The Door to December Page 1

Author: Dean Koontz

Genres: Horror , Mystery

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PART ONE

THE GRAY ROOM

WEDNESDAY

2:50 A.M.—8:00 A.M.

1

As soon as she finished dressing, Laura went to the front door and was just in time to see the Los Angeles Police Department squad car pull to the curb in front of the house. She stepped outside, slammed the door behind her, and hurried down the walk.

Hard spikes of cold rain nailed the night to the city.

She hadn't bothered with an umbrella. She couldn't remember which closet she'd stuck it in, and she didn't want to waste time searching for it.

Thunder rolled across the dark sky, but she hardly noticed those ominous peals. To her, the pounding of her own heart was the loudest noise in the night.

The driver's door of the black-and-white opened, and a uniformed officer got out. He saw her coming, got back in, reached across the seat, and opened the front door on the passenger side.

She sat next to him, pulled the door shut. With one cold and tremulous hand, she pushed a damp strand of hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear.

The patrol car smelled strongly of pine-scented disinfectant and vaguely of vomit.

The young patrolman said, 'Mrs. McCaffrey?'

'Yes.'

'I'm Carl Quade. I'll take you to Lieutenant Haldane.'

'And to my husband,' she said anxiously.

'I don't know about that.'

'I was told they found Dylan, my husband.'

'Most likely, Lieutenant Haldane will tell you about that.'

She gagged, choked, shook her head in disgust.

Quade said, 'Sorry about the stink in here. Arrested a guy for drunken driving earlier tonight, and he had the manners of a pig.'

The odor was not what made her stomach twist and roll. She felt sick because, on the phone a few minutes ago, they had told her that her husband had been found, but they hadn't mentioned Melanie. And if Melanie was not with Dylan, where was she? Still missing? Dead? No. Unthinkable. Laura put a hand to her mouth, gritted her teeth, held her breath, waited for the nausea to subside.

She said, 'Where ... where are we going?'

'A house in Studio City. Not far.'

'Is that where they found Dylan?'

'If they told you they found him, I guess that's the place.'

'How'd they locate him? I didn't even know you people were looking for him. The police told me there was no cause for their involvement ... it wasn't their jurisdiction. I thought there was no chance I'd ever see him ... or Melanie again.'

'You'll have to talk with Lieutenant Haldane.'

'Dylan must've robbed a bank or something.' She could not conceal her bitterness. 'Stealing a child from her mother isn't enough to interest the police.'

'Buckle your seat belt, please.'

Laura fumbled nervously with the belt as they drove away from the curb, and Quade hung a U-turn in the middle of the deserted, rain-swept street.

She said, 'What about my Melanie?'

'How's that?'

'My daughter. Is she all right?'

'Sorry. I don't know anything about that, either.'

'Wasn't she with my husband?'

'Don't think so.'

'I haven't seen her in ... in almost six years.'

'Custody dispute?' he asked.

'No. He kidnapped her.'

'Really?'

'Well, the law called it a custody dispute, but as far as I'm concerned, it's kidnapping pure and simple.'

Anger and resentment took possession of her when she thought of Dylan. She tried to overcome those emotions, tried not to hate him, because she suddenly had the crazy notion that God was watching her, that He was judging her, and that if she became consumed by hatred or dwelt on negative thoughts, He would decide that she wasn't worthy of being reunited with her little girl. Crazy. She couldn't help it. Fear made her crazy. And it made her so weak that for a moment she did not even have sufficient strength to draw a breath.

Dylan. Laura wondered what it would be like to come face-to-face with him again. What could he possibly say to her that would explain his treachery—and what could she say to him that would be adequate to express her outrage and pain?

She had been trembling, but now she began to shake violently.

'You okay?' Quade asked.

'Yes,' she lied.

Quade said nothing. With the emergency beacons flashing but without using the siren, they raced across the storm-lashed west side of the city. As they sped through deep puddles, water plumed on both sides, eerily phosphorescent, like frothy white curtains drawing back to let them pass.

'She'd be nine years old now,' Laura said. 'My daughter, I mean. I can't give you much more of a description, I mean, the last time I saw her, she was only three.'

'Sorry. I didn't see any little girl.'

'Blond hair. Green eyes.'

The cop said nothing.

'Melanie must be with Dylan,' Laura said desperately, torn between joy and terror. She was jubilant at the prospect of seeing Melanie again, but afraid that the girl was dead. Laura had dreamed so often about finding Melanie's corpse in one hideous condition or another. Now she suspected the recurring nightmare would prove to have been an omen. 'She must be with Dylan. That's where she's been all these years, six long years, so why wouldn't she be with him now?'

'We'll be there in a few minutes,' Quade said. 'Lieutenant Haldane can answer all your questions.'

'They wouldn't wake me at two-thirty in the morning, drag me out in the middle of a storm, if they hadn't found Melanie too. Surely they wouldn't.'

Quade concentrated on his driving, and his silence was worse than anything he could have told her.

The thumping windshield wipers could not quite clean the glass. A persistent greasy film distorted the world beyond, so Laura felt as though she was riding through a dream.

Her palms were sweating. She blotted them on her jeans. She felt sweat trickle out of her armpits, down her sides. The rope of nausea in her stomach knotted tighter.

'Is she hurt?' Laura asked. 'Is that it? Is that why you don't want to tell me anything about her?'

Quade glanced at her. 'Really, Mrs. McCaffrey, I didn't see any little girl at the house. I'm not hiding anything from you.'

Laura slumped back against the seat.

She was on the verge of tears but was determined not to cry. Tears would be an admission that she had lost all hope of finding Melanie alive, and if she lost hope (another crazy thought), then she might actually be responsible for the child's death because (crazier) maybe Melanie's continued existence was like that of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, sustained only by constant and ardent belief. She was aware that a quiet hysteria had seized her. The idea that Melanie's continued existence depended upon her mother's belief and restraint of tears was solipsistic and irrational. Nevertheless, she clung to the idea, fighting back tears, summoning all the conviction that she could muster.

The windshield wipers thumped monotonously, and the rain drummed hollowly on the roof, and the tires hissed on the wet pavement, and Studio City seemed as far away as Hong Kong.

*  *  *

They turned off Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, a community of mismatched architecture: Spanish, Cape Cod, Tudor, colonial, and postmodern homes jammed side by side. It had been named for the old Republic Studios, where many low-budget Westerns had been shot before the advent of television. Most of Studio City's newest residents were screenwriters, painters, artists, artisans, musicians, and craftspeople of all kinds, refugees from gradually but inevitably decaying neighborhoods such as Hollywood, who were now engaged in a battle of life-styles with the older home owners.

Officer Quade pulled to a stop in front of a modest ranch house on a quiet cul-de-sac lined with winter-bare coral trees and Indian laurels with heavy foliage. Several vehicles were clustered in the street, including two mustard-green Ford sedans, two other black-and-whites, and a gray van with the city's seal on the door. But it was another van that caught and held Laura's attention, for CORONER was emblazoned across the two rear doors.

Oh, God, please no. No.

Laura closed her eyes, trying to believe that this was still part of the dream from which the telephone had ostensibly awakened her. The call from the police actually might have been part of the nightmare. In which case, Quade was part of it too. And this house. She would wake up, and none of this would be real.

But when she opened her eyes, the coroner's van was still there. The windows of the house were heavily curtained, but the entire front was bathed in the harsh glow of portable floodlights. Silvery rain slanted through the bright light, and the shivering shadows of the wind-stirred shrubbery crawled across the walls.

A uniformed policeman in a rain slicker was stationed at the curb. Another officer stood under the roof that overhung the area around the front door. They were prepared to discourage curious neighbors and other onlookers, although the bad weather and late hour seemed to be doing their job for them.

Quade got out of the car, but Laura couldn't move.

He leaned back in and said, 'This is the place.'

Laura nodded but still didn't move. She didn't want to go inside. She knew what she would find. Melanie. Dead.

Quade waited a moment, then came around the car and opened her door. He held out one hand to her.

The wind sprayed fat droplets of cold rain past Quade, into the car.

He frowned. 'Mrs. McCaffrey? Are you crying?'

She couldn't shift her gaze from the coroner's van. When it drove off with Melanie's small body, it would carry Laura's hope away, as well, and would leave her with a future as dead as her daughter.

In a voice no less tremulous than the wind-shaken leaves on the Indian laurels, she said, 'You lied to me.'

'Huh? Hey, no, not at all, really.'

She wouldn't look at him.

Blowing air between his lips, making an odd horse like sound that was hardly appropriate to the circumstances, he said, 'Well, yeah, this is a homicide case. We've got a couple of bodies.'

A scream swelled in her, and when she held it back, the pent-up pressure was a painful burning in her chest.

Quade quickly continued. 'But your little girl isn't in there. She's not one of the bodies. Honestly, she isn't.

Laura finally met his eyes. He seemed sincere. There would be no point in lying to her now, because she would soon learn the truth, anyway, when she went inside.

She got out of the car.

Taking her by the arm, Officer Quade led her up the walk to the front door.

The rain pounded as solemnly as drums in a funeral cortege.

2

The guard went inside to get Lieutenant Haldane. Laura and Quade waited under the overhang, sheltering from the worst of the wind and rain.

The night smelled of ozone and roses. Rosebushes twined around support stakes along the front of the house, and in California, most varieties bloomed even in the winter. The flowers drooped, soggy and heavy in the rain.

Haldane arrived without delay. He was tall, broad-shouldered, roughly hewn, with short sandy hair and a square, appealing, Irish face. His blue eyes looked flat, like twin ovals of painted glass, and Laura wondered if they always looked that way or whether they were flat and lifeless tonight because of what he had seen in the house.

He was wearing a tweed sport coat, a white shirt, a tie with the knot loosened, gray slacks, and black loafers. Except for his eyes, he looked like a comfortable, easygoing, laid-back sort of guy, and there was genuine warmth in his brief smile.

'Doctor McCaffrey? I'm Dan Haldane.'

'My daughter—'

'We haven't found Melanie yet.

'She isn't...?'

'What?'

'Dead?'

'No, no. Good heavens, no. Not your girl. I wouldn't have brought you here if that had been the case.'

She felt no relief, because she wasn't sure that she believed him. He was tense, edgy. Something horrible had happened in this house. She was sure of it. And if they hadn't found Melanie, why had they brought her out at this hour? What was wrong?

Haldane dismissed Carl Quade, who headed back through the rain to the patrol car.

'Dylan? My husband?' Laura asked.

Haldane's stare slid away from hers. 'Yes, we think we've located him.'

'He's... dead?'

'Well... yeah. Apparently it's him. We've got a body carrying his ID, but we haven't positively tagged him yet. We'll need a dental-records check or a fingerprint match to make it positive.'

The news of Dylan's death had surprisingly little effect on her. She felt no loss, because she'd spent six years hating him. But she wasn't happy about it, either: no glee, no triumph or satisfaction, no sense that Dylan had gotten what he deserved. He had been an object of love, then hatred, now indifference. She felt absolutely nothing, and perhaps that was the saddest thing of all.

The wind changed direction. Icy rain blew under the overhang. Haldane drew Laura back into the corner, as far as they could go.

She wondered why he didn't take her inside. There must be something that he didn't want her to see. Something too horrible for her to see? What in the name of God had happened in there?

'How did he die?' she asked.

'Murdered.'

'Who did it?'

'We don't know.'

'Shot?'

'No. He was... beaten to death.'

'My God.' She felt sick. She leaned against the wall because her legs were suddenly weak.

'Doctor McCaffrey?' Concerned, he took her by the arm, ready to provide support if she needed it.

'I'm okay,' she said. 'But I expected Dylan and Melanie to be together. Dylan took her away from me.'

'I know.'

'Six years ago. He closed out our bank accounts, quit his job, and ran off. Because I wanted a divorce. And he wasn't willing to share custody of Melanie.'

'When we put his name in the computer, it gave us you, the whole file,' Haldane said. 'I haven't had time to learn the particulars, but I read the highlights on the mobile VDT in the car, so I'm sort of familiar with the case.'

'He ruined his life, threw away his career and everything to be able to keep Melanie. Surely she must still be with him,' Laura said exasperatedly.

'She was. She was living here with him—'

'Living here? Here? Only ten or fifteen minutes from me?'

'That's right.'

'But I hired private detectives, several of them, and nobody could get a lead—'

'Sometimes,' Haldane said, 'the purloined-letter trick is the best trick of all.'

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