The Bad Placeby Dean Koontz
Frank Pallard is afraid to fall asleep. Every morning he awakes, he discovers something strange--like blood on his hands--a bizarre mystery that tortures his soul. Two investigators have been hired to follow the haunted man. But only one person--a young man with Down syndrome--can imagine where their journeys might end. That terrible place from which no one ever… See more details below
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Frank Pallard is afraid to fall asleep. Every morning he awakes, he discovers something strange--like blood on his hands--a bizarre mystery that tortures his soul. Two investigators have been hired to follow the haunted man. But only one person--a young man with Down syndrome--can imagine where their journeys might end. That terrible place from which no one ever returns...the bad place.
"Koontz's skill at edge-of-the-seat writing has improved with each book. He can scare our socks off." — Boston Herald
"This is a grotesque world, much like that of Flannery O' Connor or Walker Percy...Scary, worthwhile reading." — The Times-Picayune
"Psychologically complex characters...fast-paced."
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- 6.74(w) x 10.88(h) x 1.20(d)
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- 18 - 17 Years
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“THIS IS WHITE-KNUCKLE, HAIR-CURLING-ON-THE-BACK-OF-THE-NECK READING—as close to actual physical terror as the printed word can deliver.”
—Los Angeles Times
Frank Pollard is afraid to fall asleep. Every morning he awakes, he discovers something strange—like blood on his hands—a bizarre mystery that tortures his soul. Two investigators have been hired to follow the haunted man. But only one person—a young man with Down’s syndrome—can imagine where their journeys might end. That terrible place from which no one ever returns ...
THE BAD PLACE
“Koontz’s skill at edge-of the-seat writing has improved with each book. HE CAN SCARE OUR SOCKS OFF.”
Praise for The Bad Place
“Psychologically complex characters... fast-paced... a masterly and satisfying denouement.”
—The New York Times
“The intricate plot races along. Koontz also creates characters of unusual richness and depth ... a level of perception and sensitivity that is not merely convincing; it’s astonishing.”
—The Seattle Times
“At times lyrical without ever being naive or romantic. This is a grotesque world, much like that of Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy... Scary, worthwhile reading.”
“A taut suspenseful novel that transcends genres. Total entertainment.”
—The Macon Telegraph & News
“Thoroughly absorbing and wonderfully entertaining, a real leave-the-light-on effort.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Koontz puts his readers through the emotional wringer. There are scenes... that stick in the mind long after the thriller has been laid aside.”
—The Associated Press
“Fascinating. Even his minor characters seem to live. A roller-coaster ride.”
—The Boston Globe
“Strange. Weird. Eerie. Macabre. Terrifying.”
—New York Daily News
“A compelling plot... excellent characters.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“Koontz soars... shriek-worthy suspense.”
“A roller-coaster ride.”
“The pace accelerates like an avalanche. By the time the reader reaches the denouement, he’s emotionally exhausted, shaken.”—
The Baton Rouge Advocate
“A celebration of the imagination—and every bit as creepy as you hope it will be!”
—Chattanooga News-Free Press
“Just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, Koontz tosses in yet another surprise. He masterfully weaves [many] elements into a plot that is totally involving.”
“Completely satisfying. His prose is rich and evocative. His characters are among the warmest—also the most despicable—in fiction.”
—The Indianapolis Star
“By the time you reach the end, you’ll feel as if you’ve just stepped off a roller coaster.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A stylishly terrifying adventure... characters the reader can care for, and a mystery that is truly mysterious.”
—South Bend Tribune
“You can’t stop reading. It takes you on a chilly roller-coaster ride of stomach-gripping suspense that throws you breathlessly against a brick wall at the end.”
“Hard to put down, absorbing... Each character comes alive.”
—The Memphis Commercial Appeal
“Koontz is a master.”
“Dean Koontz is on a roll. Each new novel... has brought more respect and more popularity. He creates sympathetic characters who are very human, and [the story races] from page to page.”
“This may be Koontz’s best book yet. He deftly juggles several subplots while keeping the suspense turned on high. A rousing conclusion.”
“Driving, character-rich, panoramic... a marvelously boisterous, scare-and-suspense-packed entertainment.”
“Fast and furious... surprise piled upon surprise...highly entertaining.”
—Orange County Register
“Memorable characters. Koontz has written another page-turner.”
—Gannett News Service
“Complex and fascinating characters. The character of Thomas is a tour de force of stylistics that more than anything suggests Koontz’s remarkable skill.”
“Give me more of this man’s fiction anytime. The Bad Place [is] unrelenting in its purpose to thrill, challenge, and charm. It is one of the new breed of mystery thrillers... with such explosive panache that you don’t need explosive sex or violence to keep a reader’s interest.”
Berkley titles by Dean Koontz
THE EYES OF DARKNESS
THE KEY TO MIDNIGHT
THE HOUSE OF THUNDER
THE VOICE OF THE NIGHT
THE BAD PLACE
THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT
THE FACE OF FEAR
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE BAD PLACE
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley mass-market edition / December 1990
Copyright © 1990 by Nkui, Inc.
“Afterword” copyright © 2004 by Dean Koontz.
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eISBN : 978-1-101-00719-8
Berkley Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
BERKLEY and the “B” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Teachers often affect our lives more than they realize. From high school days to the present, I have had teachers to whom I will remain forever indebted, not merely because of what they taught me, but because they provided the invaluable examples of dedication, kindness, and generosity of spirit that have given me an unshakable faith in the basic goodness of the human species. This book is dedicated to:
Steve and Jean Hernishin
Every eye sees its own special vision;
every ear hears a most different song.
In each man’s troubled heart, an incision would reveal a unique, shameful wrong.
Stranger fiends hide here in human guise than reside in the valleys of Hell.
But goodness, kindness and love arise in the heart of the poor beast, as well.
—The Book of Counted Sorrows
THE NIGHT was becalmed and curiously silent, as if the alley were an abandoned and windless beach in the eye of a hurricane, between the tempest past and the tempest coming. A faint scent of smoke hung on the motionless air, although no smoke was visible.
Sprawled facedown on the cold pavement, Frank Pollard did not move when he regained consciousness; he waited in the hope that his confusion would dissipate. He blinked, trying to focus. Veils seemed to flutter within his eyes. He sucked deep breaths of the cool air, tasting the invisible smoke, grimacing at the acrid tang of it.
Shadows loomed like a convocation of robed figures, crowding around him. Gradually his vision cleared, but in the weak yellowish light that came from far behind him, little was revealed. A large trash dumpster, six or eight feet from him, was so dimly outlined that for a moment it seemed ineffably strange, as though it were an artifact of an alien civilization. Frank stared at it for a while before he realized what it was.
He did not know where he was or how he had gotten there. He could not have been unconscious longer than a few seconds, for his heart was pounding as if he had been running for his life only moments ago.
Fireflies in a windstorm....
That phrase took flight through his mind, but he had no idea what it meant. When he tried to concentrate on it and make sense of it, a dull headache developed above his right eye.
Fireflies in a windstorm...
He groaned softly.
Between him and the dumpster, a shadow among shadows moved, quick and sinuous. Small but radiant green eyes regarded him with icy interest.
Frightened, Frank pushed up onto his knees. A thin, involuntary cry issued from him, almost less like a human sound than like the muted wail of a reed instrument.
The green-eyed observer scampered away. A cat. Just an ordinary black cat.
Frank got to his feet, swayed dizzily, and nearly fell over an object that had been on the blacktop beside him. Gingerly he bent down and picked it up: a flight bag made of supple leather, packed full, surprisingly heavy. He supposed it was his. He could not remember. Carrying the bag, he tottered to the dumpster and leaned against its rusted flank.
Looking back, he saw that he was between rows of what seemed to be two-story stucco apartment buildings. All of the windows were black. On both sides, the tenants’ cars were pulled nose-first into covered parking stalls. The queer yellow glow, sour and sulfurous, almost more like the product of a gas flame than the luminescence of an incandescent electric bulb, came from a streetlamp at the end of the block, too far away to reveal the details of the alleyway in which he stood.
As his rapid breathing slowed and as his heartbeat decelerated, he abruptly realized that he did not know who he was. He knew his name—Frank Pollard—but that was all. He did not know how old he was, what he did for a living, where he had come from, where he was going, or why. He was so startled by his predicament that for a moment his breath caught in his throat; then his heartbeat soared again, and he let his breath out in a rush.
Fireflies in a windstorm...
What the hell did that mean?
The headache above his right eye corkscrewed across his forehead.
He looked frantically left and right, searching for an object or an aspect of the scene that he might recognize, anything, an anchor in a world that was suddenly too strange. When the night offered nothing to reassure him, he turned his quest inward, desperately seeking something familiar in himself, but his own memory was even darker than the passageway around him.
Gradually he became aware that the scent of smoke had faded, replaced by a vague but nauseating smell of rotting garbage in the dumpster. The stench of decomposition filled him with thoughts of death, which seemed to trigger a vague recollection that he was on the run from someone—or something—that wanted to kill him. When he tried to recall why he was fleeing, and from whom, he could not further illuminate that scrap of memory; in fact, it seemed more an awareness based on instinct than a genuine recollection.
A puff of wind swirled around him. Then calm returned, as if the dead night was trying to come back to life but had managed just one shuddering breath. A single piece of wadded paper, swept up by that insufflation, clicked along the pavement and scraped to a stop against his right shoe.
Then another puff.
The paper whirled away.
Again the night was dead calm.
Something was happening. Frank sensed that these short-lived whiffs of wind had some malevolent source, ominous meaning.
Irrationally, he was sure that he was about to be crushed by a great weight. He looked up into the clear sky, at the bleak and empty blackness of space and at the malignant brilliance of the distant stars. If something was descending toward him, Frank could not see it.
The night exhaled once more. Harder this time. Its breath was sharp and dank.
He was wearing running shoes, white athletic socks, jeans, and a long-sleeved blue-plaid shirt. He had no jacket, and he could have used one. The air was not frigid, just mildly bracing. But a coldness was in him, too, a gelid fear, and he shivered uncontrollably between the cool caress of the night air and that inner chill.
The gust of wind died.
Stillness reclaimed the night.
Convinced that he had to get out of there—and fast—he pushed away from the dumpster. He staggered along the alley, retreating from the end of the block where the streetlamp glowed, into darker realms, with no destination in mind, driven only by the sense that this place was dangerous and that safety, if indeed safety could be found, lay elsewhere.
The wind rose again, and with it, this time, came an eerie whistling, barely audible, like the distant music of a flute made of some strange bone.
Within a few steps, as Frank became surefooted and as his eyes adapted to the murky night, he arrived at a confluence of passageways. Wrought-iron gates in pale stucco arches lay to his left and right.
He tried the gate on the left. It was unlocked, secured only by a simple gravity latch. The hinges squeaked, eliciting a wince from Frank, who hoped the sound had not been heard by his pursuer.
By now, although no adversary was in sight, Frank had no doubt that he was the object of a chase. He knew it as surely as a hare knew when a fox was in the field.
The wind huffed again at his back, and the flutelike music, though barely audible and lacking a discernible melody, was haunting. It pierced him. It sharpened his fear.
Beyond the black iron gate, flanked by feathery ferns and bushes, a walkway led between a pair of two-story apartment buildings. Frank followed it into a rectangular courtyard somewhat revealed by low-wattage security lamps at each end. First-floor apartments opened onto a covered promenade; the doors of the second-floor units were under the tile roof of an iron-railed balcony. Lightless windows faced a swath of grass, beds of azaleas and succulents, and a few palms.
A frieze of spiky palm-frond shadows lay across one palely illuminated wall, as motionless as if they were carved on a stone entablature. Then the mysterious flute warbled softly again, the reborn wind huffed harder than before, and the shadows danced, danced. Frank’s own distorted, dark reflection whirled briefly over the stucco, among the terpsichorean silhouettes, as he hurried across the courtyard. He found another walkway, another gate, and ultimately the street on which the apartment complex faced.
It was a side street without lampposts. There, the reign of the night was undisputed.
The blustery wind lasted longer than before, churned harder. When the gust ended abruptly, with an equally abrupt cessation of the unmelodic flute, the night seemed to have been left in a vacuum, as though the departing turbulence had taken with it every wisp of breathable air. Then Frank’s ears popped as if from a sudden altitude change; as he rushed across the deserted street toward the cars parked along the far curb, air poured in around him again.
He tried four cars before finding one unlocked, a Ford. Slipping behind the wheel, he left the door open to provide some light.
He looked back the way he had come.
The apartment complex was dead-of-the-night still. Wrapped in darkness. An ordinary building yet inexplicably sinister.
No one was in sight.
Nevertheless, Frank knew someone was closing in on him.
He reached under the dashboard, pulled out a tangle of wires, and hastily jump-started the engine before realizing that such a larcenous skill suggested a life outside of the law. Yet he didn’t feel like a thief. He had no sense of guilt and no antipathy for—or fear of—the police. In fact, at the moment, he would have welcomed a cop to help him deal with whoever or whatever was on his tail. He felt not like a criminal, but like a man who had been on the run for an exhaustingly long time, from an implacable and relentless enemy.
As he reached for the handle of the open door, a brief pulse of pale blue light washed over him, and the driver’s-side windows of the Ford exploded. Tempered glass showered into the rear seat, gummy and minutely fragmented. Since the front door was not closed, that window didn’t spray over him; instead, most of it fell out of the frame, onto the pavement.
Yanking the door shut, he glanced through the gap where the glass had been, toward the gloom-enfolded apartments, saw no one.
Frank threw the Ford in gear, popped the brake, and tramped hard on the accelerator. Swinging away from the curb, he clipped the rear bumper of the car parked in front of him. A brief peal of tortured metal rang sharply across the night.
But he was still under attack: A scintillant blue light, at most one second in duration, lit up the car; over its entire breadth the windshield crazed with thousands of jagged lines, though it had been struck by nothing he could see. Frank averted his face and squeezed his eyes shut just in time to avoid being blinded by flying fragments. For a moment he could not see where he was going, but he didn’t let up on the accelerator, preferring the danger of collision to the greater risk of braking and giving his unseen enemy time to reach him. Glass rained over him, spattered across the top of his bent head; luckily, it was safety glass, and none of the fragments cut him.
He opened his eyes, squinting into the gale that rushed through the now empty windshield frame. He saw that he’d gone half a block and had reached the intersection. He whipped the wheel to the right, tapping the brake pedal only lightly, and turned onto a more brightly lighted thoroughfare.
Like Saint Elmo’s fire, sapphire-blue light glimmered on the chrome, and when the Ford was halfway around the corner, one of the rear tires blew. He had heard no gunfire. A fraction of a second later, the other rear tire blew.
The car rocked, slewed to the left, began to fishtail.
Frank fought the steering wheel.
Both front tires ruptured simultaneously.
The car rocked again, even as it glided sideways, and the sudden collapse of the front tires compensated for the leftward slide of the rear end, giving Frank a chance to grapple the spinning steering wheel into submission.
Again, he had heard no gunfire. He didn’t know why all of this was happening—yet he did.
That was the truly frightening part: On some deep subconscious level he did know what was happening, what strange force was swiftly destroying the car around him, and he also knew that his chances of escaping were poor.
A flicker of twilight blue ...
The rear window imploded. Gummy yet prickly wads of safety glass flew past him. Some smacked the back of his head, stuck in his hair.
Frank made the corner and kept going on four flats. The sound of flapping rubber, already shredded, and the grinding of metal wheel rims could be heard even above the roar of the wind that buffeted his face.
He glanced at the rearview mirror. The night was a great black ocean behind him, relieved only by widely spaced streetlamps that dwindled into the gloom like the lights of a double convoy of ships.
According to the speedometer, he was doing thirty miles an hour just after coming out of the turn. He tried to push it up to forty in spite of the ruined tires, but something clanged and clinked under the hood, rattled and whined, and the engine coughed, and he could not coax any more speed out of it.
When he was halfway to the next intersection, the headlights either burst or winked out. Frank couldn’t tell which. Even though the streetlamps were widely spaced, he could see well enough to drive.
The engine coughed, then again, and the Ford began to lose speed. He didn’t brake for the stop sign at the next intersection. Instead he pumped the accelerator but to no avail.
Finally the steering failed too. The wheel spun uselessly in his sweaty hands.
Evidently the tires had been completely torn apart. The contact of the steel wheel rims with the pavement flung up gold and turquoise sparks.
Fireflies in a windstorm....
He still didn’t know what that meant.
Now moving about twenty miles an hour, the car headed straight toward the right-hand curb. Frank tramped the brakes, but they no longer functioned.
The car hit the curb, jumped it, grazed a lamppost with a sound of sheet metal kissing steel, and thudded against the bole of an immense date palm in front of a white bungalow. Lights came on in the house even as the final crash was echoing on the cool night air.
Frank threw the door open, grabbed the leather flight bag from the seat beside him, and got out, shedding fragments of gummy yet splintery safety glass.
Though only mildly cool, the air chilled his face because sweat trickled down from his forehead. He could taste salt when he licked his lips.
A man had opened the front door of the bungalow and stepped onto the porch. Lights flicked on at the house next door.
Frank looked back the way he had come. A thin cloud of luminous sapphire dust seemed to blow through the street. As if shattered by a tremendous surge of current, the bulbs in the streetlamps exploded along the two blocks behind him, and shards of glass, glinting like ice, rained on the blacktop. In the resultant gloom, he thought he saw a tall, shadowy figure, more than a block away, coming after him, but he could not be sure.
To Frank’s left, the guy from the bungalow was hurrying down the walk toward the palm tree where the Ford had come to rest. He was talking, but Frank wasn’t listening to him.
Clutching the leather satchel, Frank turned and ran. He was not sure what he was running from, or why he was so afraid, or where he might hope to find a haven, but he ran nonetheless because he knew that if he stood there only a few seconds longer, he would be killed.
THE WINDOWLESS rear compartment of the Dodge van was illuminated by tiny red, blue, green, white, and amber indicator bulbs on banks of electronic surveillance equipment but primarily by the soft green glow from the two computer screens, which made that claustrophobic space seem like a chamber in a deep-sea submersible.
Dressed in a pair of Rockport walking shoes, beige cords, and a maroon sweater, Robert Dakota sat on a swivel chair in front of the twin video display terminals. He tapped his feet against the floorboards, keeping time, and with his right hand he happily conducted an unseen orchestra.
Bobby was wearing a headset with stereo earphones and with a small microphone suspended an inch or so in front of his lips. At the moment he was listening to Benny Goodman’s “One O’Clock Jump,” the primo version of Count Basie’s classic swing composition, six and a half minutes of heaven. As Jess Stacy took up another piano chorus and as Harry James launched into the brilliant trumpet stint that led to the most famous rideout in swing history, Bobby was deep into the music.
But he was also acutely aware of the activity on the display terminals. The one on the right was linked, via microwave, with the computer system at the Decodyne Corporation, in front of which his van was parked. It revealed what Tom Rasmussen was up to in those offices at 1:10 Thursday morning: no good.
One by one, Rasmussen was accessing and copying the files of the software-design team that had recently completed Decodyne’s new and revolutionary word-processing program, “Whizard.” The Whizard files carried well-constructed lockout instructions-electronic drawbridges, moats, and ramparts. Tom Rasmussen was an expert in computer security, however, and there was no fortress that he could not penetrate, given enough time. Indeed, if Whizard had not been developed on a secure in-house computer system with no links to the outside world, Rasmussen would have slipped into the files from beyond the walls of Decodyne, via a modem and telephone line.
Ironically, he had been working as the night security guard at Decodyne for five weeks, having been hired on the basis of elaborate—and nearly convincing—false papers. Tonight he had breached Whizard’s final defenses. In a while he would walk out of Decodyne with a packet of floppy diskettes worth a fortune to the company’s competitors.
“One O’Clock Jump” ended.
Into the microphone Bobby said, “Music stop.”
That vocal command cued his computerized compact-disc system to switch off, opening the headset for communication with Julie, his wife and business partner.
“You there, babe?”
From her surveillance position in a car at the farthest end of the parking lot behind Decodyne, she had been listening to the same music through her own headset. She sighed. “Did Vernon Brown ever play better trombone than the night of the Carnegie concert?”
“What about Krupa on the drums?”
“Auditory ambrosia. And an aphrodisiac. The music makes me want to go to bed with you.”
“Can’t. Not sleepy. Besides, we’re being private detectives, remember?”
“I like being lovers better.”
“We don’t earn our daily bread by making love.”
“I’d pay you,” she said.
“Yeah? How much?”
“Oh, in daily-bread terms ... half a loaf.”
“I’m worth a whole loaf.”
Julie said, “Actually, you’re worth a whole loaf, two croissants, and a bran muffin.”
She had a pleasing, throaty, and altogether sexy voice that he loved to listen to, especially through headphones, when she sounded like an angel whispering in his ears. She would have been a marvelous big-band singer if she had been around in the 1930s and ’40s—and if she had been able to carry a tune. She was a great swing dancer, but she couldn’t croon worth a damn; when she was in the mood to sing along with old recordings by Margaret Whiting or the Andrews Sisters or Rosemary Clooney or Marion Hutton, Bobby had to leave the room out of respect for the music.
She said, “What’s Rasmussen doing?”
Bobby checked the second video display, to his left, which was linked to Decodyne’s interior security cameras. Rasmussen thought he had over-ridden the cameras and was unobserved; but they had been watching him for the last few weeks, night after night, and recording his every treachery on videotape.
“Old Tom’s still in George Ackroyd’s office, at the VDT there.” Ackroyd was project director for Whizard. Bobby glanced at the other display, which duplicated what Rasmussen was seeing on Ackroyd’s computer screen. “He just copied the last Whizard file onto diskette.”
Rasmussen switched off the computer in Ackroyd’s office.
Simultaneously the linked VDT in front of Bobby went blank.
Bobby said, “He’s finished. He’s got it all now.”
Julie said, “The worm. He must be feeling smug.”
Bobby turned to the display on his left, leaned forward, and watched the black-and-white image of Rasmussen at Ackroyd’s terminal. “I think he’s grinning.”
“We’ll wipe that grin off his face.”
“Let’s see what he does next. Want to make a bet? Will he stay in there, finish his shift, and waltz out in the morning—or leave right now?”
“Now,” Julie said. “Or soon. He won’t risk getting caught with the floppies. He’ll leave while no one else is there.”
“No bet. I think you’re right.”
The transmitted image on the monitor flickered, rolled, but Rasmussen did not get out of Ackroyd’s chair. In fact he slumped back, as if exhausted. He yawned and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“He seems to be resting, gathering his energy,” Bobby said.
“Let’s have another tune while we wait for him to move.”
“Good idea.” He gave the CD player the start-up cue— “Begin music”—and was rewarded with Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
On the monitor, Tom Rasmussen rose from the chair in Ackroyd’s dimly lighted office. He yawned again, stretched, and crossed the room to the big windows that looked down on Michaelson Drive, the street on which Bobby was parked.
If Bobby had slipped forward, out of the rear of the van and into the driver’s compartment, he probably would have been able to see Rasmussen standing up there at the second-floor window, silhouetted by the glow of Ackroyd’s desk lamp, staring out at the night. He stayed where he was, however, satisfied with the view on the screen.
Miller’s band was playing the famous “In the Mood” riff, again and again, gradually fading away, almost disappearing entirely but ... now blasting back at full power to repeat the entire cycle.
In Ackroyd’s office, Rasmussen finally turned from the window and looked up at the security camera that was mounted on the wall near the ceiling. He seemed to be staring straight at Bobby, as if aware of being watched. He moved a few steps closer to the camera, smiling.
Bobby said, “Music stop,” and the Miller band instantly fell silent. To Julie, he said, “Something strange here...”
Rasmussen stopped just under the security camera, still grinning up at it. From the pocket of his uniform shirt, he withdrew a folded sheet of typing paper, which he opened and held toward the lens. A message had been printed in bold black letters: GOODBYE, ASSHOLE.
“Trouble for sure,” Bobby said.
“I don’t know.”
An instant later he did know: Automatic weapons fire shattered the night—he could hear the clatter even with his earphones on—and armor-piercing slugs tore through the walls of the van.
Julie evidently picked up the gunfire through her headset. “Bobby, no!”
“Get the hell out of there, babe! Run!”
Even as he spoke, Bobby tore free of the headset and dived off his chair, lying as flat against the floorboards as he could.
FRANK POLLARD sprinted from street to street, from alley to alley, sometimes cutting across the lawns of the dark houses. In one backyard a large black dog with yellow eyes barked and snapped at him all the way to the board fence, briefly snaring one leg of his pants as he clambered over that barrier. His heart was pounding painfully, and his throat was hot and raw because he was sucking in great drafts of the cool, dry air through his open mouth. His legs ached. As if made of iron, the flight bag pulled on his right arm, and with each lunging step that he took, pain throbbed in his wrist and shoulder socket. But he did not pause and did not glance back, because he felt as if something monstrous was at his heels, a creature that never required rest and that would turn him to stone with its gaze if he dared set eyes upon it.
In time he crossed an avenue, devoid of traffic at that late hour, and hurried along the entrance walk to another apartment complex. He went through a gate into another courtyard, this one centered by an empty swimming pool with a cracked and canted apron.
The place was lightless, but Frank’s vision had adapted to the night, and he could see well enough to avoid falling into the drained pool. He was searching for shelter. Perhaps there was a communal laundry room where he could force the lock and hide.
He had discovered something else about himself as he fled his unknown pursuer: He was thirty or forty pounds overweight and out of shape. He desperately needed to catch his breath—and think.
As he was hurrying past the doors of the ground-floor units, he realized that a couple of them were standing open, sagging on ruined hinges. Then he saw that cracks webbed some windows, holes pocked a few, and other panes were missing altogether. The grass was dead, too, as crisp as ancient paper, and the shrubbery was withered; a seared palm tree leaned at a precarious angle. The apartment complex was abandoned, awaiting a wrecking crew.
He came to a set of crumbling concrete stairs at the north end of the courtyard, glanced back. Whoever... whatever was following him was still not in sight. Gasping, he climbed to the second-floor balcony and moved from one apartment to another until he found a door ajar. It was warped: the hinges were stiff, but they worked without much noise. He slipped inside, pushing the door shut behind him.
The apartment was a well of shadows, oil-black and pooled deep. Faint ash-gray light outlined the windows but provided no illumination to the room.
He listened intently.
The silence and darkness were equal in depth.
Cautiously, Frank inched toward the nearest window, which faced the balcony and courtyard. Only a few shards of glass remained in the frame, but lots of fragments crunched and clinked under his feet. He trod carefully, both to avoid cutting a foot and to make as little noise as possible.
At the window he halted, listened again.
As if it was the gelid ectoplasm of a slothful ghost, a sluggish current of cold air slid inward across the few jagged points of the glass that had not already fallen from the frame.
Frank’s breath steamed in front of his face, pale ribbons of vapor in the gloom.
The silence remained unbroken for ten seconds, twenty, thirty, a full minute.
Perhaps he had escaped.
He was just about to turn away from the window when he heard footsteps outside. At the far end of the courtyard. On the walkway that led in from the street. Hard-soled shoes rang against the concrete, and each footfall echoed hollowly off the stucco walls of the surrounding buildings.
Frank stood motionless and breathed through his mouth, as if the stalker could be counted on to have the hearing of a jungle cat.
When he entered the courtyard from the entrance walkway, the stranger halted. After a long pause he began to move again; though the overlapping echoes made sounds deceptive, he seemed to be heading slowly north along the apron of the pool, toward the same stairs by which Frank, himself, had climbed to the second floor of the apartment complex.
Each deliberate, metronomic footfall was like the heavy tick of a headsman’s clock mounted on a guillotine railing, counting off the seconds until the appointed hour of the blade’s descent.
As IF alive, the Dodge van shrieked with every bullet that tore through its sheet-metal walls, and the wounds were inflicted not one at a time but by the score, with such relentless fury, the assault had to involve at least two machine guns. While Bobby Dakota lay flat on the floor, trying to catch God’s attention with fervent heaven-directed prayers, fragments of metal rained down on him. One of the computer screens imploded, then the other terminal, too, and all the indicator lights went out, but the interior of the van was not entirely dark; showers of amber and green and crimson and silver sparks erupted from the damaged electronic units as one steel-jacketed round after another pierced equipment housings and shattered circuit boards. Glass fell on him, too, and splinters of plastic, bits of wood, scraps of paper; the air was filled with a virtual blizzard of debris. But the noise was the worst of it; in his mind he saw himself sealed inside a great iron drum, while half a dozen big bikers, stoned on PCP, pounded on the outside of his prison with tire irons, really huge bikers with massive muscles and thick necks and coarse peltlike beards and wildly colorful Death’s-head tattoos on their arms—hell, tattoos on their face—guys as big as Thor, the Viking god, but with blazing, psychotic eyes.
Bobby had a vivid imagination. He had always thought that was one of his best qualities, one of his strengths. But he could not simply imagine his way out of this mess.
With every passing second, as slugs continued to crash into the van, he grew more astonished that he had not been hit. He was pressed to the floor, as tight as a carpet, and he tried to imagine that his body was only a quarter of an inch thick, a target with an incredibly low profile, but he still expected to get his ass shot off.
He had not anticipated the need for a gun; it wasn’t that kind of case. At least it hadn’t seemed to be that kind of case. A .38 revolver was in the van glovebox, well beyond his reach, which did not cause him a lot of frustration, actually, because a single handgun against a pair of automatic weapons was not much use.
The gunfire stopped.
After that cacophony of destruction, the silence was so profound, Bobby felt as if he had gone deaf.
The air reeked of hot metal, overheated electronic components, scorched insulation—and gasoline. Evidently the van’s tank had been punctured. The engine was still chugging, and a few sparks spat out of the shattered equipment surrounding Bobby, and his chances of escaping a flash fire were a whole lot worse than his chances of winning fifty million bucks in the state lottery.
He wanted to get the hell out of there, but if he burst out of the van, they might be waiting with machine guns to cut him down. On the other hand, if he continued to hug the floor in the darkness, counting on them to give him up for dead without checking on him, the Dodge might flare like a camp-fire primed with starter fluid, toasting him as crisp as a marshmallow.
He had no difficulty imagining himself stepping out of the van and being hit immediately by a score of bullets, jerking and twitching in a spasmodic death dance across the blacktop street, like a broken marionette jerked around on tangled strings. But he found it even easier to imagine his skin peeling off in the fire, flesh bubbling and smoking, hair whooshing up like a torch, eyes melting, teeth turning coal-black as flames seared his tongue and followed his breath down his throat to his lungs.
Sometimes a vivid imagination was definitely a curse.
Suddenly the gasoline fumes became so heavy that he had trouble drawing breath, so he started to get up.
Outside, a car horn began to blare. He heard a racing engine drawing rapidly nearer.
Someone shouted, and a machine gun opened fire again.
Bobby hit the floor, wondering what the hell was going on, but as the car with the blaring horn drew nearer, he realized what must be happening: Julie. Julie was happening. Sometimes she was like a natural force; she happened the way a storm happened, the way lightning happened, abruptly crackling down a dark sky. He had told her to get out of there, to save herself, but she had not listened to him; he wanted to kick her butt for being so bullheaded, but he loved her for it too.
SIDLING AWAY from the broken window, Frank tried to time his steps to those of the man in the courtyard below, with the hope that any noise he made, trodding on glass, would be covered by his unseen enemy’s advance. He figured that he was in the living room of the apartment, that it was pretty much empty except for whatever detritus had been left behind by the last tenants or had blown through the missing windows, and indeed he made it across that chamber and into a hallway in relative silence, without colliding with anything.
He hurriedly felt his way along the hall, which was as black as a predator’s lair. It smelled of mold and mildew and urine. He passed the entrance to a room, kept going, turned right through the next doorway, and shuffled to another broken window. This one had no splinters of glass left in the frame, and it did not face the courtyard but looked onto a lamplit and deserted street.
Something rustled behind him.
He turned, blinking blindly at the gloom, and almost cried out.
But the sound must have been made by a rat scurrying along the floor, close to the wall, across dry leaves or bits of paper. Just a rat.
Frank listened for footsteps, but if the stalker was still homing on him, the hollow heel clicks of his approach were completely muffled by the walls that now intervened.
He looked out the window again. The dead lawn lay below, as dry as sand and twice as brown, offering little cushion. He dropped the leather flight bag, which landed with a thud. Wincing at the prospect of the leap, he climbed onto the sill, crouching in the broken-out window, hands braced against the frame, where for a moment he hesitated.
A gust of wind ruffled his hair and coolly caressed his face. But it was a normal draft, nothing like the preternatural whiffs of wind that, earlier, had been accompanied by the unearthly and unmelodic music of a distant flute.
Suddenly, behind Frank, a blue flash pulsed out of the living room, down the hall, and through the doorway. The strange tide of light was trailed closely by an explosion and a concussion wave that shook the walls and seemed to churn the air into a more solid substance. The front door had been blasted to pieces; he heard chunks of it raining down on the floor of the apartment a couple of rooms away.
He jumped out of the window, landed on his feet. But his knees gave way, and he fell flat on the dead lawn.
At that same moment a large truck turned the corner. Its cargo bed had slat sides and a wooden tailgate. The driver smoothly shifted gears and drove past the apartment house, apparently unaware of Frank.
He scrambled to his feet, plucked the satchel off the barren lawn, and ran into the street. Having just rounded the corner, the truck was not moving fast, and Frank managed to grab the tailgate and pull himself up, one-handed, until he was standing on the rear bumper.
As the truck accelerated, Frank looked back at the decaying apartment complex. No mysterious blue light glimmered at any of the windows; they were all as black and empty as the sockets of a skull.
The truck turned right at the next corner, moving away into the sleepy night.
Exhausted, Frank clung to the tailgate. He would have been able to hold on better if he had dropped the leather flight bag, but he held fast to it because he suspected that its contents might help him to learn who he was and from where he had come and from what he was running.
CUT AND run! Bobby actually thought she would cut and run when trouble struck—“Get the hell out of there, babe! Run!”—would cut and run just because he told her to, as if she was an obedient little wifey, not a full-fledged partner in the agency, not a damned good investigator in her own right, just a token backup who couldn’t take the heat when the furnace kicked on. Well, to hell with that.
In her mind she could see his lovable face—merry blue eyes, pug nose, smattering of freckles, generous mouth—framed by thick honey-gold hair that was mussed (as was most often the case) like that of a small boy who had just gotten up from a nap. She wanted to bop his pug nose just hard enough to make his blue eyes water, so he’d have no doubt how the cut-and-run suggestion annoyed her.
She had been on surveillance behind Decodyne, at the far end of the corporate parking lot, in the deep shadows under a massive Indian laurel. The moment Bobby signaled trouble, she started the Toyota’s engine. By the time she heard gunfire over the earphones, she had shifted gears, popped the emergency brake, switched on the headlights, and jammed the accelerator toward the floor.
At first she kept the headset on, calling Bobby’s name, trying to get an answer from him, hearing only the most godawful ruckus from his end. Then the set went dead; she couldn’t hear anything at all, so she pulled it off and threw it into the backseat.
Cut and run! Damn him!
When she reached the end of the last row in the parking lot, she let up on the accelerator with her right foot, simultaneously tapping the brake pedal with her left foot, finessing the small car into a slide, which carried it onto the access road that led around the big building. She turned the steering wheel into the slide, then gave the heap some gas again even before the back end had stopped skidding and shuddering. The tires barked, and the engine shrieked, and with a rattle-squeak-twang of tortured metal, the car leaped forward.
They were shooting at Bobby, and Bobby probably wasn’t even able to shoot back, because he was lax about carrying a gun on every job; he went armed only when it seemed that the current business was likely to involve violence. The Decodyne assignment had looked peaceable enough; sometimes industrial espionage could turn nasty, but the bad guy in this case was Tom Rasmussen, a computer nerd and a greedy son of a bitch, clever as a dog reading Shakespeare on a high wire, with a record of theft via computer but with no blood on his hands. He was the high-tech equivalent of a meek, embezzling bank clerk—or so he had seemed.
But Julie was armed on every job. Bobby was the optimist; she was the pessimist. Bobby expected people to act in their own best interests and be reasonable, but Julie half expected every apparently normal person to be, in secret, a crazed psychotic. A Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum was held by a clip to the back of the glovebox lid, and an Uzi—with two spare, thirty-round magazines—lay on the other front seat. From what she had heard on the earphones before they’d gone dead, she was going to need that Uzi.
The Toyota virtually flew past the side of Decodyne, and she wheeled hard left, onto Michaelson Drive, almost rising onto two wheels, almost losing control, but not quite. Ahead, Bobby’s Dodge was parked at the curb in front of the building, and another van—a dark blue Ford—was stopped in the street, doors open wide.
Two men, who had evidently been in the Ford, were standing four or five yards from the Dodge, chopping the hell out of it with automatic weapons, blasting away with such ferocity that they seemed not to be after the man inside but to have some bizarre personal grudge against the Dodge itself. They stopped firing, turned toward her as she came out of the driveway onto Michaelson, and hurriedly jammed fresh magazines into their weapons.
Ideally, she would close the hundred-yard gap between herself and the men, pull the Toyota sideways in the street, slip out, and use the car as cover to blow out the tires on their Ford and pin them down until police arrived. But she didn’t have time for all of that. They were already raising the muzzles of their weapons.
She was unnerved at how lonely the night streets looked at this hour in the heart of metropolitan Orange County, barren of traffic, washed by the urine-yellow light of the sodium-vapor streetlamps. They were in an area of banks and office buildings, no residences, no restaurants or bars within a couple of blocks. It might as well have been a city on the moon, or a vision of the world after it had been swept by an Apocalyptic disease that had left only a handful of survivors.
She didn’t have time to handle the two gunmen by the book, and she could not count on help from any quarter, so she would have to do what they least expected: play kamikaze, use her car as a weapon.
The instant she had the Toyota fully under control, she pressed the accelerator tight to the floorboards and rocketed straight at the two bastards. They opened fire, but she was already slipping down in the seat and leaning sideways a little, trying to keep her head below the dashboard and still hold the wheel relatively steady. Bullets snapped and whined off the car. The windshield burst. A second later Julie hit one of the gunmen so hard that the impact snapped her head forward, against the wheel, cutting her forehead, snapping her teeth together forcefully enough to make her jaw ache; even as pain needled through her face, she heard the body bounce off the front bumper and slam onto the hood.
With blood trickling down her forehead and dripping from her right eyebrow, Julie jabbed at the brakes and sat up at the same time. She was confronted by a man’s wide-eyed corpse jammed in the frame of the empty windshield. His face was in front of the steering wheel—teeth chipped, lips torn, chin slashed, cheek battered, left eye missing—and one of his broken legs was inside the car, hooked down over the dashboard.
Julie found the brake pedal and pumped it. With the sudden drop in speed, the dead man was dislodged. His limp body rolled across the hood, and when the car slid to a shaky halt, he vanished over the front end.
Heart racing, blinking to keep the stinging blood from blurring the vision in her right eye, Julie snatched the Uzi from the seat beside her, shoved open the door, and rolled out, moving fast and staying low.
The other gunman was already in the blue Ford van. He gave it gas before remembering to shift out of park, so the tires screamed and smoked.
Julie squeezed off two short bursts from the Uzi, blowing out both tires on her side of the van.
But the gunman didn’t stop. He shifted gears at last and tried to drive past her on two ruined tires.
The guy might have killed Bobby; now he was getting away. He would probably never be found if Julie didn’t stop him. Reluctantly she swung the Uzi higher and emptied the magazine into the side window of the van. The Ford accelerated, then suddenly slowed and swung to the right, at steadily diminishing speed, in a long arc that carried it to the far curb, where it came to a halt with a jolt.
No one got out.
Keeping an eye on the Ford, Julie leaned into her car, plucked a spare magazine from the seat, and reloaded the Uzi. She approached the idling van cautiously and pulled open the door, but caution was not required because the man behind the wheel was dead. Feeling a little sick, she reached in and switched off the engine.
Briefly, as she turned from the Ford and hurried toward the bullet-riddled Dodge, the only sounds she could hear were the soughing of a faint breeze in the lush corporate landscaping that flanked the street, punctuated by the gentle hiss and rattle of palm fronds. Then she also heard the idling engine of the Dodge, simultaneously smelled gasoline, and shouted, “Bobby!”
Before she reached the white van, the back doors creaked open, and Bobby came out, shedding twists of metal, chunks of plastic, bits of glass, wood chips, and scraps of paper. He was gasping, no doubt because the gasoline fumes had driven most of the breathable air out of the Dodge’s rear quarters.
Sirens rose in the distance.
Together they quickly walked away from the van. They had gone only a few steps when orange light flared and flames rose in a wooooosh from the gasoline pooled on the pavement, enveloping the vehicle in bright shrouds. They hurried beyond the corona of intense heat that surrounded the Dodge and stood for a moment, blinking at the wreckage, then at each other.
The sirens were drawing nearer.
He said, “You’re bleeding.”
“Just skinned my forehead a little.”
“It’s nothing. What about you?”
He sucked in a deep breath. “I’m okay.”
“You weren’t hit?”
“Unmarked. It’s a miracle.”
“I couldn’t handle it if you’d turned up dead in there.”
“I’m not dead. I’m fine.”
“Thank God,” she said.
Then she kicked his right shin.
“Ow! What the hell?”
She kicked his left shin.
“Don’t you ever tell me to cut and run.”
“I’m a full half of this partnership in every way.”
“I’m as smart as you, as fast as you—”
He glanced at the dead man on the street, the other one in the Ford van, half visible through the open door, and he said, “That’s for sure, babe.”
“—as tough as you—”
“I know, I know. Don’t kick me again.”
She said, “What about Rasmussen?”
Bobby looked up at the Decodyne building. “You think he’s still in there?”
“The only exits from the parking lot are onto Michaelson, and he hasn’t come out this way, so unless he fled on foot, he’s in there, all right. We’ve got to nail him before he slides out of the trap with those diskettes.”
“Nothing worthwhile on the diskettes anyway,” Bobby said.
Decodyne had been on to Rasmussen from the time he applied for the job, because Dakota & Dakota Investigations— which was contracted to handle the company’s security checks—had penetrated the hacker’s highly sophisticated false ID. Decodyne’s management wanted to play along with Rasmussen long enough to discover to whom he would pass the Whizard files when he got them; they intended to prosecute the money man who had hired Rasmussen, for no doubt the hacker’s employer was one of Decodyne’s primary competitors. They had allowed Tom Rasmussen to think he had compromised the security cameras, when in fact he had been under constant observation. They also had allowed him to break down the file codes and access the information he wanted, but unknown to him they had inserted secret instructions in the files, which insured that any diskettes he acquired would be full of trash data of no use to anyone.
Flames roared and crackled, consuming the van. Julie watched chimeras of reflected flames slither and caper up the glass walls and across the blank, black windows of Decodyne, as if they were striving to reach the roof and coalesce there in the form of gargoyles.
Raising her voice slightly to compete with the fire and with the shriek of approaching sirens, she said, “Well, we thought he believed he’d circumvented the videotape records of the security cameras, but apparently he knew we were on to him.”
“So he also might’ve been smart enough to search for an anticopying directive in the files—and find a way around it.”
Bobby frowned. “You’re right.”
“So he’s probably got Whizard, unscrambled, on those diskettes.”
“Damn, I don’t want to go in there. I’ve been shot at enough tonight.”
A police cruiser turned the corner two blocks away and sped toward them, siren screaming, emergency lights casting off alternating waves of blue and red light.
“Here come the professionals,” Julie said. “Why don’t we let them take over now?”
“We were hired to do the job. We have an obligation. PI honor is a sacred thing, you know. What would Sam Spade think of us?”
She said, “Sam Spade can go spit up a rope.”
“What would Philip Marlowe think?”
“Philip Marlowe can go spit up a rope.”
“What will our client think?”
“Our client can go spit up a rope.”
“Dear, ‘spit’ isn’t the popular expression.”
“I know, but I’m a lady.”
“You certainly are.”
As the black-and-white braked in front of them, another police car turned the corner behind it, siren wailing, and a third entered Michaelson Drive from the other direction.
Julie put her Uzi on the pavement and raised her hands to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings. “I’m really glad you’re alive, Bobby.”
“You going to kick me again?”
“Not for a while.”
What People are saying about this
"Fast-paced reading...masterly."—New York Times
"Koontz's skill at edge-of-the-seat writing has improved with each book. He can scare our socks off."—Boston Herald
Meet the Author
The books of Dean Koontz are published in 38 languages, and worldwide sales top 400 million copies. Eleven of his novels have risen to number one on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and several have been adapted into feature films and TV miniseries. Dean and Gerda Koontz live in southern California with their golden retriever, Anna, grand-niece of the famous and beloved Trixie.
- Newport Beach, California
- Date of Birth:
- July 9, 1945
- Place of Birth:
- Everett, Pennsylvania
- B.S. (major in English), Shippensburg University, 1966
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