in Snowfield, tonight, any minute maybe, something really awful. But I’m not ashamed of
fear because it’s only common sense to be afraid after what we’ve seen. But I was even afraid of the deputy’s body, and that was just plain childish.”
When Lisa paused, Jenny said nothing. The girl had more to say, and she needed to get it off her mind.
“He’s dead. He can’t hurt me. There’s no reason to be so scared of him. It’s wrong to give in to irrational fears. It’s wrong and weak and stupid. A person should face up to fears like that,” Lisa insisted. “Facing up to them is the only way to get over them. Right? So I decided to face up to
With a tilt of her head, she indicated the dead man at her feet.
There’s such anguish in her eyes, Jenny thought.
It wasn’t merely the situation in Snowfield that was weighing heavily on the girl. It was the memory of finding her mother dead of a stroke on a hot, clear afternoon in July. Suddenly, because of all of
was coming back to her, coming back hard.
“I’m okay now,” Lisa said. “I’m still afraid of what might happen to us, but I’m not afraid of
She glanced down at the corpse to prove her point, then looked up and met Jenny’s eyes. “See? You can count on me now. I won’t flake out on you again.”
For the first time, Jenny realized that she was Lisa’s role model. With her eyes and face and voice and hands, Lisa revealed, in countless subtle ways, a respect and an admiration for Jenny that was far greater than Jenny had imagined. Without resorting to words, the girl was saying something that deeply moved Jenny:
I love you, but even more than that, I
you; I’m proud of you; I think you’re terrific, and if you’re patient with me, I’ll make you proud and happy to have me for a kid sister.
The realization that she occupied such a lofty position in Lisa’s personal pantheon was a surprise to Jenny. Because of the difference in their ages and because Jenny had been away from home almost constantly since Lisa was two, she had thought that she was virtually a stranger to the girl. She was both flattered and humbled by this new insight into their relationship.
“I know I can count on you,” she assured the girl. “I never thought I couldn’t.”
Lisa smiled self-consciously.
Jenny hugged her.
For a moment, Lisa clung to her fiercely, and when they pulled apart, she said, “So . . . did you find any clue to what happened here?”
“Nothing that makes sense.”
“The phone doesn’t work, huh?”
“No. Not even the cell phone.”
“So they’re out of order all over town.”
They walked to the door and stepped outside, onto the cobblestone sidewalk.
Surveying the hushed street, Lisa said, “Everyone’s dead.”
“We can’t be sure.”
“Everyone,” the girl insisted softly, bleakly. “The whole town. All of them. You can
“The Santinis were missing, not dead,” Jenny reminded her.
A three-quarter moon had risen above the mountains while she and Lisa had been in the sheriff’s substation. In those nightclad places where the streetlamps and shop lights did not reach, the silvery light of the moon limned the edges of shadowed forms. But the moonglow revealed nothing. Instead, it fell like a veil, clinging to some objects more than to others, providing only vague hints of their shapes, and, like all veils, somehow managing to make all things beneath it more mysterious and obscure than they would have been in total darkness.