She suspected that he was quick as well as strong. Quicker than she, no doubt. She could hear him coming behind her.
If she could only reach the front door, get out onto the porch and into the yard, she would probably be safe. She suspected that he would not follow her beyond the house, into the street, where others might see him. Surely not everyone in Moonlight Cove had already been possessed by these aliens, and until the last real person in town was taken over, they could not strut around in a transformed state, eating young girls with impunity.
Not far. Just the front door and a few steps beyond.
She had covered two-thirds of the distance, expecting to feel a claw snag her shirt from behind, when the door opened ahead of her. The other priest, Father O'Brien, stepped across the threshold and blinked in surprise.
At once she knew that she couldn't trust him, either. He could not have lived in the same house as Father Castelli without the alien seed having been planted in him. Seed, spoor, slimy parasite, spirit—whatever was used to effect possession, Father O'Brien undoubtedly had had it rammed or injected into him.
Unable to go forward or back, unwilling to swerve through the archway on her right and into the living room because that was a dead end—in every sense of the word—she grabbed hold of the newel post, which she was just passing, and swung herself onto the stairs. She ran pell-mell for the second floor.
The front door slammed below her.
By the time she turned at the landing and started up the second flight of stairs, she heard both of them climbing behind her.
The upper hall had white plaster walls, a dark wood floor, and a wood ceiling. Rooms lay on both sides.
She sprinted to the end of the hall and into a bedroom furnished only with a simple dresser, one nightstand, a double bed with a white chenille spread, a bookcase full of paperbacks, and a crucifix on the wall. She threw the door shut after her but didn't bother trying to lock or brace it. There was no time. They'd smash through it in seconds, anyway.
Repeating, "MarymotherofGod, MarymotherofGod," in a breathless and desperate whisper, she rushed across the room to the window that was framed by emerald-green drapes. Rain washed down the glass.
Her pursuers were in the upstairs hall. Their footsteps boomed through the house.
She grabbed the handles on the sash and tried to pull the window up. It would not budge. She fumbled with the latch, but it already was disengaged.
Farther back the hall toward the head of the stairs, they were throwing open doors, looking for her.
The window was either painted shut or perhaps swollen tight because of the high humidity. She stepped back from it.
The door behind her crashed inward, and something snarled.
Without glancing behind her, she tucked her head down and crossed her arms over her face and threw herself through the window, wondering if she could kill herself by jumping from the second story, figuring it depended where she landed. Grass would be good. Sidewalk would be bad. The pointed spires of a wrought-iron fence would be real bad.
The sound of shattering glass was still in the air when she hit a porch roof two feet below the window, which was virtually a miracle—she was uncut too—so she kept saying MarymotherofGod as she did a controlled roll through hammering rain toward the edge of the shingled expanse. When she reached the brink, she clung there for a moment, her left side on the roof, right side supported by a creaking and rapidly sagging rain gutter, and she looked back at the window.
Something wolfish and grotesque was coming after her.
She dropped. She landed on a walkway, on her left side, jarring her bones, clacking her teeth together so hard that she feared they'd fall out in pieces, and scraping one hand badly on the concrete.
But she didn't lie there pitying herself. She scrambled up and, huddled around her pain, turned from the house to run into the street.
Unfortunately she wasn't in front of the rectory. She was behind it, in the rear yard. The back wall of Our Lady of Mercy bordered the lawn on her right, and a seven-foot-high brick wall encircled the rest of the property.
Because of the wall and the trees on both sides of it, she could not see either the neighboring house to the south or the one to the west, on the other side of the alley that ran behind the property. If she couldn't see the rectory's neighbors, they couldn't see her, either, even if they happened to be looking out a window.
That privacy explained why the wolf-thing dared to come onto the roof, pursuing her in broad—if rather gray and dismal—daylight.
She briefly considered going into the house, through the kitchen, down the hall, out the front door, into the street, because that was the last thing they'd expect. But then she thought: Are you insane?
She did not bother to scream for help. Her thudding heart seemed to have swollen until her lungs had too little room to expand, so she could barely get enough air to remain conscious, on her feet, and moving. No breath was left for a scream. Besides, even if people heard her call for help, they wouldn't necessarily be able to tell where she was; by the time they tracked her down, she would be either torn apart or possessed, because the scream would have slowed her by a fateful second or two.
Instead, limping slightly to favor a pulled muscle in her left leg but losing no time, she hurried across the expansive rear lawn. She knew she could not scale a blank seven-foot wall fast enough to save herself, especially not with one stingingly abraded hand, so she studied the trees as she ran. She needed one close to the wall; maybe she could climb into it, crawl out on a branch, and drop into the alleyway or into the neighbor's yard.
Above the slosh and patter of the rain, she heard a low growl behind her, and she dared to glance over her shoulder. Wearing only tatters of a shirt, freed entirely from shoes and trousers, the wolf-thing that had been Father O'Brien leaped from the edge of the porch roof in pursuit.
She finally saw a suitable tree—but an instant later noticed a gate in the wall at the southwest corner. She hadn't seen it sooner because it had been screened from her by some shrubbery that she had just passed.
Gasping for air, she put her head down, tucked her arms against her sides, and ran to the gate. She hit the bar latch with her hand, popping it out of the slot in which it had been cradled, and burst through into the alley. Turning left, away from Ocean Avenue toward Jacobi Street, she ran through deep puddles nearly to the end of the block before risking a glance behind her.
Nothing had followed her out of the rectory gate.
Twice she had been in the hands of the aliens, and twice she had escaped. She knew she would not be so lucky if she were captured a third time.
Shortly before nine o'clock, after less than four hours of sleep altogether, Sam Booker woke to the quiet clink and clatter of someone at work in the kitchen. He sat up on the living-room sofa, wiped at his matted eyes, put on his shoes and shoulder holster, and went down the hall.
Tessa Lockland was humming softly as she lined up pans, bowls, and food on the wheelchair-low counter near the stove, preparing to make breakfast.
"Good morning," she said brightly when Sam came into the kitchen.
"What's good about it?" he asked.
"Just listen to that rain," she said. "Rain always makes me feel clean and fresh."
"Always depresses me."
"And it's nice to be in a warm, dry kitchen, listening to the storm but cozy."
He scratched at the stubble of beard on his unshaven cheeks. "Seems a little stuffy in here to me."
"Well, anyway, we're still alive, and that's good."
"I guess so."
"God in heaven!" She banged an empty frying pan down on the stove and scowled at him. "Are all FBI agents like you"
"In what way?"
"Are they all sourpusses?"
"I'm not a sourpuss."
"You're a classic Gloomy Gus."
"Well, life isn't a carnival."
"Life is hard and mean."
"Maybe. But isn't it a carnival too?"
"Are all documentary filmmakers like you?"
"In what way?"
"That's ridiculous. I'm no Pollyanna."
"Here we are trapped in a town where reality seems to have been temporarily suspended, where people are being torn apart by species unknown, where Boogeymen roam the streets at night, where some mad computer genius seems to have turned human biology inside out, where we're all likely to be killed or 'converted' before midnight tonight, and when I come in here you're grinning and sprightly and humming a Beatles tune."
"It wasn't the Beatles."
"And that makes a difference?"
She sighed. "Listen, if you're going to help eat this breakfast, you're going to help make it, so don't just stand there glowering."
"All right, okay, what can I do?"
"First, get on the intercom there and call Harry, make sure he's awake. Tell him breakfast in … ummmm … forty minutes. Pancakes and eggs and shaved, fried ham."
Sam pressed the intercom button and said, "Hello, Harry," and Harry answered at once, already awake. He said he'd be down in about half an hour.
"Now what?" Sam asked Tessa.
"Get the eggs and milk from the refrigerator—but for God's sake don't look in the cartons."
She grinned. "You'll spoil the eggs and curdle the milk."
"I thought so."
While making pancake mix from scratch, cracking six eggs into glass dishes and preparing them so they could be quickly slipped into the frying pans when she needed them, directing Sam to set the table and help her with other small chores, chopping onions, and shaving ham, Tessa alternately hummed and sang songs by Patti La Belle and the Pointer Sisters. Sam knew whose music it was because she told him, announcing each song as if she were a disc jockey or as if she hoped to educate him and loosen him up. While she worked and sang, she danced in place, shaking her bottom, swiveling her hips, rolling her shoulders, sometimes snapping her fingers, really getting into it.
She was genuinely enjoying herself, but he knew that she was also needling him a little and getting a kick out of that too. He tried to hold fast to his gloom, and when she smiled at him, he did not return her smile, but damn she was cute. Her hair was tousled, and she wasn't wearing any makeup, and her clothes were wrinkled from having been slept in, but her slightly disheveled look only added to her allure.
Sometimes she paused in her soft singing and humming to ask him questions, but she continued to sing and dance in place even while he answered her. "You figured what we're going to do yet to get out of this corner we're in?"
"I have an idea."
"Patti La Belle, 'New Attitude,' " she said, identifying the song she was singing. "Is this idea of yours a deep, dark secret?"
"No. But I have to go over it with Harry, get some information from him, so I'll tell you both at breakfast."
At her direction he was hunched over the low counter, cutting thin slices of cheese from a block of Cheddar when she broke into her song long enough to ask, "Why did you say life is hard and mean?"
"Because it is."
"But it's also full of fun—"
"Yes, it is."
"Why are you so negative?"
"Because I want to be."
"But why do you want to be?"
"Jesus, you're relentless."
"Pointer Sisters, 'Neutron Dance.'" She sang a bit, dancing in place as she put eggshells and other scraps down the garbage disposal. Then she interrupted her tune to say, "What could've happened to you to make you feel that life's only mean and hard?"
"You don't want to know."
"Yes, I do."
He finished with the cheese and put down the slicer. "You really want to know?"
"I really do."
"My mother was killed in a traffic accident when I was just seven. I was in the car with her, nearly died, was actually trapped in the wreckage with her for more than an hour, face to face, staring into her eyeless socket, one whole side of her head bashed in. After that I had to go live with my dad, whom she'd divorced, and he was a mean-tempered son of a bitch, an alcoholic, and I can't tell you how many times he beat me or threatened to beat me or tied me to a chair in the kitchen and left me there for hours at a time, until I couldn't hold myself any more and peed in my pants, and then he'd finally come to untie me and he'd see what I'd done and he'd beat me for that."
He was surprised by how it all spilled from him, as if the floodgates of his subconscious had been opened, pouring forth all the sludge that had been pent up through long years of stoic self-control.
"So as soon as I graduated from high school, I got out of that house, worked my way through junior college, living in cheap rented rooms, shared my bed with armies of cockroaches every night, then applied to the Bureau as soon as I could, because I wanted to see justice in the world, be a part of bringing justice to the world, maybe because there'd been so little fairness or justice in my life. But I discovered that more than half the time justice doesn't triumph. The bad guys get away with it, no matter how hard you work to bring them down, because the bad guys are often pretty damned clever, and the good guys never allow themselves to be as mean as they have to be to get the job done. But at the same time, when you're an agent, mainly what you see is the sick underbelly of society, you deal with the scum, one kind of scum or another, and day by day it makes you more cynical, more disgusted with people and sick of them."
He was talking so fast that he was almost breathless.
She had stopped singing.
He continued with an uncharacteristic lack of emotional control, speaking so fast that his sentences sometimes ran together, "And my wife died, Karen, she was wonderful, you'd have liked her, everybody liked her, but she got cancer and she died, painfully, horribly, with a lot of suffering, not easy like Ali McGraw in the movies, not with just a sigh and a smile and a quiet goodbye, but in agony. And then I lost my son too. Oh, he's alive, sixteen, nine when his mother died and sixteen now, physically alive and mentally alive, but he's emotionally dead, burnt out in his heart, cold inside, so damned cold inside. He likes computers and computer games and television, and he listens to black metal. You know what black metal is? It's heavy-metal music with a twist of satanism, which he likes because it tells him there are no moral values, that everything is relative, that his alienation is right, that his coldness inside is right, it tells him that whatever feels good is good. You know what he said once?"