Night Chills Page 26


“When do these operators go off duty?”


“At five o’clock.”


“And three more come on the new shift?”


“No. Just two. There isn’t that much business at night.”


“The new shift works until—one in the morning?”


“That’s right.”


“And two more operators come on duty until nine o’clock in the morning?”


“No. There’s just one during the graveyard watch.” She put on her glasses, took them off again a second later. “Are you nervous, Joan?”


“Yes. Terribly.”


“Don’t be nervous. Relax. Be calm.”


Some of the stiffness went out of her slender neck and Shoulders. She smiled.


“Tomorrow is Saturday,” he said. “Will there be three operators on duty during the daylight shift?”


“No. On weekends there’re never more than two.”


“Joan, I see you’ve got a notebook and pen next to your typewriter. I want you to prepare for me a list of all the operators


who are scheduled to work tonight and during the first two shifts tomorrow. I want their names and their home telephone numbers. Understood?”


“Oh, yes.”


She went to her desk.


Salsbury crossed to the front door. He studied West Main Street through the six-inch-square panes of glass.


Presaging a summer storm, the wind whipped the trees mercilessly, as if trying to drive them to shelter.


There was no one in sight on either side of the street. Salsbury looked at his watch. 1:15


“Hurry up, you stupid bitch.” She looked up. “What?”


“I called you a stupid bitch. Forget that. Just finish the list. Quickly now.”


She busied herself with pen and notebook.


Bitches, he thought. Rotten bitches. All of them. Every last one of them. Always fouling him up. Nothing but bitches.


An empty lumber truck went past on Main Street, heading toward the mill.


“Here it is,” she said.


He returned to the customer service counter, took the notebook page from her hand, and glanced at it. Seven names. Seven telephone numbers. He folded the paper and put it in his shirt pocket. “Now, what about repairmen? Don’t you have linemen or repairmen on duty all the time?”


“We have a crew of four men,” she said. “There are two on the day shift and two on the evening shift. There’s no one regularly scheduled for night shift or for the weekends, but every one of the crew’s on call in case of emergencies.”


“And there are two men on duty now?” “Yes.”


“Where are they?”


“Working on a problem at the mill.” “When will they be back?”


“By three. Maybe three thirty.”


“When they come in, you send them over to Bob Thorp’s


office.” He had already decided to make the police chief’s office his headquarters for the duration of the crisis. “Understood, Joan?”


Yes.


“Write down for me the names and home telephone numbers of the other two repairmen?’


She needed half a minute for that assignment.


“Now listen closely, Joan.”


Resting her arms on the counter, she leaned toward him. She seemed almost eager to hear what he had to tell her.


“Within the next few minutes, the wind will blow down the lines between here and Bexford. It won’t be possible for anyone in Black River or up at the mill to make or receive a long-distance call.”


“Oh,” she said wearily. “Well, that sure is going to ruin my day. It sure is?’


“Complaints, you mean?”


“Each one nastier than the one before it.”


“If people complain, tell them that linemen from Bexford are working on the break. But there was a great deal of damage. The repairs will take hours. The job might not be done until tomorrow afternoon. Is that clear?”


“They won’t like it.”


“But is that clear?”


“It’s clear.”


“All right.” He sighed. “In a moment I’m going to go back to talk with the girls at the switchboard. Then upstairs to see your boss and his secretary. When I leave this room, you’ll forget everything we’ve said. You’ll remember me as a lineman from Bexford. I was just a lineman from Bexford who stopped in to tell you that my crew was already on the job. Understood?”


“Go back to work.”


She returned to her desk.


He walked behind the counter. He left the room by the hall door and went to talk to the switchboard operators.


* * *


Paul felt like a burglar.


You’re not here to steal anything, he told himself. Just your son’s body. If there is a body. And that belongs to you.


Nevertheless, as he poked through the house, undeterred by the Thorps’ right to privacy, he felt like a thief.


By 1:45 he and Sam had searched upstairs and down, through the bedrooms and baths and closets, through the living room and den and dining room and kitchen. There was no corpse.


In the kitchen Paul opened the cellar door and switched on the light. “Down there. We should have looked down there first. It’s the most likely place.”


“Even if Rya’s story is true,” Sam said, “this isn’t easy for me. This prying around. These people are old friends.”


“It isn’t my style either.”


“I feel like such a shit.”


“it’s almost finished.”


They descended the stairs.


The first basement room was a well-used work center. The nearer end contained two stainless-steel sinks, an electric washer-dryer, a pair of wicker clothes baskets, a table large enough for folding freshly laundered towels, and shelves on which stood bottles of bleach, bottles of spot removers, and boxes of detergents. At the other end of the room there was a workbench equipped with vises and all of the other tools that Bob Thorp needed to tie flies. He was an enthusiastic and dedicated fly fisherman who enjoyed creating his own “bait”; but he also sold between two and three hundred pieces of his handiwork every year, more than enough to make his hobby a very profitable one.


Sam peered into the shadow cavity beneath the stairs and then searched the cupboards beside the washer-dryer.


No corpse. No blood. Nothing.


Paul’s stomach burned and gurgled as if he had swallowed a glassful of acid.


He looked in the cabinets above and below the workbench, flinching each time he opened a door.


Nothing.


The second basement room, less than half the size of the first,


was used entirely for food storage. Two walls were covered with floor-to-ceiling shelves; and these were lined with store-bought as well as home-canned fruits and vegetables. A large, chest-style freezer stood against the far wall.


“In there or nowhere,” Sam said.


Paul went to the freezer.


He lifted the lid.


Sam stepped in beside him.


Frigid air rushed over them. Streams of ghostly vapor snaked into the room and were dissipated by the warmer air.


The freezer contained two or three dozen plastic-wrapped and labeled packages of meat. These bundles weren’t stacked for optimum use of the space—and to Paul at least, that looked rather odd. Furthermore, they hadn’t been arranged according to size or weight or similarity of contents. They were merely dumped together every which way. They appeared to have been thrown into the freezer in great haste.


Paul took a five-pound beef roast from the chest and dropped it on the floor. Then a ten-pound package of bacon. Another five-pound beef roast. Another roast. More bacon. A twenty-pound box of pork chops


The dead boy had been placed in the bottom of the freezer, his arms on his chest and his knees drawn up; and the packages of meat had been used to conceal him. His nostrils were caked with blood. An icy, ruby crust of blood sealed his lips and masked his chin. He stared up at them with milky, frozen eyes that were as opaque as heavy cataracts.


“Oh . . . no. No. Oh, Jesus,” Sam murmured. He swung away from the freezer and ran. In the other room he turned on a faucet; the water splashed loudly.


Paul heard him gagging and puking violently into one of the stainless-steel sinks.


Strangely, he was now in full control of his emotions. When he saw his dead son, his intense anger and despair and grief were at once transformed into a deep compassion, into a tenderness that was beyond description.


“Mark,” he said softly. “It’s okay. Okay now. i’m here. I’m here with you now. You aren’t alone anymore.”


He took the remaining packages of meat from the freezer, one at a time, slowly excavating the grave.


As Paul removed the last bundle from atop the body, Sam came to the doorway. “Paul? I’ll . - . go upstairs. Use the phone. Call . . the state police.”


Paul stared into the freezer.


“Did you hear me?”


“Yes. I heard you.”


“Should I call the state police now?”


“Yes. It’s time.”


“How are you feeling?”


“I’m all right, Sam.”


“Will you be okay here—alone?”


“Sure. Fine.”


“Are you certain?”


“Sure.”


Sam hesitated, finally turned away. He took the steps two at a time, thunderously.


Paul touched the boy’s cheek.


It was cold and hard.


Somehow he found the strength to pull the body, stiff as it was, out of the freezer. He balanced his son on the edge of the chest, got both arms under him and lifted him. He swung around and put the boy on the floor, in the center of the room.


He blew on his hands to warm them.


Sam came back, still as pale as the belly of a fish. He looked at Mark. His face twisted with pain, but he didn’t cry. He kept control of himself. “There seems to be some trouble with the telephones.”


“What sort of trouble?”


“Well, the lines have been blown down between here and Bexford.”


Frowning, Paul said, “Blown down? It doesn’t seem windy enough for that.”


“Not here it isn’t. But it probably is much windier farther on


toward Bexford. In these mountains you can have a pocket of relative calm right next to a fierce storm.”


“The lines to Bexford . . .“ Paul brushed strands of stiff, frozen, blood-crusted hair from his son’s white forehead. “What does that mean to us?”


“You can ring up anyone you want in town or up at the mill. But you can’t place a long-distance call.”


“Who told you?”


“The operator. Mandy Ultman.”


“Does she have any idea when they’ll get it fixed?”


“Evidently, there’s been a lot of damage,” Sam said. “She tells me a crew of linemen from Bexford are already working. But they’ll need several hours to put things right.”


“How many hours?”


“Well, they’re not even sure they can patch it up any time before tomorrow morning.”


Paul remained at his son’s side, kneeling on the concrete floor, and he thought about what Sam had said.


“One of us should drive into Bexford and call the state police from there.”


“Okay,” Paul said.


“You want me to do it?”


“if you want. Or I will. It doesn’t matter. But first we have to move Mark to your place.”


“Move him?”


“Of course.”


“But isn’t that against the law?” He cleared his throat “I mean, the scene of the crime and all that”


“I can’t leave him here, Sam.”


“But if Bob Thorp did this, you want him to pay for it. Don’t you? If you move—move the body, what proof do you have that you actually found it here?”


Surprised by the steadiness of his own voice, Paul said, “The police forensic specialists will be able to find traces of Mark’s hair and blood in the freezer.”


"But—"


“I can’t leave him here!”


Sam nodded. “All right” “I just can’t, Sam.”


“Okay. We’ll get him to the car.” “Thank you.”


“We’ll take him to my place.”


“Thank you.” “How will we carry him?” “You—take his feet.” Sam touched the boy. “So cold.” “Be careful with him, Sam.” Sam nodded as they lifted the body. “Be gentle with him, please.” “Okay.”


“Please.”


“I will,” Sam said. “I will.”


5


2:00 P.M.


THUNDER CANNONED, and rain shattered against the windows of the police chief’s office.


Two men, employees of other governmental departments that shared the municipal building, stood with their backs to the windows, trying to look stern, authoritarian, and eminently reliable. Bob Thorp had provided them with bright yellow hooded rain slickers with POLICE stenciled across their shoulders and chests. Both men were in their middle or late thirties, yet they expressed an almost childish delight at the opportunity to wear these raincoats: adults playing cops and robbers.


“Can you use a gun?” Salsbury asked them.


They both said that they could.


Salsbury turned to Bob Thorp. “Give them guns.”


“Revolvers?” the police chief asked.


“Do you have shotguns?”


“Yes.”


"I believe those would be better than revolvers,” Salsbury said. “Don’t you agree?”


“For this operation?” Thorp said. “Yes. Much better.”


“Then give them shotguns.”


A brilliant explosion of lightning flashed against the windows. The effect was stroboscopic: everyone and every object in the


room seemed to jump rapidly back and forth for an instant, although in reality nothing moved.


Overhead the fluorescent lights flickered.


Thorp went to the metal firearms cabinet behind his desk, unlocked it, and fetched two shotguns.


“Do you know how to use these?” Salsbury asked the men in the yellow raincoats.


One of them nodded.


The other said, “Not much to it. These babies pack a hell of a lot of punch. You pretty much just have to point in the general direction of the target and pull the trigger.” He gripped the gun with both hands, admired it, smiled at it.


“Good enough,” Salsbury said. “The two of von will go out to the parking lot behind this building, get in the spare patrol car, and drive to the east end of town. Understand me so far?”

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