Usually I am pleased when bad guys fall out with one another, because disharmony in their ranks can make them easier to defeat. But if this crew was planning many deaths and vast destruction such that the sky and sea would burn with bloody light, as in my dream, I would feel better if they were not also hair-trigger hotheads in addition to being criminal scum.
I switched on the flashlight and hurriedly searched the dresser drawers. They contained only clothes, and not many of those.
Although I had been in the house no more than five minutes, the time had come to get out. Maybe these murders had been impromptu; if so, the killers might return to remove the bodies and clean up the evidence of violence.
Twitching as if electrical impulses short-circuited through the frayed fibers of my nerves, I thought that I heard stealthy noises elsewhere in the house.
Chastising myself for being too easily spooked, I nevertheless decided not to leave by the way I had entered.
Dousing the flashlight, I swept aside the draperies. The window sash slid up as smoothly as it had moved previously.
From the back of the bungalow came the crash of a door being kicked open, and an instant later the front door was booted in as well.
I had spoken of one devil, and another had arrived. Murderers, returning to the scene of a crime, intent on removing the evidence, would never call attention to themselves by kicking down the doors any more than they would arrive blowing party horns.
From within the house, men shouted: Police!
I slipped out of the bungalow as quickly and as quietly as an experienced sneak thief, which is perhaps not a skill that I should trumpet with pride.
As though it were a living entity that could reproduce itself, the fog seemed to have fathered new generations of fog, crowding the night more completely than when I’d gone inside five minutes earlier.
The police had arrived without sirens and also without switching on the emergency-light arrays on their patrol cars. No revolving red or blue beacons stained the fog.
Again I thought of seed pods from outer space disgorging men who were not men. Although I didn’t believe that the Magic Beach Police Department was staffed by extraterrestrials passing for human, I did suspect that at least some of them were less than exemplars of law enforcement.
Because I had taken Sam Whittle’s wallet on the beach but had not taken his money, they had thought I might look him up to ask a few questions. They had entered the bungalow as if they knew two bodies were stashed there—which meant I had been lured inside to take the fall for the murders.
As I came out the window, the police were entering the bungalow by the front and the back. Not all of them would go inside.
Foiled by the density of the fog, a flashlight appeared at the front corner of the house.
The beam could not reach me. While I was still unable to see the officer behind the light and while I was likewise invisible, I moved blindly away from him, across a lawn.
Another flashlight quested through the murk at the back of the bungalow.
Turning from that one, as well, I headed toward what I thought must be the property next door, although I could see no house lights. The men inside the bungalow would soon find the window that I had left open, and upon making that discovery, they would focus all their resources in this direction.
When I walked boldly into a chain-link fence that marked the property line, the shaken barrier seemed to sing here he is, here he is, here he is.
IN DEFENSE OF MY SNEAK-THIEF REPUTATION, I must point out that no shrubs fronted the fence to warn me of it. No climbing vine grew on it, the tendrils of which might have brushed my face, halting me inches short of the collision. The steel chain was pretty much the color of the fog.
I am not one who believes that life is unfair or that we are all victims of a cruel or indifferent universe, but this fence struck me as unfair to the extent that I might have sat down and pouted about it if my freedom and possibly even my life hadn’t been in jeopardy.
As soon as the chain-link announced my ineptitude, one of the men behind me said What was that? and the other one said Yancy, is that you? and both flashlights probed toward the source of the chain song.
I had nowhere to go but up, so I climbed, strumming a harpist-from-Hell tune from the chain-link, hoping I would not encounter coils of lacerating razor wire at the top.
Behind me, entirely comfortable with clichés, a cop shouted, Stop or I’ll shoot!
I doubted they could see me yet, and I didn’t believe they would lay down a barrage of random fire in a residential neighborhood.
As I climbed, however, I tightened my sphincter muscles against the prospect of a bullet in the spine, because you never know what might happen in a universe that, at a critical moment, throws an invisible chain-link fence in front of you.
Sometimes when people are shot in the spine and take more than an instant to die, they lose control of their bowels. I tightened my sphincter so that my corpse would not be an embarrassment to me or to those who had to deal with it. While I am ready to die if I must, I have an aversion to dying filthy.
Good fences make good neighbors, and these were apparently good enough that they had not felt the need for razor wire at the top. I crested the fence, threw myself into the yard beyond, fell, rolled to my feet, and ran with the expectation of being garroted by a taut clothesline.
I heard panting, looked down, and saw a golden retriever running at my side, ears flapping. The dog glanced up at me, tongue lolling, grinning, as though jazzed by the prospect of an unscheduled play session.
Because I did not think a dog would run head-on into a fence or into the side of a house, or into a tree, I sprinted boldly through the clotted clouds, eyes directed down at my guide, acutely alert to his body language. I broke left and right each time that he did, keeping him close, though it occurred to me that if he was a dog with a sense of humor, he would race past a tree with no room to spare and leave me with my face embedded in bark.
Dogs do laugh, as any true dog lover knows. In my blind run, I took courage from the knowledge that dogs do not have a cruel sense of humor. They will laugh at human folly and stupidity, but they will not encourage it.
To my surprise, as I ran with the retriever, through my mind flew a fragment of my conversation with Annamaria as we had walked the greensward along Hecate’s Canyon, when she had tried to help me understand why I believed everything she told me even though I had not understood most of it:
Why do you believe me so readily?
I don’t know.
But you do know….
Give me a hint. Why do I believe you so readily?
Why does anyone believe anything?
With the retriever, I ran headlong into a white opacity because I trusted in the essential goodness and the instincts of dogs. Trust. I also trusted Annamaria, which was why I believed what she told me, as cryptic and evasive as her words sometimes seemed.
Trust, however, could not be the answer. If trust was the reason I believed her, that raised a subsequent question equal to the first: If I believed her because I trusted her, then why did I trust her, considering that she was a virtual stranger and that she seemed to be calculatedly mysterious?
The golden retriever was having so much fun that I wondered if he might be running me in circles around his master’s house. But my trust in him proved well placed when he brought me to a gate in the chain-link fence.
I tried to keep him from getting out of the yard, but he proved too agile to be blocked. Free, he did not sprint away into the night but stayed nearby, waiting to see what fun thing I might want to do next.
To the south, swords of light dueled in the fog, seeking me. The dog and I went north.
A UNIVERSAL SOLVENT POURED THROUGH THE world, dissolving the works of man and nature.
Shapes like buildings loomed in vague detail. Geometric fence rows separated nothing from nothing, and their rigid geometry melted into mist at both ends.
Portions of trees floated into and out of sight, like driftwood on a white flood. Gray grass spilled down slopes that slid away as though they were hills of ashes too insubstantial to maintain their contours.
The dog and I ran for a while, changed direction several times, and then we walked, out of nil and into naught, through vapor into vapor.
At some point I became aware that the weather was something more than mere weather. The stillness and the fog and the chill were not solely the consequences of meteorological systems. I began to suspect and soon felt certain that the condition of Magic Beach on this night was a presentiment, a symbolic statement of things to come.
The dog and I journeyed through a dreamscape where thick smoke smoldered from fires long extinguished, and the fumes had no odor in a world purged of every stink and fragrance.
The air pooled in stillness because the winds had died and would never breathe again, and the silence betold a world of solid stone, where the planetary core had gone cold, where no rivers ran and seas no longer stirred with tides, where no clocks existed because no time remained to be counted.
When the dog and I stopped and stood entirely still, the white nada settled under us, no longer disturbed by our passage, and the pavement began to disappear beneath my feet, beneath his paws.
Such a terror rose in me that I exhaled explosively with relief when the sudden swish of his tail disturbed the bleached void and revealed, after all, the texture of the blacktop.
Yet a moment later, I felt that I had entered the Valley of Death and at once had passed into some place beyond even that, into an emptiness of such perfection that it contained no atom of the world that had been, not even a memory of nature or of the things of man, a place that lacked the substance to be a place, that was more accurately a condition. Here no hope existed for the past or for a future, no hope of the world that had been or of the world that might have been.
I was not having a premonition; instead, I was walking through a night that had become a premonition. Black is the combination of all colors, and white is the utter absence of color. The fog foretold the nullity of nonbeing, a vacuum within a vacuum, the end of history following the ultimate annihilation.
So much death was coming that it would be the end of death, such absolute destruction that nothing would escape to be destroyed hence. The terror that the dog’s tail briefly brushed away returned to me and would not be dispelled again.
For a while I was aware of proceeding from nothing into nothing, my mind a deep well from the bottom of which I tried to scream. But like the lingering dead who came to me for assistance, I was not able to make a sound.
I could only pray silently, and I prayed to be led to a haven, a place with shape and color and scent and sound, a refuge from this awful nothingness, where I could press back the terror and be able to think.
Like a dreamer aware of dreaming, I knew that a geometric shape half resolved out of the amorphous clouds. And I was conscious of the exertion of climbing steps, though I never saw them.
I must have found the heavy door and pulled it wide, but even after I had crossed the threshold into shadow and light, with the golden retriever still at my side, and even after I had closed out the foreboding mist, I did not immediately realize the nature of the refuge into which I had been led by providence or by canine.
After the whiteness that denied all senses, the fragrances of wood polish and candle wax were so poignant that they brought tears to my eyes.
I passed through a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled room into a much larger and somewhat brighter space before realizing that I had gone from the narthex into the nave of a church.
Beside me, the dog panted with thirst, anxiety, or both.
The side aisles were softly lighted, but the main aisle lay in shadow as I followed it to the chancel railing.
Although I intended to sit in the front pew until my braided nerves untwisted, I settled on the floor because the dog needed to have his tummy rubbed. He had earned all the affection—and more—that I could give him in my current distracted state of mind.
When I am battered and oppressed by the world that humanity has made—which is different from the world that it was given—my primary defense, my consolation, is the absurdity of that world.
The given world dazzles with wonder, poetry, and purpose. The man-made world, on the other hand, is a perverse realm of ego and envy, where power-mad cynics make false idols of themselves and where the meek have no inheritance because they have gladly surrendered it to their idols in return not for lasting glory but for an occasional parade, not for bread but for the promise of bread.
A species that can blind itself to truth, that can plunge so enthusiastically along roads that lead nowhere but to tragedy, is sometimes amusing in its recklessness, as amusing as the great movie comedians like Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the many others who knew that a foot stuck in a bucket is funny, that a head stuck in a bucket is funnier, and that trying stubbornly to move a grand piano up a set of stairs obviously too steep and narrow to allow success is the hilarious distillation of the human experience.
I laugh with humanity, not at it, because I am as big a fool as anyone, and bigger than most. I style myself as a paladin for both the living and for the lingering dead, but I have been stuck in more than my share of buckets.
At that moment in the church with the dog, recalling the dead bodies in the bungalow bathroom, worrying about the meaning of the premonition of total destruction, I could not work up a smile.
I might have fallen into depression; but experience had taught me that another foot-and-bucket moment would come along soon.
When after a few minutes the dog continued panting, I told him to stay, and I went in search of water.
A glance toward the back of the nave confirmed that no holy-water font stood at the entrance.
Behind the altar hung a big abstract sculpture that might have been a winged spirit soaring, but only if you cocked your head to the left, squinted, and thought about Big Bird from Sesame Street.
I opened the gate in the chancel railing and stepped into the sanctuary.
To the right stood a plain marble baptismal font. It was dry.
On reflection, I realized that appropriating ceremonial water for a thirsty dog might be disrespectful if not even sacrilegious.
I moved deeper into the sanctuary, toward a door that I assumed opened into the sacristy, where the vestments were kept and where the minister prepared before a service. In St. Bartholomew’s Church in Pico Mundo, where Stormy Llewellyn’s uncle had been the priest, the sanctuary had included a small lavatory with a sink.
When I opened the door, I surprised a fiftyish man who seemed to be ordering the contents of a closet. Chubby but not fat, well barbered but not in an affected way, possessed of quick reactions but not of good balance, he startled backward at the sight of me, stepped on his own foot, and fell on his rump.
I apologized for frightening him, and he apologized for using foul language, but he must only have cursed me in his mind because he had said nothing in his startlement except ook.