Page 25 of Night Chills

At 12:45 Salsbury carried his briefcase down from his room and went to the parlor.


Pauline Vicker was sitting in the largest of the three armchairs. She was a heavyset woman in her early sixties. Fluffy


gray hair. Ruddy complexion. Double chin. Merry eyes and a nearly constant smile. She had the archetypal grandmother’s face, the model for grandmothers’ faces in storybooks and movies. Her bare feet were propped up on a hassock. She was eating candies and watching a television soap opera.


From the doorway he said, “Mrs. Vicker.”


She glanced up, chewing a caramel. She had some trouble swallowing. Then: “Good afternoon, Mr. Deighton. If you’ve a complaint about your room or anything—do you think perhaps it could wait just a bit, a few minutes—not longer than that mind you—just until this show ends? It’s one of my favorite shows and—”


“I am the key,” he said impatiently.


“Oh,” she said, disappointed that she wasn’t going to be able to finish watching the program. “I am the lock.”


“Get up, Mrs. Vicker.”


She struggled out of the chair.


Fat old cow, he thought.


“What do you need?” she asked pleasantly.


“I’ll need this room for a while,” he said, walking to the desk which held her private telephone. “Don’t disturb me.”


“Am I to leave?”


“Yes. Now.”


She looked wistfully at the round maple table beside her armchair. “May I take my box of candy?”


“Yes, yes. Just get the hell out of here.”


Pleased, she snatched up the candy. “I’m as good as gone. As good as gone, Mr. Deighton. You take your time here. I won’t let anyone disturb you.”


“Mrs. Vicker.”


“Yes?”


“Go to the kitchen.”


“All right.”


“Eat your chocolates if you want.”


“I will.”


“Listen to your radio, and wait in the kitchen until I come to see you.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Is that completely clear?”


“Certainly. Certainly. I’ll do just what you say. See if I don’t. I’ll go straight out to the kitchen and eat my chocolates and listen—”


“And close the door as you leave,” he said sharply. “Leave now, Mrs. Vicker.”


She shut the parlor door behind her.


At the desk Salsbury opened his briefcase. He took from it a set of screwdrivers and one of the infinity transmitters—a small black box with several wires trailing from it—that Dawson had purchased in Brussels.


Smart, he thought. Clever. Clever of me to bring the IF. Didn’t know why I was packing it at the time. A hunch. Just a hunch. And it’s paid off now. Clever. I’m on top of the situation. Right up there on top, in control. Full control.


Having carefully considered his options, algebraic even when he was so recently returned from the edge of panic, he had decided that it was time to hear what Paul Annendale was saying to the Edisons. There were a dozen miniature glass swans lined up across the top of the desk, each slightly different in size and shape and color from the one that preceded it. He brushed these figurines to the floor; they bounced on the carpet and clinked against one another. His mother had collected hand-blown figurines, although not swans. She favored glass dogs. By the hundreds. He crushed one of the swans under his heel and imagined that it was a glass dog. Curiously satisfied by this gesture, he connected the infinity transmitter to the telephone and dialed the number of the general store. Across the street no telephone rang at the Edison’s place. Nevertheless, every receiver in the store, as well as in the family’s living quarters above the store, opened to Salsbury’s ear.


What he heard in the first couple of minutes broke down the paper-thin wall of composure that he had managed to rebuild since the murder. Buddy Pellineri, in his own half-literate fashion, was telling Sam and Jenny and Paul about the two men who had come down from the reservoir on the morning of August sixth.


Rossner and Holbrook had been seen!


However, that was neither the only nor the worst piece of bad news. Before Buddy had reached the end of his story, before Edison and the others had finished questioning him, Annendale’s daughter arrived with the bucket full of bloody rags. The damned bucket! In his haste to clean up the kitchen and hide the corpse, he had shoved the bucket under the sink and then had completely forgotten about it. The boy’s body wasn’t all that well hidden—but at least it wasn’t in the room where the murder had occurred. The damned bloody rags. He had left evidence at the scene of the crime, virtually out in plain sight where any fool could have found it!


He could no longer afford to spend hours formulating his response to the events of the morning. If he was to contain the crisis and save the project, he would have to think faster and move faster than he had ever done before.


He stepped on another glass swan and snapped it to pieces.


4


1:10 P.M.


A PEAL OF THUNDER rumbled across the valley, and the wind seemed to gain considerable force in the wake of the noise.


Torn between a desire to believe Emma Thorp and a growing conviction that Rya was telling the truth, Paul Annendale climbed the steps to the stoop at the back of the Thorp house.


Putting a hand on his shoulder, pressing with fingers like talons, Sam said, “Wait.”


Paul turned. The wind mussed his hair, blew it into his eyes. “Wait for what?”


“This is breaking and entering.”


“The door’s open.”


“That doesn’t change anything,” Sam said, letting go of him. “Besides, it’s open because Rya broke it open.”


Aware that Sam was trying to reason with him for his own good but nonetheless impatient, Paul said, “What in the hell am I supposed to do, Sam? Call the cops? Or maybe pull some strings, use my connections, put a call through to the chief of police, and have him investigate himself?”


“We could call the state police.”


“The body might not even be here.”


“If they could avoid it, they wouldn’t move a corpse in broad daylight.”


“Maybe there is no corpse, not here, not anywhere.”


“I hope to God you’re right.”


“Come on, Paul. Let’s call the state police.”


“You said they’d need as much as two hours to get here. If the body still is in this house—well, it most likely won’t be here two hours from now.”


“But this is all so improbable! Why on earth would Bob want to murder Mark?”


“You heard what Rya said. That sociologist ordered him to kill. That Albert Deighton.”


“She didn’t know it was Deighton,” Sam said.


“Sam, you’re the one who recognized him from her description.”


“Okay. Granted. But why would Emma go to a church luncheon and card game just after watching her husband kill a defenseless child? How could she? And how could a boy like Jeremy witness a brutal murder and then lie to you so smoothly?”


“They’re your neighbors. You tell me.”


“That’s just the point,” Sam insisted. “They’re my neighbors. They have been all their lives. Nearly all their lives. I know them well. As well as I know anyone. And I’m telling you, Paul, they simply aren’t capable of this sort of thing.”


Paul put one hand to his belly. His stomach spasmed with cramps. The memory of what he had seen in that bucket—the thickening blood and the strands of hair that were the same color as Mark’s hair—had affected him physically as well as emotionally. Or perhaps the emotional impact had been so devastating, so overwhelming that a sharp physical revulsion could not help but follow. “You’ve known these people under ordinary circumstances, during ordinary times. But I swear, Sam, there’s something extraordinary happening in this town. First Rya’s story. Mark’s disappearance. The bloody rags. And on top of that, Buddy comes around with this story of strange men at the reservoir in the dead of night—just a few days before the


whole town suffered from a curious, unexplained epidemic—”


Sam blinked in surprise. “You think the chills are connected with this, with—”


A deafening crack of thunder interrupted him.


As the sky grew quiet, Sam said, “Buddy’s not a very reliable witness.”


“You believed him, didn’t you?”


“I believe he saw something strange, yes. Whether or not it was precisely what Buddy thinks it was—”


“Oh, I know he didn’t see skin divers. Skin divers don’t wear hip boots. What he saw—I think maybe he saw two men with empty chemical dispersion tanks.”


“Someone contaminated the reservoir?” Sam asked incredulously.


“Looks that way to me.”


“Who? The government?”


“Maybe. Or maybe terrorists. Or even a private company.”


“But why?”


“To see if the contaminate did what it was supposed to do.”


Sam said, “Contaminated the reservoir . . . with what?” He frowned. “Something that turns sane men into psychopaths who will kill when told to?”


Paul began to shake.


“We haven’t found him yet,” Sam said quickly. “Don’t lose hope. We haven’t found him dead.”


“Sam - . . Oh God, Sam, I think we will. I really think we will.” He was close to tears, but he knew that, for the time being, they were a luxury that he couldn’t allow himself to have. He cleared his throat. “And I’ll bet this sociologist, Deighton, is involved with the men Buddy saw. He’s not here to study Black River. He knows what was put in the reservoir, and he’s in town only to see what effect that substance has on the people here.”


“Why didn’t Jenny and I get the night chills?”


Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. And I’ve no idea what Mark walked into this morning. What did he see that made it necessary for him to be killed?”


They stared at each other, horrified by the idea that the townspeople were unwitting guinea pigs in some bizarre experiment. Both of them wanted to laugh off the entire notion, dismiss it with a joke or two; but neither of them could even smile.


“If any of this is true,” Sam said worriedly, “there’s even more reason to call in the state police right now.”


Paul said, “We’ll find the body first. Then we’ll call the state police. I’m going to find my son before he winds up in an unmarked grave way to hell and gone in the mountains.”


Gradually, Sam’s face became as white as his hair. “Don’t talk about him as if you know he’s dead. You don’t know that he’s dead, dammit!”


Paul took a deep breath. His chest ached. “Sam, I should have believed Rya this morning. She’s no liar. Those bloody dish towels .. . Look, I’ve got to talk about him as if he’s dead. I’ve got to think of him that way. If I convince myself that he’s still alive and then I find his body—it’ll hurt too much. It’ll destroy me. Do you understand?”


“Yes.”


“You don’t have to come in with me.”


“I can’t let you go alone,” Sam said.


“Yes, you can. I’ll be fine.”


“I won’t let you go alone.”


“All right. Let’s get this over with.”


“He’s a good boy,” Sam said quietly. “He’s always been such a good boy. I love him like my own.”


Paul nodded, turned, and went into the dark house.


The telephone company maintained a narrow, two-story brick building on West Main Street, half a block from the square. It was a two-minute walk from Pauline Vicker’s rooming house.


The front office on the first floor—where complaints could be lodged and bills paid—was small and neat. It contained eight gray filing cabinets, a cash register, an electronic calculator, a photostatic copier, a typewriter, a long pine worktable, and two Straight-backed chairs in one corner, a large metal desk with a Sturdy swivel chair, a Sierra Club calendar, several telephones,


stacks of company pamphlets, a radio, and the United States flag in a stainless steel stand. There was no dust on the furniture, no dirt on the tile floor, and every pile of typing paper, forms, and envelopes was properly squared off and neatly stacked.


The only person in the office was as businesslike as the room. She was a thin but not unattractive woman in her middle or late forties. Her short-cropped chestnut hair had no more than a dozen strands of gray in it. Her skin was smooth and milky. Although her features were very angular, they were balanced by a generous, sensuous mouth that saved her looks but seemed to have been borrowed from another face. She wore a smart and efficient green pantsuit with a white cotton blouse. Her glasses were on a chain so that when she took them off they hung ready at her breast.


When Salsbury entered the office, she stepped up to the counter, smiled professionally, and said, “Does it still look like rain out there?”


Closing the mullioned-window door, Salsbury said, “Yes. Yes, it does.”


“What can I do for you?”


“I am the lock.” “I am the key.”


He went to the counter.


She toyed with the glasses at her breast. He said, “What’s your name?”


“Joan Markham.”


“Are you a secretary?”


“I’m the assistant manager.”


“How many people are working here?” “Right now?”


“Right now,” he said.


“Six, including me.”


“Name them for me, one by one.”


“Well, there’s Mr. Puichaski.”


“Who’s he?”


“The manager.”


“Where is he now?”


“In his office, The front room upstairs.”


“Who else, Joan?”


“Leona Ives. Mr. Pulchaski’s secretary.”


“Is she upstairs too?”


“Yes.”


“That leaves three.”


“Those are operators.”


“Switchboard operators?”


“Yes. Mary Ultman, Betty Zimmerman, and Louise Pulchaski.”


“Mr. Puichaski’s wife?”


“His daughter,” Joan said.


“Where do the operators work?”


She pointed to a door at the back of the room. “That leads to the downstairs hall. The switchboards are in the next room, at the back of the building.”

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