37

Tessa Lockland took refuge in a twenty-four-hour coin-operated laundry four blocks east of Cove Lodge and half a block off Ocean Avenue. She wanted to be someplace bright, and the banks of overhead fluorescents allowed no shadows. Alone in the laundry, she sat in a badly scarred, yellow plastic chair, staring at rows of clothes-dryer portals, as if understanding would be visited upon her from some cosmic source communicating on those circles of glass.

As a documentarist, she had to have a keen eye for the patterns in life that would give coherence to a film narratively and visually, so she had no trouble seeing patterns of darkness, death, and unknown forces in this deeply troubled town. The fantastic creatures in the motel surely had been the source of the cries she’d heard on the beach earlier that night, and her sister had no doubt been killed by those same beings, whatever the hell they were. Which sort of explained why the authorities had been so insistent that Marion okay the cremation of Janice’s body — not because the remains were corroded by seawater and half-devoured by fish, but because cremation would cover wounds that would raise unanswerable questions in an unbiased autopsy. She also saw reflections of the corruption of local authorities in the physical appearance of Ocean Avenue, where too many storefronts were empty and too many businesses were suffering, which was inexplicable for a town in which unemployment was virtually nil. She had noted an air of solemnity about the people she had seen on the streets, as well as a briskness and purposefulness that seemed odd in a laid-back northern coastal town where the hurly-burly of modern life hardly intruded.

However, her awareness of the patterns included no explanation of why the police would want to conceal the true nature of Janice’s killing. Or why the town seemed in an economic depression in spite of its prosperity. Or what in the name of God those nightmare things in the motel had been. patterns were clues to underlying truths, but her ability to recognize them did not mean she could find the answers and reveal the truths at which the patterns hinted.

She sat, shivering, in the fluorescent glare and breathed trace fumes of detergents, bleaches, fabric softeners, and the lingering staleness of the cigarette butts in the two free-standing sandfilled ashtrays, while she tried to figure what to do next. She had not lost her determination to probe into Janice’s death. But she no longer had the audacity to think she could play detective all by herself. She was going to need help and would probably have to obtain it from county or state authorities.

The first thing she had to do was get out of Moonlight Cove in one piece.

Her car was at Cove Lodge, but she did not want to go back there for it. Those … creatures might still be in the motel or watching it from the dense shrubs and trees and omnipresent shadows that were an integral part of the town. Like Carmel, California, elsewhere along the coast, Moonlight Cove was a town virtually built in a seaside forest. Tessa loved Carmel for its splendid integration of the works of man and nature, where geography and architecture often appeared to be the product of the same sculptor’s hand. Right now, however, Moonlight Cove did not draw style and grace from its verdant lushness and artful night shadows, as did Carmel; rather, this town seemed to be dressed in the thinnest veneer of civilization, beneath which something savage — even primal — watched and waited. Every grove of trees and every dark street was not the home of beauty but of the uncanny and of death. She would have found Moonlight Cove far more attractive if every street and alley and lawn and park had been lit with the same plenitude of fluorescent bulbs as the Laundromat in which she had taken refuge Maybe the police had shown up at Cove Lodge by now in response to the screams and commotion. But she would not feel any safer returning there just because cops were around. Cops were part of the problem. They would want to question her about the murders of the other guests. They would find out that Janice had been her sister, and though she might not tell them she was in town to poke into the circumstances of Janice’s death, they would suspect as much. If they had participated in a conspiracy to conceal the true nature of Janice’s death, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to deal with Tessa in a firm and final way.

She had to abandon the car.

But damned if she was going to walk out of town at night. She might be able to hitch a ride on the interstate — perhaps even from an honest trucker instead of a mobile psychopath — but between Moonlight Cove and the freeway, she would have to walk through a dark and semirural landscape, where surely she would be at even greater risk of encountering more of those mysterious beasts that had broken down her motel-room door.

Of course, they had come after her in a relatively public and well-lighted place. She had no real reason to assume that she was safer in this coin-operated laundry than in the middle of the woods. When the membrane of civilization ruptured and the primordial terror burst through, you weren’t safe anywhere, not even on the steps of a church, as she had learned in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, she would cling to the light and shun the darkness. She had stepped through an invisible wall between the reality she had always known and a different, more hostile world. As long as she remained in that Twilight Zone, it seemed wise to assume that shadows offered even less comfort and security than did bright places.

Which left her with no plan of action. Except to sit in the Laundromat and wait for morning. In daylight she might risk a long walk to the freeway.

The blank glass of the dryer windows returned her stare.

An autumn moth thumped softly against the frosted plastic panels that were suspended under the fluorescent bulbs.

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