Although slender, she is mighty. Only five feet four, she appears to tower over any adversary. She is as formidable, fearless, and fierce as she is graceful and good-hearted.
This night, however, her usual grace had deserted her, and fright had tortured her bones into unnatural angles. When I spoke, she twitched around to face me, and in her jeans and untucked flannel shirt, she seemed to be a bristling scarecrow now magically animated, confused and terrified to find itself suddenly alive, jerking at its supporting cross.
The beam of her flashlight bathed my face, but she considerately directed it toward the ground the instant she realized who I was. "Chris. Oh, God."
"What's wrong?" I asked again as I got off my bike.
"No." She turned from me and hurried toward the house. "This way, here, look."
Lilly's property is ringed by a white picket fence that she herself built. The entrance is flanked not by gateposts but by matched bougainvillea that she has pruned into trees and trained into a canopy. Her modest Cape Cod bungalow lies at the end of an intricately patterned brick walkway that she designed and laid after teaching herself masonry from books.
The front door stood open. Enticing rooms of deadly brightness lay beyond.
Instead of taking me and Orson inside, Lilly quickly led us off the bricks and across the lawn. In the still night, as I pushed my bike through the closely cropped grass, the tick of wheel bearings was the loudest sound. We went to the north side of the house.
A bedroom window had been raised. Inside, a single lamp glowed, and the walls were striped with amber light and faint honey-brown shadows from the folded cloth of the pleated shade. To the left of the bed, Star Wars action figures stood on a set of bookshelves. As the cool night sucked warmth from the house, one panel of the curtains was drawn across the sill, pale and fluttering like a troubled spirit reluctant to leave this world for the next.
"I thought the window was locked, but it mustn't have been," Lilly said frantically. "Someone opened it, some sonofabitch, and he took Jimmy away.
"Maybe it's not that bad."
"Some sick bastard," she insisted.
The flashlight jiggled, and Lilly struggled to still her trembling hand as she directed the beam at the planting bed alongside the house.
"I don't have any money," she said.
"To pay ransom. I'm not rich. So no one would take Jimmy for ransom. It's worse than that."
False Solomon's seal, laden with feathery sprays of white flowers that glittered like ice, had been trampled by the intruder. Footprints were impressed in trodden leaves and soft damp soil. They were not the prints of a runaway child but those of an adult in athletic shoes with bold tread, and judging by the depth of the impressions, the kidnapper was a large person, most likely male.
I saw that Lilly was barefoot.
"I couldn't sleep, I was watching TV, some stupid show on the TV," she said with a note of self-flagellation, as if she should have anticipated this abduction and been at Jimmy's bedside, ever vigilant.
Orson pushed between us to sniff the imprinted earth.
"I didn't hear anything," Lilly said. "Jimmy never cried out, but I got this feeling...."
Her usual beauty, as clear and deep as a reflection of eternity, was now shattered by terror, crazed by sharp lines of an anguish that was close to grief. She was held together only by desperate hope. Even in the dim backwash of the flashlight, I could hardly bear the sight of her in such pain.
"It'll be all right," I said, ashamed of this facile lie.
"I called the police," she said. "They should be here any second. Where are they?"
Personal experience had taught me to distrust the authorities in Moonlight Bay. They are corrupt. And the corruption is not merely moral, not simply a matter of bribe-taking and a taste for power; it has deeper and more disturbing origins.
Copyright © 1998 Dean Koontz.
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