"Fact is, according to what I've read, most people who undergo a near-death experience are changed forever by it. And always for the better. If they were pessimists, they become optimists. If they were atheists, they become believers. Their values change, they learn to love life for itself, they're goddamned radiant! But not you. Oh, no, you become even more dour, even more grim, even more bleak."
The elevator reached the ground floor and fell silent.
"Harry's coming," Sam said.
"Tell me what you saw."
"Maybe I can tell you," he said, surprised to find that he was actually willing to discuss it with her at the right time, in the right place. "Maybe you. But later."
Moose padded into the kitchen, panting and grinning at them, and Harry rolled through the doorway a moment later.
"Good morning," Harry said chipperly.
"Did you sleep well?" Tessa asked, favoring him with a genuine smile of affection that Sam envied.
Harry said, "Soundly, but not as soundly as the dead—thank God."
"Pancakes?" Tessa asked him.
"I like a man with an appetite."
Harry said, "I was running all night, so I'm famished."
"In my dreams. Chased by Boogeymen."
While Harry got a package of dog food from under one of the counters and filled Moose's dish in the corner, Tessa went to the griddle, sprayed it with Pam again, told Sam that he was in charge of the eggs, and started to ladle out the first of the pancakes from the bowl of batter. After a moment she said, "Patti La Belle, 'Stir It Up,' " and began to sing and dance in place again.
"Hey," Harry said, "I can give you music if you want music."
He rolled to a compact under-the-counter-mounted radio that neither Tessa nor Sam had noticed, clicked it on, and moved the tuner across the dial until he came to a station playing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
"All right," Tessa said, and she began to sway and pump and grind with such enthusiasm that Sam couldn't figure out how she poured the pancake batter onto the griddle in such neat puddles.
Harry laughed and turned his motorized wheelchair in circles, as if dancing with her.
Sam said, "Don't you people know that the world is coming to an end around us?"
They ignored him, which he supposed was what he deserved.
By a roundabout route, cloaking herself in the whatever shadows she could find, Chrissie reached the alley to the east of Conquistador. She entered Talbot's backyard through a gate in a redwood fence and scurried from one clump of shrubbery to another, twice nearly stepping in dog poop—Moose was an amazing dog, but not without faults—until she reached the steps to the back porch.
She heard music playing inside. It was an oldie, from the days when her parents had been teenagers. And in fact it had been one of their favorites. Though Chrissie didn't remember the title, she did recall the name of the group—Junior Walker and the All-Stars.
Figuring that the music, combined with the drumming rain, would cover any sounds she made, she crept up the steps onto the redwood porch and, in a crouch, moved to the nearest window. She hunkered below the sill for a while, listening to the people in there. They were talking, often laughing, sometimes singing, along with the songs on the radio.
They didn't sound like aliens. They sounded pretty much like ordinary people.
Were aliens likely to enjoy the music of Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops and the Pointer Sisters? Hardly. To human ears, alien music probably sounded like knights in armor playing bagpipes while simultaneously falling down a long set of stairs amidst a pack of baying hounds. More like Twisted Sister than like the Pointer Sisters.
Eventually she rose up just far enough to peer over the sill through a gap in the curtains. She saw Mr. Talbot in his wheelchair, Moose, and a strange man and woman. Mr. Talbot was beating time with his good hand on the arm of his wheelchair, and Moose was wagging his tail vigorously if out of synch with the music. The other man was using a spatula to scoop eggs out of a couple of frying pans and shift them onto plates, glowering, at the woman now and then as he did so, maybe not approving of the way she abandoned herself to the song, but still tapping his right foot to the music. The woman was making flapjacks and transferring them to a warming platter in the oven, and as she worked she shimmied and swayed and dipped; she had good moves.
Chrissie crouched down again and thought about what she had seen. Nothing about their behavior was particularly odd if they were people, but if they were aliens they surely wouldn't be bopping to the radio while they made breakfast. Chrissie had a real hard time believing that aliens—like the thing masquerading as Father Castelli—could have either a sense of humor or rhythm Surely, all that aliens cared about was taking possession of new hosts and finding new recipes for cooking tender children.
Nevertheless she decided to wait until she had a chance to watch them eating. From what she'd heard her mother and Tucker say in the meadow last night, and from what she had seen at breakfast with the Father Castelli creature, she believed that the aliens were ravenous, each with the appetite of half a dozen men. If Harry Talbot and his guests didn't make absolute hogs of themselves when they sat down to eat, she could probably trust them.
Loman had stayed at Peyser's house, supervising the cleanup and overseeing the transfer of the regressives' bodies to Callan's hearse. He was afraid to let his men handle it alone, for fear that the sight of the mutated bodies or the smell of blood would induce them to seek altered states of their own. He knew that all of them—not least of all himself—were walking a taut wire over an abyss. For the same reason, he followed the hearse to the funeral home and stayed with Callan and his assistant until Peyser's and Sholnick's bodies were fed into the white-hot flames of the crematorium.
He checked on the progress of the search for Booker, the Lockland woman, and Chrissie Foster, and he made a few changes in the pattern of the patrols. He was in the office when the report came in from Castelli, and he went directly to the rectory at Our Lady of Mercy to hear firsthand how the girl could have slipped away from them. They were full of excuses, mostly lame. He suspected they had regressed in order to toy with the girl, just for the thrill of it, and while playing with her had unintentionally given her a chance to escape. Of course they would not admit to regression.
Loman increased the patrols in the immediate area, but there was no sign of the girl. She had gone to ground. Still, if she had come into town instead of heading out to the freeway, they were more likely to catch her and convert her before the day was done.
At nine o'clock he returned to his house on Iceberry Way to get breakfast. Since he'd nearly degenerated in Peyser's bloodspattered bedroom, his clothes had felt loose on him. He had lost a few pounds as his metabolic processes had consumed his own flesh to generate the tremendous energy needed to regress and to resist regression.
The house was dark and silent. Denny was no doubt upstairs, in front of his computer, where he had been last night. Grace had left for work at Thomas Jefferson, where she was a teacher; she had to keep up the pretense of an ordinary life until everyone in Moonlight Cove had been converted.
At the moment no children under twelve had been put through the Change, partly because of difficulties New Wave technicians had had in determining the correct dosage for younger converts, Those problems had been solved, and tonight the kids would be brought into the fold.
In the kitchen Loman stood for a moment, listening to the rain on the windows and the ticking of the clock.
At the sink he drew a glass of water. He drank it, another, then two more. He was dehydrated after the ordeal at Peyser's.
The refrigerator was chock full of five-pound hams, roast beef, a half-eaten turkey, a plate of porkchops, chicken breasts, sausages, and packages of bologna and dried beef. The accelerated metabolisms of the New People required a diet high in protein. Besides, they had a craving for meat.
He took a loaf of pumpernickel from the breadbox and sat down with that, the roast beef, the ham, and a jar of mustard. He stayed at the table for a while, cutting or ripping thick hunks of meat, wrapping them in mustard-slathered bread, and tearing off large bites with his teeth. Food offered him less subtle pleasure than when he'd been an Old Person; now the smell and taste of it raised in him an animal excitement, a thrill of greed and gluttony. He was to some degree repelled by the way he tore at his food and swallowed before he'd finished chewing it properly, but every effort that he made to restrain himself soon gave way to even more feverish consumption. He slipped into a half-trance, hypnotized by the rhythm of chewing and swallowing. At one point he became clearheaded enough to realize he had gotten the chicken br**sts from the refrigerator and was eating them with enthusiasm, though they were uncooked. He let himself slip mercifully back into the half-trance again.
Finished eating, he went upstairs to look in on Denny.
When he opened the door to the boy's room, everything at first seemed to be just as it had been the last time he'd seen it, during the previous night. The shades were lowered, the curtains drawn, the room dark except for the greenish light from the VDT. Denny sat in front of the computer, engrossed in the data that flickered across the screen.
Then Loman saw something that made his skin prickle.
He closed his eyes.
It was not an illusion.
He felt sick. He wanted to step back into the hall and close the door, forget what he'd seen, go away. But he could not move and could not avert his eyes.
Denny had unplugged the computer keyboard and put it on the floor beside his chair. He'd unscrewed the front cover plate from the data-processing unit. His hands were in his lap, but they weren't exactly hands any more. His fingers were wildly elongated, tapering not to points and fingernails but to metallic-looking wires, as thick as lamp cords, that snaked into the guts of the computer, vanishing there.
Denny no longer needed the keyboard.
He had become part of the system. Through the computer and its modem link to New Wave, Denny had become one with Sun.
"Denny …" He had assumed an altered state, but nothing like that sought by the regressives.
The boy did not answer.
An odd, soft clicking and electronic pulsing sounds came from the computer.
Reluctantly, Loman entered the room and walked to the desk. He looked down at his son and shuddered.
Denny's mouth hung open. Saliva drooled down his chin. He had become so enraptured by his contact with the computer that he had not bothered to get up and eat or go to the bathroom; he had urinated in his pants.
His eyes were gone. In their place were what appeared to be twin spheres of molten silver as shiny as mirrors. They reflected the data that swarmed across the screen in front of them.
The pulsing sounds, soft electronic oscillations, were not coming from the computer but from Denny.
The eggs were good, the pancakes were better, and the coffee was strong enough to endanger the porcelain finish of the cups but not so strong that it had to be chewed. As they ate, Sam outlined the method he had devised for getting a message out of town to the Bureau.
"Your phone's still dead, Harry. I tried it this morning. And I don't think we can risk heading out to the interstate on foot or by car, not with the patrols and roadblocks they've established; that'll have to be a last resort. After all, as far as we know, we're the only people who realize that something truly … twisted is happening here and that the need to stop it is urgent. Us and maybe the Foster girl, the one the cops talked about in their VDT conversation last night."
"If she's literally a girl," Tessa said, "just a child, even if she's a teenager, she won't have much of a chance against them. We've got to figure they'll catch her if they haven't already."
Sam nodded. "And if they nail us, too, while we're trying to get out of town, there'll be no one left to do the job. So first we've got to try a low-risk course of action."
"Is any option low risk?" Harry wondered as he mopped up some egg yolk with a piece of toast, eating slowly and with a touching precision necessitated by his having only one useful hand.
Pouring a little more maple syrup over his pancakes, surprised by how much he was eating, attributing his appetite to the possibility that this was his last meal, Sam said, "See … this is a wired town."
"Computer-linked. New Wave gave computers to the police, so they'd be tied into the web—"
"And the schools," Harry said. "I remember reading about it in the paper last spring or early summer. They gave a lot of computers and software to both the elementary and the high schools. A gesture of civic involvement, they called it."
"Seems more ominous than that now, doesn't it?" Tessa said.
"Sure as hell does."
Tessa said, "Seems now like maybe they wanted their computers in the schools for the same reason they wanted the cops computerized—to tie them all in tightly with New Wave, to monitor and control."
Sam put down his fork. "New Wave employs, what, about a third of the people in town?"
"Probably that," Harry said. "Moonlight Cove really grew after New Wave moved in ten years ago. In some ways it's an old-fashioned company town-life here isn't just dependent upon the main employer but pretty much socially centered around it too."
After sipping some coffee so strong it was nearly as bracing as brandy, Sam said, "A third of the people … which works out to maybe forty percent or so of the adults."
Harry said, "I guess so."
"And you've got to figure everyone at New Wave is part of the conspiracy, that they were among the first to be … converted."
Tessa nodded. "I'd say that's a given."
"And they're even more than usually interested in computers, of course, because they're working in that industry, so it's a good bet most or all of them have computers in their homes."
"And no doubt many if not all of their home computers can be tied by modem directly to New Wave, so they can work at home in the evening or on weekends if they have to. And now, with this conversion scheme nearing a conclusion, I'll bet they're working round the clock; data must be flying back and forth over their phone lines half the night. If Harry can tell me of someone within a block of here who works for New Wave—"