In the pre-dawn hours of August 28, the four members of the Mayser family were the first victims: Melinda, John, and their two children, Carrie and Billy. They had perished in a house fire, which the authorities later attributed to Billy playing with matches. The four bodies were so badly burned that identification could be made only from dental records.
Having finished his first bottle of Guinness, Sam reached for a second but hesitated. He had work to do yet tonight. Sometimes, when he was in a particularly dour mood and started drinking stout, he had trouble stopping short of unconsciousness.
Holding the empty bottle for comfort, Sam wondered why a boy, having started a fire, would not cry out for help and wake his parents when he saw the blaze was beyond control. Why would the boy not run before being overcome with smoke9 And just what kind of fire, except one fueled by gasoline or another volatile fluid (of which there was no indication in official reports), would spread so fast that none of the family could escape and would reduce the house—and the bodies therein—to heaps of ashes before firemen could arrive and quench it?
Neat again. The bodies were so consumed by flames that autopsies would be of little use in determining if the blaze had been started not by Billy but by someone who wanted to conceal the true causes of death. At the suggestion of the funeral director—who was the owner of Callan's Funeral Home and also the assistant coroner, therefore a suspect in any official cover-up—the Maysers' next of kin, Melinda Mayser's mother, authorized cremation of the remains. Potential evidence not destroyed by the original fire was thus obliterated.
"How tidy," Sam said aloud, putting his feet up on the other straight-backed chair. "How splendidly clean and tidy."
Body count: four.
Then the Bustamantes and Sanchez on September 5. Another fire. Followed by more speedy cremations.
Body count: seven.
On September 7, while trace vapors of the Bustamante and Sanchez remains might still have lingered in the air above Moonlight Cove, a twenty-year resident of the town, Jim Armes put to sea in his thirty-foot boat, the Mary Leandra, for an early morning sail—and was never seen again. Though he was an experienced seaman, though the day was clear and the ocean calm, he'd apparently gone down in an outbound tide, for no identifiable wreckage had washed up on local beaches.
Body count: eight.
On September 9, while fish presumably were nibbling on Armes's drowned body, Paula Parkins was torn apart by five Dobermans. She was a twenty-nine-year-old woman living alone, raising and training guard dogs, on a two-acre property near the edge of town. Evidently one of her Dobermans turned against her, and the others flew into a frenzy at the scent of her blood. Paula's savaged remains, unfit for viewing, had been sent in a sealed casket to her family in Denver. The dogs were shot, tested for rabies, and cremated.
Body count: nine.
Six days after entering the Bustamante-Sanchez case, on October 2, the FBI had exhumed Paula Parkins's body from a grave in Denver. An autopsy revealed that the woman indeed had been bitten and clawed to death by multiple animal assailants.
Sam remembered the most interesting part of that autopsy report word for word: … however, bite marks, lacerations, tears in the body cavity, and specific damage to br**sts and s*x org*ns are not entirely consistent with canine attack. The teeth pattern and size of bite do not fit the dental profile of the average Doberman or other animals known to be aggressive and capable of successfully attacking an adult. And later in the same report, when referring to the specific nature of Parkins's assailants: Species unknown.
How had Paula Parkins really died?
What terror and agony had she known?
Who was trying to blame it on the Dobermans?
And in fact what evidence might the Dobermans' bodies have provided about the nature of their own deaths and, therefore, the truthfulness of the police story?
Sam thought of the strange, distant cry he had heard tonight—like that of a coyote but not a coyote, like that of a cat but not a cat. And he thought also of the eerie, frantic voices of the kids who had pursued him. Somehow it all fit. Bureau Instinct.
Unsettled, Sam tried to soothe his nerves with Guinness. The bottle was still empty. He clinked it thoughtfully against his teeth.
Six days after Parkins's death and long before the exhumation of her body in Denver, two more people met untimely ends in Moonlight Cove. Steve Heinz and Laura Dalcoe, unmarried but living together, were found dead in their house on Iceberry Way. Heinz left a typed, incoherent, unsigned suicide note, then killed Laura with a shotgun while she slept, and took his own life. Dr. Ian Fitzgerald's report was murder-suicide, case closed. At the coroner's suggestion, the Dalcoe and Heinz families authorized cremation of the grisly remains.
Body count: eleven.
"There's an ungodly amount of cremation going on in this town," Sam said aloud, and turned the empty beer bottle around in his hands.
Most people still preferred to have themselves and their loved ones embalmed and buried in a casket, regardless of the condition of the body. In most towns cremations accounted for perhaps one in four or one in five dispositions of cadavers.
Finally, while investigating the Bustamante-Sanchez case, the FBI team from San Francisco found that Janice Capshaw was listed as a Valium suicide. Her sea-ravaged body had washed up on the beach two days after she disappeared, three days before the agents arrived to launch their investigation into the deaths of the union organizers.
Julio Bustamante, Maria Bustamante, Ramon Sanchez, the four Maysers, Jim Armes, Paula Parkins, Steven Heinz, Laura Dalcoe, Janice Capshaw: a body count of twelve in less than a month—exactly twelve times the number of violent deaths that had occurred in Moonlight Cove during the previous twenty-three months. Out of a population of just three thousand, twelve violent deaths in little more than three weeks was one hell of a mortality rate.
Queried about his reaction to this astonishing chain of deadly events, Chief Loman Watkins had said, "It's horrible, yes. And it's sort of frightening. Things were so calm for so long that I guess, statistically, we were just overdue."
But in a town that size, even spread over two years, twelve such violent deaths went off the top of the statisticians' charts.
The six-man Bureau team was unable to find one shred of evidence of any local authorities' complicity in those cases. And although a polygraph was not an entirely dependable determiner of truth, the technology was not so unreliable that Loman Watkins, his officers, the coroner, and the coroner's assistant could all pass the examination without a single indication of deception if in fact they were guilty.
Twelve deaths. Four cremated in a house fire. Three cremated in a demolished Chevy van. Three suicides, two by shotgun and one by Valium, all subsequently cremated at Callan's Funeral Home. One lost at sea—no body at all. And the only victim available for autopsy appeared not to have been killed by dogs, as the coroner's report claimed, though she had been bitten and clawed by something, dammit.
It was enough to keep the Bureau's file open. By the ninth of October, four days after the San Francisco team departed Moonlight Cove, a decision was made to send in an undercover operative to have a look at certain aspects of the case that might be more fruitfully explored by a man who was not being watched.
One day after that decision, on October 10, a letter arrived in the San Francisco office that clinched the Bureau's determination to maintain involvement. Sam had that note committed to memory as well:
I have information pertinent to a recent series of deaths in the town of Moonlight Cove. I have reason to believe local authorities are involved in a conspiracy to conceal murder.
I would prefer you contact me in person, as I do not trust the privacy of our telephone here. I must insist on absolute discretion because I am a disabled Vietnam veteran with severe physical limitations, and I am naturally concerned about my ability to protect myself.
It was signed, Harold G. Talbot.
United States Army records confirmed that Talbot was indeed a disabled Vietnam vet. He had been repeatedly cited for bravery in combat. Tomorrow, Sam would discreetly visit him.
Meanwhile, considering the work he had to do tonight, he wondered if he could risk a second bottle of stout on top of what he'd drunk at dinner. The six-pack was on the table in front of him. He stared at it for a long time. Guinness, good Mexican food, Goldie Hawn, and fear of death. The Mexican food was in his belly, but the taste of it was forgotten. Goldie Hawn was living on a ranch somewhere with Burt Russell, whom she had the bad sense to prefer to one ordinary-looking, scarred, and hope-deserted federal agent. He thought of twelve dead men and women, of bodies roasting in a crematorium until they were reduced to bone splinters and ashes, and he thought of shotgun murder and shotgun suicide and fish-gnawed corpses and a badly bitten woman, and all those thoughts led him to morbid philosophizing about the way of all flesh. He thought of his wife, lost to cancer, and he thought of Scott and their long-distance telephone conversation, too, and that was when he finally opened a second beer.
Chased by imaginary spiders, snakes, beetles, rats, bats, and by the possibly imaginary reanimated body of a dead child, and by the real if dragon-like roar of distant trucks, Chrissie crawled out of the tributary drain in which she had taken refuge, troll-walked down the main culvert, stepped again in the slippery remains of the decomposing raccoon, and plunged out into the silt-floored drainage channel. The air was clean and sweet. In spite of the eight-foot-high walls of the ditch, fog-filtered moonlight, and fog-hidden stars, Chrissie's claustrophobia abated. She drew deep lungsful of cool, moist air, but tried to breathe with as little noise as possible.
She listened to the night, and before long she was rewarded by those alien cries, echoing faintly across the meadow from the woods to the south. As before, she was sure that she heard three distinct voices. If her mother, father, and Tucker were off to the south, looking for her in the forest that eventually led to the edge of New Wave Microtech's property, she might be able to head back the way she had come, through the northern woods, into the meadow where Godiva had thrown her, then east toward the county road and into Moonlight Cove by that route, leaving them searching fruitlessly in the wrong place.
For sure, she could not stay where she was.
And she could not head south, straight toward them.
She clambered out of the ditch and ran north across the meadow, retracing the route she had taken earlier in the evening, and as she went she counted her miseries. She was hungry because she'd had no dinner, and she was tired. The muscles in her shoulders and back were cramped from the time she had spent in the tight, cold concrete tributary drain. Her legs ached.
So what's your problem? she asked herself as she reached the trees at the edge of the meadow. Would you rather have been dragged down by Tucker and "converted" into one of them?
Loman Watkins left the Valdoski house, where Dr. Worthy was overseeing the conversion of Ella and George. Farther down the county road, his officers and the coroner were loading the dead boy into the hearse. The crowd of onlookers was entranced by the scene.
Loman got into his cruiser and switched on the engine. The compact video-display lit at once, a soft green. The computer link was mounted on the console between the front seats. It began to flash, indicating that HQ had a message for him—one that they chose not to broadcast on the more easily intercepted police-band radio.
Though he had been working with microwave-linked mobile computers for a few years, he was still sometimes surprised upon first getting into a cruiser and seeing the VDT light up. In major cities like Los Angeles, for the better part of the past decade, most patrol cars had been equipped with computer links to central police data banks, but such electronic wonders were still rare in smaller cities and unheard of in jurisdictions as comparatively minuscule as Moonlight Cove. His department boasted state-of-the-art technology not because the town's treasury was overflowing but because New Wave—a leader in mobile microwave-linked data systems, among other things—had equipped his office and cars with their in-development hardware and software, updating the system constantly, using the Moonlight Cove police force as something of a proving ground for every advancement that they hoped ultimately to integrate into their line of products.
That was one of the many ways Thomas Shaddack had insinuated himself into the power structure of the community even before he had reached for total power through the Moonhawk Project. At the time Loman had been thick headed enough to think New Wave's largesse was a blessing. Now he knew better.
From his mobile VDT, Loman could access the central computer in the department's headquarters on Jacobi Street, one block south of Ocean Avenue, to obtain any information in the data banks or to "speak" with the on-duty dispatcher who could communicate with him almost as easily by computer as by police-band radio. Furthermore, he could sit comfortably in his car and, through the HQ computer, reach out to the Department of Motor Vehicles computer in Sacramento to get a make on a license plate, or the Department of Prisons data banks in the same city to call up information on a particular felon, or any other computer tied in to the nationwide law-enforcement electronic network.
He adjusted his holster because he was sitting on his revolver.
Using the keyboard under the display terminal, he entered his ID number, accessing the system.
The days when all fact-gathering required police legwork had begun to pass in the mid-eighties. Now only TV cops like Hunter were forced to rush hither and yon to turn up the smallest details because that was more dramatic than a depiction of the high-tech reality. In time, Watkins thought, the gumshoe might be in danger of becoming the gunbutt, with his ass parked for hours in front of either a mobile VDT or one on a desk at HQ.
The computer accepted his number. The VDT stopped flashing.
Of course, if all the people of the world were New People, and if the problem of the regressives were solved, ultimately there would be no more crime and no need of policemen. Some criminals were spawned by social injustice, but all men would be equal in the new world that was coming, as equal as one machine to another, with the same goals and desires, with no competitive or conflicting needs. Most criminals were genetic detectives, their sociopathic behavior virtually encoded in their chromosomes; however, except for the regressive element among them, the New People would be in perfect genetic repair. That was Shaddack's vision, anyway.
Sometimes Loman Watkins wondered where free will fit into the plan. Maybe it didn't. Sometimes he didn't seem to care if it fit in or not. At other times his inability to care … well, it scared the hell out of him.
Lines of words began to appear from left to right on the screen, one line at a time, in soft green letters on the dark background: