Kale cleared his throat. “But she just laughed at me. She said I wasn’t a woman-beater and I shouldn’t pretend to be Mr. Macho. She said, ‛Hell, Fletch, if I kicked you in the balls, you’d thank me for livening up your day.’ ”
“And that was when you broke down and cried?” Bryce asked.
Kale said, “I just . . . well, I realized I didn’t have any influence with her.”
From his window seat, Tal Whitman watched Kale’s face twist with grief—or with a reasonable facsimile. The bastard was
“And when she saw you cry,” Bryce said, “that sort of brought her to her senses.”
“Right,” Kale said. “I guess it. . . affected her. . . a big ox like me bawling like a baby. She cried, too, and she promised not to take any more PCP. We talked about the past, about what we had expected from marriage, said a lot of things maybe we should have said before, and we felt closer than we had in a couple of years. At least
felt closer. I thought she did, too. She swore she’d start cutting down on the pot.”
Still doodling, Bryce said, “Then last Thursday you came home early from work and found your little boy, Danny, dead in the master bedroom. You heard something behind you. It was Joanna, holding a meat cleaver, the one she’d used to kill Danny.”
“She was stoned,” Kale said. “PCP. I could see it right away. That wildness in her eyes, that animal look.”
“She screamed at you, a lot of irrational stuff about snakes that lived inside people’s heads, about people being controlled by evil snakes. You circled away from her, and she followed. You didn’t try to take the cleaver away from her—”
“I figured I’d be killed. I tried to talk her down.”
“So you kept circling until you reached the nightstand where you kept a .38 automatic.”
“I warned her to drop the cleaver. I
“Instead, she rushed at you with the cleaver raised. So you shot her. Once. In the chest.”
Kale was leaning forward now, his face in his hands.
The sheriff put down his pen. He folded his hands on his stomach and laced his fingers. “Now, Mr. Kale, I hope you can bear with me a little bit longer. Just a few more questions, and then we can all get out of here and get on with our lives.”
Kale lowered his hands from his face. It was clear to Tal Whitman that Kale figured “getting on with our lives” meant he would be released at last. “I’m all right, Sheriff. Go ahead.”
Bob Robine didn’t say a word.
Slouched in his chair, looking loose and boneless, Bryce Hammond said, “While we’ve been holding you on suspicion, Mr. Kale, we’ve come up with a few questions we need to have answered, so we can set our minds to rest about this whole terrible thing. Now, some of these things may seem awful trivial to you, hardly worth my time or yours. They
little things. I admit that. The reason I’m putting you through more trouble . . . well, it’s because I want to get reelected next year, Mr. Kale. If my opponents catch me out on one technicality, on even one tiny little damned thing, they’ll huff and puff and blow it into a scandal; they’ll say I’m slipping or lazy or something.” Bryce grinned at Kale—actually
at him. Tal couldn’t believe it.
“I understand, Sheriff,” Kale said.
On his window seat, Talbert Whitman tensed and leaned forward.
And Bryce Hammond said, “First thing is—I was wondering why you shot your wife
and then did a load of laundry
before calling us to report what had happened.”
Severed hands. Severed heads.
Jenny couldn’t get those gruesome images out of her mind as she hurried along the sidewalk with Lisa.
Two blocks east of Skyline Road, on Vail Lane, the night was as still and as quietly threatening as it was everywhere else in Snowfield. The trees here were bigger than those on the main street; they blocked out most of the moonlight. The streetlamps were more widely spaced, too, and the small pools of amber light were separated by ominous lakes of darkness.
Jenny stepped between two gateposts, onto a brick walk that led to a one-story English cottage set on a deep lot. Warm light radiated through leaded glass windows with diamondshaped panes.
Tom and Karen Oxley lived in the deceptively small-looking cottage, which actually had seven rooms and two baths. Tom was the accountant for most of the lodges and motels in town. Karen ran a charming French cafe during the season. Both were amateur radio operators, and they owned a shortwave set, which was why Jenny had come here.
“If someone sabotaged the radio at the sheriff’s office,” Lisa said, “what makes you think they didn’t get this one, too?”
“Maybe they didn’t know about it. It’s worth taking a look.”
She rang the bell, and when there was no response, she tried the door. It was locked.
They went around to the rear of the property, where brandy-hued light flowed out through the windows. Jenny looked warily at the rear lawn, which was left moonless by tree shadows. Their footsteps echoed hollowly on the wooden floor of the back porch. She tried the kitchen door and found it was locked, too.
At the nearest window, the curtains were drawn aside. Jenny looked in and saw only an ordinary kitchen: green counters, cream-colored walls, oak cabinets, gleaming appliances, no signs of violence.
Other casement windows faced onto the porch, and one of these, Jenny knew, was a den window. Lights were on, but the curtains were drawn. Jenny rapped on the glass, but no one responded. She tested the window, found that it was latched. Gripping the pistol by the barrel, she smashed a diamond-shaped pane adjacent to the center post. The sound of shattering glass was jarringly loud. Although this was an emergency, she felt like a thief. She reached through the broken pane, threw open the latch, pulled the halves of the window apart, and went over the sill, into the house. She fumbled through the drapes, then drew them aside, so that Lisa could enter more easily.
Two bodies were in the small den. Tom and Karen Oxley.
Karen was lying on the floor, on her side, legs drawn up toward her belly, shoulders curled forward, arms crossed over her breasts—a fetal position. She was bruised and swollen. Her bulging eyes stared in terror. Her mouth hung open, frozen forever in a scream.
“Their faces are the worst thing,” Lisa said.
“I can’t understand why the facial muscles didn’t relax upon death. I don’t see how they can remain taut like that.”
“What did they
Tom Oxley was sitting in front of the shortwave radio. He was slumped over the radio, his head turned to one side. He was sheathed in bruises and swollen hideously, just as Karen was. His right hand was clenched around a table-model microphone, as if he had perished while refusing to relinquish it. Evidently, however, he had not managed a call for help. If he had gotten a message out of Snowfield, the police would have arrived by now.
The radio was dead.
Jenny had figured as much as soon as she had seen the bodies.
However, neither the condition of the radio nor the condition of the corpses was as interesting as the barricade. The den door was closed and, presumably, locked. Karen and Tom had dragged a heavy cabinet in front of it. They had pushed a pair of easy chairs hard against the cabinet, then had wedged a television set against the chairs.
“They were determined to keep something from getting in here,” Lisa said.
“But it got in anyway.”
They both looked at the window through which they’d come.
“It was locked from the inside,” Jenny said.
The room had only one other window.
They went to it and pulled back the drapes.
It was also latched securely on the inside.
Jenny stared out at the night, until she felt that something hidden in the darkness was staring back at her, getting a good look at her as she stood unprotected in the lighted window. She quickly closed the drapes.
“A locked room,” Lisa said.
Jenny turned slowly around and studied the den. There was a small outlet from a heating duct, covered with a metal vent plate full of narrow slots, and there was perhaps a half-inch of air space under the barricaded door. But there was no way anyone could have gained access to the room.
She said, “As far as I can see, only bacteria or toxic gas or some kind of radiation could’ve gotten in here to kill them.”
“But none of those things killed the Liebermanns.”
Jenny nodded. “Besides, you wouldn’t build a barricade to keep out radiation, gas, or germs.”
How many of Snowfield’s people had locked themselves in, thinking they had found defensible havens—only to die as suddenly and mysteriously as those who’d had no time to run? And what was it that could enter locked rooms without opening doors or windows? What had passed through this barricade without disturbing it?
The Oxleys’ house was as silent as the surface of the moon.
Finally, Lisa said, “Now what?”
“I guess maybe we have to risk spreading a contagion. We’ll drive out of town only as far as the nearest pay phone, call the sheriff in Santa Mira, tell him the situation, and let him decide how to handle it. Then we’ll come back here to wait. We won’t have any direct contact with anyone, and they can sterilize the telephone booth if they think that’s necessary.”
“I hate the idea of coming back here once we’ve gotten out,” Lisa said anxiously.
“So do I. But we’ve got to act responsibly. Let’s go,” Jenny said, turning toward the open window through which they had entered.
The phone rang.
Startled, Jenny turned toward the strident sound.
The phone was on the same table as the radio.
It rang again.
She snatched up the receiver. “Hello?”
The caller didn’t respond.
Jenny’s hand tightened on the receiver.
Someone was listening intently, remaining utterly silent, waiting for her to speak. She was determined not to give him that satisfaction. She just pressed the receiver to her ear and strained to hear something, anything, if even nothing more than the faint sealike ebb and flow of his breathing. He didn’t make the slightest sound, but still she could
at the other end of the line, the presence that she had felt when she’d picked up the phone in the Santinis’ house and in the sheriff’s substation.
Standing in the barricaded room, in that silent house where Death had crept in with impossible stealth, Jenny Paige felt an odd transformation overtaking her. She was well-educated, a woman of reason and logic, not even mildly superstitious. Thus far, she had attempted to solve the mystery of Snowfield by applying the tools of logic and reason. But for the first time in her life, they had utterly failed her. Now deep in her mind, something . . .
as if an enormously heavy iron cover were being slid off a dark pit in her subconscious. In that pit, within ancient chambers of the mind, there lay a host of primitive sensations and perceptions, a superstitious awe that was new to her. Virtually on the level of racial memory stored in the genes, she sensed what was happening in Snowfield. The knowledge was within her; however, it was so alien, so fundamentally illogical, that she resisted it, fighting hard to suppress the superstitious terror that boiled up.
Clutching the telephone receiver, she listened to the silent presence on the line, and she argued with herself:
• It isn’t a man; it’s a
• It’s not human, but it’s aware.
• You’re hysterical.
• Unspeakably malevolent; perfectly, purely evil.
• Stop it, stop it,
She wanted to slam down the phone. She couldn’t do it. The thing on the other end of the line had her mesmerized.
Lisa stepped close. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
Shaking, drenched with sweat, feeling tainted merely by listening to the despicable presence, Jenny was about to tear the receiver away from her ear when she heard a hiss, a click—and then a dial tone.
For a moment, stunned, she couldn’t react.
Then, with a whimper, she jabbed at the 0 button on the phone.
There was a ringing on the line. It was a wonderful, sweet, reassuring sound.
“Operator, this is an emergency,” Jenny said. “I’ve got to reach the county sheriff’s office in Santa Mira.”
A Call for Help
“Laundry?” Kale asked. “What laundry?”
Bryce could see that Kale was jolted by the question and was only pretending not to understand.
“Sheriff, where is this supposed to lead?” Bob Robine asked.
Bryce’s hooded eyes remained hooded, and he kept his voice calm, slow. “Gee, Bob, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of things, so we can all get out of here. I swear, I don’t like working on Sundays, and here this one is almost shot to hell already. I have these questions, and Mr. Kale doesn’t have to answer a one of them, but I
ask, so that I can go home and put my feet up and have a beer.”
Robine sighed. He looked at Kale. “Don’t answer unless I say it’s okay.”
Worried now, Kale nodded.
Frowning at Bryce, Robine said, “Go ahead.”
Bryce said, “When we arrived at Mr. Kale’s house last Thursday, after he phoned in to report the deaths, I noticed that one cuff of his slacks and the thick bottom edge of his sweater both looked slightly damp, so as you’d hardly notice. I got the notion he’d laundered everything he was wearing and just hadn’t left his clothes in the dryer quite long enough. So I had a look in the laundry room, and I found something interesting. In the cupboard right there beside the washer, where Mrs. Kale kept all of her soaps and detergents and fabric softeners, there were two bloody fingerprints on the big box of Cheer. One was smeared, but the other was clear. The lab says it’s Mr. Kale’s print.”