Besides, he reminded himself, these are the 1970s. This is the age of science and technology when a man often is required to act with the implacable and unemotional savagery of the machine. For better or worse, in these times gentility is becoming less and less a sign of the civilized man and is, in fact, very nearly an obsolescent quality. You see gentility, most often, in those who are least likely to survive wave after wave of future shock.
Lowering his hands he said, “In the classic paranoid vein, it’s us against them. Except that this isn’t a delusion or an illusion; it’s real.”
Jenny seemed to accept the need for murder as quickly as he had accepted the fact that he might be called upon to commit it. By this point in her life, she had experienced, as had all but the most gentle people, at least the flickering of a homicidal urge in a moment of despair or great frustration. She hadn’t accepted it as the solution to whatever problem had inspired it. But she was not incapable of conceiving of a situation in which homicide was the most reasonable response to a threat. In spite of the overprotected, sheltered upbringing of which she’d spoken last Monday, she could adapt to even the most unpleasant truths. Perhaps, Paul thought, the ordeal with her first husband
had made her stronger, tougher, and more resilient than she realized.
She said, “Even if we could bring ourselves to kill in order to stop this thing. . . Well, it’s still too much. To stop Salsbury, we need to know more about him. And how do we learn anything? He’s got hundreds of bodyguards. Or if he wants, he can turn everyone in town into killers and send them after us. Do we just sit here, pass the time, wait for him to stop around for a chat?”
Returning the hardbound volume of essays to the shelf from which he’d taken it, Sam said, “Wait a minute.. . Suppose. . .“ He faced them. He was excited. All three of them were tense, twisted as tight as watch springs. But now a glimmer of pleasurable excitement was in his Santa Claus—like features. “When Salsbury saw Rya standing in the kitchen doorway at the Thorp house, what do you imagine he did, very first thing?”
“Grabbed for her,” Jenny said.
Bitterly, Paul said, “Ordered Bob to kill her.”
“Not that either. Remember, he would expect her to be another one of his—zombies.”
Sucking in her breath, Jenny said, “He would use the code phrase on her, the system he talks about in the article. He’d try to open her up and take control of her before she ran away. So . . . Rya must have heard the code phrase!”
“And if she can recall it,” Sam said, “we’ll have control of everyone in Black River, the same as Salsbury. He won’t be able to send them after us. He won’t have hundreds of bodyguards to hide behind. It won’t be us against them. It’ll be us against him.”
DR. WALTER TROUTMAN entered the police chief’s office. He was carrying his black leather satchel in his right hand and a chocolate candy bar with almonds in his left. He appeared to be delighted with the world and with himself. “You wanted to see me, Bob?”
Before Thorp could answer, Salsbury stepped away from the windows and said, “I am the key.”
“I am the lock.”
“Buddy Pellineri is waiting in the room across the hail,” Salsbury said. “You know him, don’t you?”
“Buddy?” Troutman asked, wrinkling his fleshy face. “Well, of course I know him.”
“I’ve told him that we’re afraid he’s picked up a very bad germ and that you’re going to give him a vaccination so he won’t get sick. As you know, he’s not especially bright. He believed me. He’s waiting for you.”
“Vaccination?” Troutman said, perplexed.
“That’s what I told him to keep him here. Instead, you’ll inject an air bubble into his bloodstream.”
Troutman was shocked. “That would cause an embolism.”
“It would kill him!”
Salsbury smiled and nodded. “It had better. That’s the whole idea, doctor.”
Looking at Bob Thorp, who was seated behind the desk, then back at Salsbury, Troutman said miserably, “But I can’t do a thing like that. I can’t possibly.”
am I, doctor?” “You’re—the key.”
“Very good. And who are your’
“I’m the lock.”
“All right. You will go across the hail to the room where Buddy is waiting. You’ll chat with him, be very pleasant, give him no cause to be suspicious. You’ll tell him that you’re going to give him a vaccination, and you’ll inject an air bubble into his bloodstream. You won’t mind killing him. You won’t hesitate. As soon as he is dead, you’ll leave the room—and you will remember only that you gave him a shot of penicillin. You won’t remember killing him when you leave that room. You will come back here, look in the door, and say to Bob, ‘He’ll be better in the morning.’ Then you’ll go back to your house, having forgotten entirely about these instructions. Is that clear?”
“Go do it.”
Troutman left the room.
Ten minutes ago Salsbury had decided to eliminate Buddy Pellineri. Although the man had experienced the night chills and nausea, and although he had been partially brainwashed by by the subceptive program, he was not a good subject. He could not be fully and easily controlled. When told to erase from his memory the men he had seen coming down from the reservoir on the morning of August sixth, he might forget them forever— or only for a few hours. Or not at all. Had he been been a genius, the drug and the subliminals would have transformed him into the ideal slave. Ironically, however, his ignorance condemned him.
It was a pity that Buddy had to die. In his own way he was a likable brute.
But I’ve got the power, Salsbury thought. And I’m going to
keep it. I’m going to eliminate as many people as have to be eliminated for me to keep the power. I’ll show them. All of them. Dawson, good old Miriam, the bitches, the holier-than-thou college professors with their snotty questions and self-righteous denunciations of my work, the whores, my mother, the bitches . . . Tat-tat-tat-tat. . . No one is going to take this away from me. No one. Not ever. Never.
Rya sat up in bed, yawning and smacking her lips. She looked from Jenny to Sam to Paul—but she didn’t seem to know for certain who they were.
“Do you remember what he said?” Paul asked again. “The man with the thick glasses. Do you remember?”
Squinting at him, scratching her head, she said, “Who . . . am this?”
“She’s still dopey,” Jenny said, “and will be for a while yet.” Studying the girl from the foot of the bed, Sam said, “Salsbury knows he’s got to deal with us. As soon as he’s decided how, he’ll come here. We don’t have time to wait for the sedative to wear off. We’ve got to help her come out of it.” He looked at Jenny. “You give her a cold shower. A long one. I’ll make some fresh coffee.”
“Don’t like coffee,” Rya said sullenly.
“You like tea, don’t you?”
“S’okay.” She yawned.
Sam hurried downstairs to make a pot of tea.
Jenny hustled Rya out of bed and into the bathroom at the end of the hallway.
Left alone, Paul went to the living room to sit with Mark’s body until Rya was ready to be questioned.
‘When you decide to meet that big, bright, shiny, chrome-edged American world on its own terms, he thought, things start to move. Faster and faster and faster.
Dr. Troutman leaned in the open doorway and said, “He’ll be better in the morning.”
“That’s fine,” Bob Thorp said. “You go along home now.” Popping the last piece of his chocolate-almond bar into his mouth, the doctor said, “Take care.” He walked away.
To Thorp, Salsbury said, “Get some help. Move the body into one of the cells. Stretch him out on the bunk so that he looks like he’s sleeping.”
Rain gurgled noisily down the leader beside the kitchen window.
The room smelled of lemons.
Steam rose from the spout of the teapot and from the china cup.
Rya wiped away her tears, blinked in sudden recollection, and said, “Oh. Oh, yes . . . ‘I am the key.’”
The downpour dwindled abruptly to a drizzle. Soon the rain stopped altogether.
Salsbury raised one of the Venetian blinds and looked out at North Union Road. The gutters were overflowing. A miniature lake had formed down toward the square where a drainage grating was clogged with leaves and grass. The trees dripped like melting candles.
He was glad to see it end. He had begun to worry about the turbulent flying conditions that Dawson’s helicopter pilot would have to face.
One way or another, Dawson had to get to Black River to-
night. Salsbury didn’t actually need help to deal with the situation; but he did need to be able to share the blame if the field test went even further awry.
Neither of his current options was without risk. He could send Bob Thorp and a couple of deputies to the general store to arrest the Edisons and the Annendales. Of course there might be trouble, violence, even a shoot-out. Every additional corpse or missing person that had to be explained to the authorities outside of Black River increased the chance of discovery. On the other hand, if he had to maintain the roadblock through tomorrow, keep control of the town, and perpetuate the state of siege, his chances of coming out on top of this would be less promising than they were now.
What in the devil was happening at Edison’s place? They had found the boy’s body. He knew that. He had assigned several guards to cover the store. Why hadn’t they come here to see Bob Thorp? Why hadn’t they tried to leave town? Why hadn’t they, in short, acted like anyone else would have done? Surely, even with Buddy’s story to build from, they couldn’t have reconstructed the truth behind the events of the past few weeks. They couldn’t know who he really was. They probably didn’t know about subliminal advertising in general—and certainly not about his research in specific. He suddenly wished that he had brought his briefcase with the infinity transmitter from Pauline Vicker’s rooming house.
“Everything looks so crisp and fresh after a summer rain, doesn’t it?” Bob Thorp asked.
“I’m glad it’s over,” Salsbury said.
“It isn’t. Not by a long shot.”
Salsbury turned from the windows. “What?”
Smiling, as amiable as Salsbury had ordered him to be, Bob Thorp said, “These summer storms start and stop half a dozen times before they’re finished. That’s because they bounce back and forth, back and forth between the mountains until they finally find a way out.”
Thinking of Dawson’s helicopter, Salsbury said, “Since when are you a meteorologist?”
“Well, I’ve lived here all my life, except for my hitch in the service. I’ve seen hundreds of storms like this one, and they—”
“I said it’s over! The storm is over, Finished. Done with. Do you understand?”
Frowning, Thorp said, “The storm is over.”
“I want it to be over,” Salsbury said. “So it is. It’s over if I say it is. isn’t it?”
Thorp said nothing.
“Aren’t you a dumb cop?”
“I’m not dumb.”
“I say you are. You’re dumb. Stupid. Stupid as an ox. Aren’t you, Bob?”
“That you’re as stupid as an ox.”
“I’m as stupid as an ox.”
Returning to the window, Salsbury stared angrily at the lowering cobalt clouds.
Eventually he said, “Bob, I want you to go to Pauline Vicker’s house.”
Thorp stood up at once.
“I’ve got a room on the second floor, the first door on the right at the head of the stairs. You’ll find a leather briefcase beside the bed. Fetch it for me.”
The four of them went through the crowded stockroom and onto the rear porch of the general store.
Immediately, twenty yards away on the wet emerald-green
lawn, a man moved out of the niche formed by two angled rows of lilac bushes. He was a tall, hawk-faced man in horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a dark raincoat and holding a double-barreled shotgun.
“Do you know him?” Paul asked.
“Harry Thurston,” Jenny said. “He’s a foreman at the mill. Lives next door.”
With one hand Rya clutched Paul’s shirt. Her self-confidence and her faith in people had been seriously eroded by what she had seen Bob Thorp do to her brother. Watching the man with the shotgun, trembling, her voice pitched slightly higher than it normally was, she said, “Is he . . . going to shoot US?”
Paul placed one hand on her shoulder, squeezed gently, reassuringly. “Nobody’s going to be shot.”
As he spoke he ardently wished that he could believe what he was telling her.
Fortunately, Sam Edison sold a line of firearms in addition to groceries, dry goods, drugs, notions and sundries; therefore, they weren’t defenseless. Jenny had a .22 rifle. Sam and Paul were both carrying Smith & Wesson Combat Magnum revolvers loaded with .38 Special cartridges which would produce only half of the fierce kick of Magnum ammunition. However, they didn’t want to use the guns, for they were trying to leave the house secretly; they kept the guns at their sides, barrels aimed at the porch floor.
“I’ll handle this,” Sam said. He went across the porch to the wooden steps and started down.
“Hold it right there,” said the man with the shotgun. He came ten yards closer. He pointed the weapon at Sam’s chest, kept his finger on the trigger, and watched all of them with unconcealed anxiety and distrust.
Paul glanced at Jenny.
She was biting her lower lip. She looked as if she wanted to swing up her rifle and level it at Harry Thurston’s head.
That might set off a meaningless but disastrous exchange of gunfire.
He had a mental image of the shotgun booming. Booming again. . . Flame blossoming from the muzzles . .
“Calm,” he said quietly.