Outside, a truck engine started. The noise ebbed, and silence flowed back into the night.
I remained slouched in the dark car for a minute, perhaps being smiled at, perhaps not, and then said, Do you think they’re gone?
She said, Do you think they’re gone?
Over dinner, I had agreed to be her paladin, and no self-respecting paladin would decide on a course of action based on a majority vote of a committee of two.
All right, I said, let’s go.
We climbed out of the sedan, and I used the flashlight to find our way to the man-size door in the south wall. The hinges creaked when it swung open, which I had not noticed previously.
In the narrow passage between the garage and the tall hedge, no one waited to tear off our heads. So far so good. But they would be waiting elsewhere.
After dousing the flashlight, I hesitated to lead her out to the driveway and the street, for fear that a sentinel had been stationed there.
Intuiting my concern, Annamaria whispered, At the back, there’s a gate to a public greenbelt.
We went to the rear of the building. Passing the steps that led to her apartment, I glanced up, but no one was looking down at us.
We crossed the foggy yard. Slick yellow leaves littered the wet grass: fall-off from sycamore trees that held their foliage longer on this stretch of the central coast than elsewhere.
In a white fence with scalloped pickets stood a gate with carved torsades. Beyond lay the greenbelt. A sward of turf vanished into the mist to the south, west, and north.
Taking Annamaria’s arm, I said, We want to go south, I think.
Stay near the property fences here along the east side, she advised. The greenbelt borders Hecate’s Canyon to the west. It’s narrow in some places, and the drop-off can be sudden.
In Magic Beach, Hecate’s Canyon was legendary.
Along the California coast, many ancient canyons, like arthritic fingers, reach crookedly toward the sea, and any town built around one of them must unite its neighborhoods with bridges. Some are wide, but more of them are narrow enough to be called defiles.
Hecate’s Canyon was a defile, but wider than some, and deep, with a stream at the bottom. Flanking the stream—which would become a wilder torrent in the rainy season—grew mixed-species junk groves of umbrella pine, date palm, Agathis, and common cypress, gnarled and twisted by the extreme growing conditions and by the toxic substances that had been illegally dumped into the canyon over the years.
The walls of the defile were navigable but steep. Wild vines and thorny brush slowed both erosion and hikers.
In the 1950s, a rapist-murderer had preyed on the young women of Magic Beach. He had dragged them into Hecate’s Canyon and forced them to dig their own graves.
The police had caught him—Arliss Clerebold, the high-school art teacher—disposing of his eighth victim. His wispy blond hair had twisted naturally into Cupid curls. His face was sweet, his mouth was made for a smile, his arms were strong, and his long-fingered hands had the gripping strength of a practiced climber.
Of the previous seven victims, two were never found. Clerebold refused to cooperate, and cadaver dogs could not locate the graves.
As Annamaria and I walked south along the greenbelt, I dreaded encountering the spirits of Clerebold’s victims. They had received justice when he had been executed in San Quentin; therefore, they had mostly likely moved on from this world. But the two whose bodies had never been found might have lingered, yearning for their poor bones to be reinterred in the cemeteries where their families were at rest.
With Annamaria to protect and with the responsibility to thwart whatever vast destruction was on the yellow-eyed hulk’s agenda, I had enough to keep me busy. I could not afford to be distracted by the melancholy spirits of murdered girls who would want to lead me to their long-hidden graves.
Concerned that even thinking about those sad victims would draw their spirits to me, if indeed they still lingered, I tried to elicit more information from Annamaria as we proceeded cautiously through the nearly impenetrable murk.
Are you originally from around here? I asked softly.
Where are you from?
Faraway, Oklahoma? I asked. Faraway, Alabama? Maybe Faraway, Maine?
Farther away than all of those. You would not believe me if I named the place.
I would believe you, I assured her. I’ve believed everything you’ve said, though I don’t know why, and though I don’t understand most of it.
Why do you believe me so readily?
I don’t know.
But you do know.
Yes. You know.
Give me a hint. Why do I believe you so readily?
Why does anyone believe anything? she asked.
Is this a philosophical question—or just a riddle?
Empirical evidence is one reason.
You mean like—I believe in gravity because if I throw a stone in the air, it falls back to the ground.
Yes. That’s what I mean.
You haven’t been exactly generous with empirical evidence, I reminded her. I don’t even know where you’re from. Or your name.
You know my name.
Only your first name. What’s your last?
I don’t have one.
Everybody has a last name.
I’ve never had one.
The night was cold; our breath smoked from us. She had such a mystical quality, I might have been persuaded that we had exhaled the entire vast ocean of fog that now drowned all things, that she had come down from Olympus with the power to breathe away the world and, out of the resultant mist, remake it to her liking.
I said, You had to have a last name to go to school.
I’ve never gone to school.
She did not reply.
Without a last name, how do you get welfare?
I’m not on the welfare rolls.
But you said you don’t work.
What—do people just give you money when you need it?
Wow. That would be even less stressful than the tire life or shoe sales.
I’ve never asked anyone for anything—until I asked you if you would die for me.
Out there in the dissolved world, St. Joseph’s Church tower must have remained standing, for in the distance its familiar bell tolled the half-hour, which was strange for two reasons. First, the radiant dial of my watch showed 7:22, and that seemed right. Second, from eight in the morning till eight in the evening, St. Joe’s marked each hour with a single strike of the bell and the half-hour with two. Now it rang three times, a solemn reverberant voice in the fog.
How old are you, Annamaria?
In one sense, eighteen.
To go eighteen years without asking anyone for anything—you must have known you were saving up for a really big request.
I had an inkling, she said.
She sounded amused, but this was not the amusement of deception or obfuscation. I sensed again that she was being more direct than she seemed.
Frustrated, I returned to my former line of inquiry: Without a last name, how do you get health care?
I don’t need health care.
Referring to the baby she carried, I said, In a couple months, you’ll need it.
All things in their time.
And, you know, it’s not good to go to term without regularly seeing a doctor.
She favored me with a smile. You’re a very sweet young man.
It’s a little weird when you call me a young man. I’m older than you are.
But nonetheless a young man, and sweet. Where are we going? she wondered.
That sure is the million-dollar question.
I mean right now. Where are we going now?
I took some pleasure in answering her with a line that was as inscrutable as anything that she had said to me: I have to go see a man with hair like wool-of-bat and tongue like fillet of fenny snake.
Macbeth, she said, identifying the reference and robbing me of some of my satisfaction.
I call him Flashlight Guy. You don’t need to know why. It’s liable to be dicey, so you can’t go with me.
I’m safest with you.
I’ll need to be able to move fast. Anyway, I know this woman—you’ll like her. No one would think of looking for either of us at her place.
A growling behind us caused us to turn.
For an instant it seemed to me that the hulk had followed us and, while we had been engaged in our enigmatic conversation, had by some magic separated himself into three smaller forms. In the fog were six yellow eyes, as bright as road-sign reflectors, not at the height of a man’s eyes but lower to the ground.
When they slunk out of the mist and halted just ten feet from us, they were revealed as coyotes. Three of them.
The fog developed six more eyes, and three more rangy specimens arrived among the initial trio.
Evidently they had come out of Hecate’s Canyon, on the hunt. Six coyotes. A pack.
HAVING LIVED WHERE PRAIRIE MET MOJAVE, IN Pico Mundo, I had encountered coyotes before. Usually the circumstances were such that, being skittish about human beings, they wanted to avoid me and had no thought of picking my bones.
On one late-night occasion, however, they had gone shopping for meat, and I had been the juiciest item in the display case. I barely escaped that situation without leaving behind a mouthful of my butt.
If I had been Hutch Hutchison and had found myself on the menu of a coyote pack twice within seventeen months, I would have viewed this not as an interesting coincidence but as irrefutable scientific proof that coyotes as a species had turned against humanity and were intent on exterminating us.
In the fog, on the greenbelt, alongside Hecate’s Canyon, the six prime specimens of Canis latrans had none of the appeal of any of the various species and breeds that pet shops put in their windows.
This was unusual, believe it or not, because coyotes sometimes can have a goofy charm. They are more closely related to wolves than to dogs, lean and sinewy, efficient predators, but with feet too big for their bodies and ears too big for their heads, they can appear a little puppylike, at least as cute as Iran’s homicidal dictator when he puts on a leisure suit and has his photo taken eating ice-cream cones with grade-school children whose parents have volunteered them to be suicide bombers.
With narrow faces, bared fangs, and radiant-eyed intensity, these current six coyotes confronting Annamaria and me did not have what it took to be featured in a Purina Puppy Chow commercial. They looked like fascist jihadists in fur.
In most perilous moments, I can put my hands on a makeshift weapon, but on this empty greensward, the only possibility seemed to be a wooden fence pale if I could break one of them loose. No rocks. No baseball bats, buckets, brooms, antique porcelain vases, frying pans, shovels, pop-up toasters, or angry cross-eyed ferrets, which had proved to make effective impromptu weapons in the past.
I began to think I really needed to get over my gun phobia and start packing heat.
As it turned out, I had a weapon of which I was unaware: one young, pregnant, enigmatic woman. As I urged her to back slowly away from the toothy pack, she said, They are not only what they appear to be.
Well, who is? I said. But I think these guys are largely what they appear to be.
Instead of cautiously retreating from the beasts and hoping to discover an unlocked gate in a fenced backyard, Annamaria took a step toward them.
I said what might have been a bad word meaning excrement, but I hope that I used a polite synonym.
Quietly but firmly, she said to the coyotes, You do not belong here. The rest of the world is yours…but not this place at this moment.
Personally, I did not think it was good strategy to tell a pack of hungry carnivores that would-be diners without the proper attire would not be served.
Their hackles were raised. Their tails were tucked. Their ears were flat to their heads. Their bodies were tense, muscles tight.
These guys were up for a meal.
When she took another step toward them, I said nothing because I was concerned my voice would sound like that of Mickey Mouse, but I reached after her and put a hand on her arm.
Ignoring me, she said to the coyotes, I am not yours. He is not yours. You will leave now.
In some parts of the country, coyotes are called prairie wolves, which sounds much nicer, but even if you called them fur babies, they would not be cuddly bundles of joy.
You will leave now, she repeated.
Astonishingly, the predators seemed to lose their confidence. Their hackles smoothed down, and they stopped baring their teeth.
Now, she insisted.
No longer willing to meet her eyes, they pricked their ears and looked left, right, as though wondering how they had gotten here and why they had been so reckless as to expose themselves to a dangerous pregnant woman.
Tails in motion, ducking their heads, glancing back sheepishly, they retreated into the fog, as if they had previously been foiled by Little Red Riding Hood and now this, leaving them deeply unsure of their predatory skills.
Annamaria allowed me to take her arm once more, and we continued south along the greenbelt.
After some fruitless reflection on the meaning of what had just transpired, I said, So, you talk to animals.
No. That’s just how it seemed.
You said they were not only what they appeared to be.
Well, who is? she asked, quoting me, which will never be as enlightening as quoting Shakespeare.
What were they…in addition to what they appeared to be?
That’s not really an answer.
She said, All things in their time.
That’s not an answer, either.
It is what it is.
Yes, I see.
Not yet. But you will.
I never saw the White Rabbit, but we’ve fallen out of the world into Wonderland.
She squeezed my arm. The World itself is a wonderland, young man, as you well know.
Off to our right, visible only now and then as shadowy forms along the edge of Hecate’s Canyon, the coyotes skulked parallel to us, and I called them to her attention.
Yes, she said, they will be persistent, but do they dare look toward us?
As we proceeded, I watched them for a while, but not once did I glimpse the faintest flicker of a radiant yellow eye in the murk. They seemed to be focused strictly on the ground before them.
If you can handle a coyote pack, I said, I’m not sure you really need me.
I have no influence over people, she said. If they wish to torture and murder me, and they are determined to shatter all my defenses, then I will suffer. But coyotes—even beasts like these—don’t concern me, and they shouldn’t worry you.
You seem to know what you’re talking about, I said. But I’m going to worry a little about the coyotes anyway.
‘Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.’
I said, Shakespeare, huh?
Measure for Measure.
I don’t know that one.
Now you do.