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Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

Phantoms (7 page)

BOOK: Phantoms
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Each one contained a severed head.
Jesus.
Ghastly, dead faces gazed out into the room, noses pressed to the inside of the oven glass.
Jakob Liebermann. White hair spattered with blood. One eye half shut, the other glaring. Lips pressed together in a grimace of pain.
Aida Liebermann. Both eyes open. Mouth gaping as if her jaws had come unhinged.
For a moment Jenny couldn’t believe the heads were real. Too much. Too shocking. She thought of expensive, lifelike Halloween masks peering out of the cellophane windows in costume boxes, and she thought of the grisly novelties sold in joke shops—those wax heads with nylon hair and glass eyes, those gruesome things that young boys sometimes found wildly amusing (and surely that’s what
these
were)—and, crazily, she thought of a line from a TV commercial for cake mixes—
Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven!
Her heart thudded.
She was feverish, dizzy.
On the butcher’s-block counter, the severed hands were still poised on the rolling pin. She half-expected them to skitter suddenly across the counter as if they were two crabs.
Where were the Liebermanns’ decapitated bodies? Stuffed in the big oven, behind steel doors that had no windows? Lying stiff and frosted in the walk-in refrigerator?
Bitterness rose in her throat, but she choked it back.
The pistol now seemed an ineffectual defense against this incredibly violent, unknown enemy.
Again, Jenny had the feeling of being watched, and the drumbeat of her heart was no longer snare but timpani.
She turned to Lisa. “Let’s get out of here.”
The girl headed for the storeroom door.
“Not that way!” Jenny said sharply.
Lisa turned, blinking, confused.
“Not the alley,” Jenny said. “And not that dark passage again.”
“God, no,” Lisa agreed.
They hurried across the kitchen and through the other door, into the sales room. Past the empty pastry cases. Past the cafe tables and chairs.
Jenny had some trouble with the deadbolt lock on the front door. It was stiff. She thought they might have to leave by way of the alley, after all. Then she realized she was trying to turn the thumb-latch the wrong way. Twisted the proper direction, the bolt slipped back with a
clack,
and Jenny yanked the door open.
They rushed out into the cool, night air.
Lisa crossed the sidewalk to a tall pine tree. She seemed to need to lean against something.
Jenny joined her sister, glancing back apprehensively at the bakery. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see two decapitated bodies shambling toward her with demonic intent. But nothing moved back there except the scalloped edge of the blue-and-white-striped awning, which undulated in the inconstant breeze.
The night remained silent.
The moon had risen somewhat higher in the sky since Jenny and Lisa had entered the covered passageway.
After a while the girl said, “Radiation, disease, poison, toxic gas—boy, we sure were on the wrong track. Only other people, sick people, do that kind of weird stuff. Right? Some weird psycho did all of this.”
Jenny shook her head. “One man can’t have done it all. To overwhelm a town of nearly five hundred people, it would take an
army
of psychopathic killers.”
“Then that’s what it was,” Lisa said, shivering.
Jenny looked nervously up and down the deserted street. It seemed imprudent, even reckless, to be standing here, in plain sight, but she couldn’t think of anywhere else that would be safer.
She said, “Psychopaths don’t join clubs and plan mass murders as if they were Rotarians planning a charity dance. They almost always act alone.”
Flicking her eyes from shadow to shadow as if she expected one of them to have substance and malevolent intentions, Lisa said, “What about the Charles Manson commune, back in the sixties, those people who killed the movie star—what was her name?”
“Sharon Tate.”
“Yeah. Couldn’t this be a group of nuts like that?”
“At most, there were half a dozen people in the core of the Manson family, and that was a
very
rare deviation from the lone-wolf pattern. Anyway, half a dozen couldn’t do this to Snowfield. It would take fifty, a hundred, maybe more. That many psychopaths just couldn’t act together.”
They were both silent for a while. Then Jenny said, “There’s another thing that doesn’t figure. Why wasn’t there more blood in the kitchen?”
“There was some.”
“Hardly any. Just a few smears on the counter. There should’ve been blood all over the place.”
Lisa rubbed her hands briskly up and down her arms, trying to generate some heat. Her face was waxen in the yellowish glow of the nearest streetlamp. She seemed years older than fourteen. Terror had matured her.
The girl said, “No signs of a struggle, either.”
Jenny frowned. “That’s right; there weren’t.”
“I noticed it right away,” Lisa said. “It seemed so odd. They don’t seem to’ve fought back. Nothing thrown. Nothing broken. The rolling pin would’ve made a pretty good weapon, wouldn’t it? But he didn’t use it. Nothing was knocked over, either.”
“It’s as if they didn’t resist at all. As if they. . . willingly put their heads on the chopping block.”
“But why would they do that?”
Why
would
they do that?
Jenny stared up Skyline Road toward her house, which was less than three blocks away, then looked down toward Ye Olde Towne Tavern, Big Nickle Variety Shop, Patterson’s Ice Cream Parlor, and Mario’s Pizza.
There are silences and silences. No one of them is quite like another. There is the silence of death, found in tombs and deserted graveyards and in the cold-storage room in a city morgue and in hospital rooms on occasion; it is a flawless silence, not merely a hush but a void. As a physician who had treated her share of terminally ill patients, Jenny was familiar with that special, grim silence.
This was it. This was the silence of death.
She hadn’t wanted to admit it. That was why she had not yet shouted “hello” into the funereal streets. She had been afraid no one would answer.
Now she didn’t shout because she was afraid someone
would
answer. Someone or something. Someone or something dangerous.
At last she had no choice but to accept the facts. Snowfield was indisputably dead. It wasn’t really a town any more; it was a cemetery, an elaborate collection of stone-timber-shingle-brick-gabled-balconied tombs, a graveyard fashioned in the image of a quaint alpine village.
The wind picked up again, whistling under the eaves of the buildings. It sounded like eternity.
7
The County Sheriff
The county authorities, headquartered in Santa Mira, were not yet aware of the Snowfield crisis. They had their own problems.
Lieutenant Talbert Whitman entered the interrogation room just as Sheriff Bryce Hammond switched on the tape recorder and started informing the suspect of his constitutional rights Tal closed the door without making a sound. Not wanting to interrupt just as the questioning was about to get underway, he didn’t take a chair at the big table, where the other three men were seated. Instead, he went to the big window, the only window, in the oblong room.
The Santa Mira County Sheriff’s Department occupied a Spanish-style structure that had been erected in the late 1930s. The doors were all solid and solid-sounding when you closed them, and the walls were thick enough to provide eighteen-inch-deep windowsills like the one on which Tal Whitman settled himself.
Beyond the window lay Santa Mira, the county seat, with a population of eighteen thousand. In the mornings, when the sun at last topped the Sierras and burned away the mountain shadows, Tal sometimes found himself looking around in amazement and delight at the gentle, forested foothills on which Santa Mira rose, for it was an exceptionally neat, clean city that had put down its concrete and iron roots with some respect for the natural beauty in which it had grown. Now night was settled in. Thousands of lights sparkled on the rolling hills below the mountains, and it looked as if the stars had fallen here.
For a child of Harlem, black as a sharp-edged winter shadow, born in poverty and ignorance, Tal Whitman had wound up, at the age of thirty, in a most unexpected place. Unexpected but wonderful.
On
this
side of the window, however, the scene was not so special. The interrogation room resembled countless others in police precinct houses and sheriffs’ stations all over the country. A cheap linoleum-tile floor. Battered filing cabinets. A round conference table and five chairs. Institutional-green walls. Bare fluorescent bulbs.
At the conference table in the center of the room, the current occupant of the suspect’s chair was a tall, good-looking, twenty-six-year-old real estate agent named Fletcher Kale. He was working himself into an impressive state of righteous indignation.
“Listen, Sheriff,” Kale said, “can we just cut this crap? You don’t have to read me my rights
again,
for Christ’s sake. Haven’t we been through this a dozen times in the past three days?”
Bob Robine, Kale’s attorney, quickly patted his client’s arm to make him be quiet. Robine was pudgy, round-faced, with a sweet smile but with the hard eyes of a casino pit boss.
“Fletch,” Robine said, “Sheriff Hammond knows he’s held you on suspicion just about as long as the law allows, and he knows that
I
know it, too. So what he’s going to do—he’s going to settle this one way or the other within the next hour.”
Kale blinked, nodded, and changed his tactics. He slumped in his chair as if a great weight of grief lay on his shoulders. When he spoke, there was a faint tremor in his voice. “I’m sorry if I sort of lost my head there for a minute, Sheriff. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. But it’s so hard. . . so very, very hard for me.” His face appeared to cave in, and the tremor in his voice became more pronounced. “I mean, for God’s sake, I’ve lost my family. My wife . . . my son . . . both gone.”
Bryce Hammond said, “I’m sorry if you think I’ve treated you unfairly, Mr. Kale. I only try to do what I think is best. Sometimes, I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong this time.”
Apparently deciding that he wasn’t in too much trouble after all, and that he could afford to be magnanimous now, Fletcher Kale dabbed at the tears on his face, sat up straighter in his chair, and said, “Yeah . . . well, uh . . . I guess I can see your position, Sheriff.”
Kale was underestimating Bryce Hammond.
Bob Robine knew the sheriff better than his client did. He frowned, glanced at Tal, then stared hard at Bryce.
In Tal Whitman’s experience, most people who dealt with the sheriff underestimated him, just as Fletcher Kale had done. It was an easy thing to do. Bryce didn’t look impressive. He was thirty-nine, but he seemed a lot younger than that. His thick sandy hair fell across his forehead, giving him a mussed, boyish appearance. He had a pug nose with a spatter of freckles across the bridge and across both cheeks. His blue eyes were clear and sharp, but they were hooded with heavy lids that made him seem bored, sleepy, maybe even a little bit dullwitted. His voice was misleading, too. It was soft, melodic, gentle. Furthermore, he spoke slowly at times, and always with measured deliberation, and some people took his careful speech to mean that he had difficulty forming his thoughts. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Bryce Hammond was acutely aware of how others perceived him, and when it was to his advantage, he reinforced their misconceptions with an ingratiating manner, with an almost witless smile, and with a further softening of speech that made him seem like the classic hayseed cop.
Only one thing kept Tal from fully enjoying this confrontation: He knew the Kale investigation had affected Bryce Hammond on a deep, personal level. Bryce was hurting, sick at heart about the pointless deaths of Joanna and Danny Kale, because in a curious way this case echoed events in his own life. Like Fletcher Kale, the sheriff had lost a wife and a son, although the circumstances of his loss were considerably different from Kale’s.
A year ago, Ellen Hammond had died instantly in a car crash. Seven-year-old Timmy, sitting on the front seat beside his mother, had suffered serious head injuries and had been in a coma for the past twelve months. The doctors didn’t give Timmy much chance of regaining consciousness.
Bryce had nearly been destroyed by the tragedy. Only recently had Tal Whitman begun to feel that his friend was moving away from the abyss of despair.
The Kale case had opened Bryce Hammond’s wounds again, but he hadn’t allowed grief to dull his senses; it hadn’t caused him to overlook anything. Tal Whitman had known the precise moment, last Thursday evening, when Bryce had begun to suspect that Fletcher Kale was guilty of two premeditated murders, for suddenly something cold and implacable had come into Bryce’s heavy-lidded eyes.
Now, doodling on a yellow note pad as if only half his mind was on the interrogation, the sheriff said, “Mr. Kale, rather than ask you a lot of questions that you’ve already answered a dozen times, why don’t I summarize what you’ve told us? If my summary sounds pretty much right to you, then we can get on with these new items I’d like to ask you about.”
“Sure. Let’s get it over with and get out of here,” Kale said.
“Okay then,” Bryce said. “Mr. Kale, according to your testimony, your wife, Joanna, felt she was trapped by marriage and motherhood, that she was too young to have so much responsibility. She felt she had made a terrible mistake and was going to have to pay for it for the rest of her life. She wanted some kicks, a way to escape, so she turned to dope. Would you say that’s how you’ve described her state of mind?”
“Yes,” Kale said. “Exactly.”
“Good,” Bryce said. “So she started smoking pot. Before long, she was stoned almost continuously. For two and a half years, you lived with a pothead, all the while hoping you could change her. Then a week ago she went berserk, broke a lot of dishes and threw some food around the kitchen, and you had hell’s own time calming her down. That was when you discovered she’d recently begun using PCP—what’s sometimes called ‘angel dust’ on the street. You were shocked. You knew that some people became maniacally violent while under the influence of PCP, so you made her show you where she kept her stash, and you destroyed it. Then you told her that if she ever used drugs around little Danny again, you’d beat her within an inch of her life.”
BOOK: Phantoms
8.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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