Have you ever heard such stillness? I asked.
There’s a storm coming. Her voice floated the words as softly as a breath of summer sets dandelion seeds adrift. The pressure in advance weighs down the wind and flattens the waves.
Are you a meteorologist?
Her smile was lovely, free of judgment and artifice. I’m just a girl who thinks too much.
My name’s Odd Thomas.
Yes, she said.
Prepared to explain the dysfunctional nature of my family that had resulted in my name, as I had done countless times before, I was surprised and disappointed that she had none of the usual questions.
You knew my name? I asked.
As you know mine.
But I don’t.
I’m Annamaria, she said. One word. It would have come to you.
Confused, I said, We’ve spoken before, but I’m sure we’ve never exchanged names.
She only smiled and shook her head.
A white flare arced across the dismal sky: a gull fleeing to land as the afternoon faded.
Annamaria pulled back the long sleeves of her sweater, revealing her graceful hands. In the right she held a translucent green stone the size of a fat grape.
Is that a jewel? I asked.
Sea glass. A fragment of a bottle that washed around the world and back, until it has no sharp edges. I found it on the beach. She turned it between her slender fingers. What do you think it means?
Does it need to mean anything?
The tide washed the sand as smooth as a baby’s skin, and as the water winked away, the glass seemed to open like a green eye.
The shrieking of birds shattered the stillness, and I looked up to see three agitated sea gulls sailing landward.
Their cries announced company: footfalls on the pier behind us.
Three men in their late twenties walked to the north end of the observation platform. They stared up the coast toward the distant harbor and marina.
The two in khakis and quilted jackets appeared to be brothers. Red hair, freckles. Ears as prominent as handles on beer mugs.
The redheads glanced at us. Their faces were so hard, their eyes so cold, I might have thought they were evil spirits if I hadn’t heard their footsteps.
One of them favored Annamaria with a razor-slash smile. He had the dark and broken teeth of a heavy methamphetamine user.
The freckled pair made me uneasy, but the third man was the most disturbing of the group. At six four, he towered half a foot above the others, and had that muscled massiveness only steroid injections can produce.
Unfazed by the cool air, he wore athletic shoes without socks, white shorts, and a yellow-and-blue, orchid-pattern Hawaiian shirt.
The brothers said something to him, and the giant looked at us. He might be called handsome in an early Cro-Magnon way, but his eyes seemed to be as yellow as his small chin beard.
We did not deserve the scrutiny we received from him. Annamaria was an ordinary-looking pregnant woman, and I was just a fry cook who had been fortunate enough to reach twenty-one years of age without losing a leg or an eye, or my hair.
Malevolence and paranoia cohabit in a twisted mind. Bad men trust no one because they know the treachery of which they themselves are capable.
After a long suspicious stare, the giant turned his attention once more to the northern coast and the marina, as did his cohorts, but I didn’t think they were done with us.
Half an hour of daylight remained. Because of the overcast, however, twilight seemed to be already upon us. The lampposts lining the pier brightened automatically, but a thin veil of fog had risen out of nowhere to aid and abet the coming dusk.
Boo’s behavior confirmed my instincts. He had gotten to his feet. Hackles raised, ears flattened, he focused intently on the giant.
To Annamaria, I said, I think we better go.
Do you know them?
I’ve seen their kind before.
As she rose from the bench, she closed the green orb in her right fist. Both hands shrank back into the sleeves of her sweater.
I sensed strength in her, yet she also had an aura of innocence, an almost waiflike air of vulnerability. The three men were the kind to whom vulnerability had a scent as surely as rabbits hidden in tall grass have a smell easily detected by wolves.
Bad men wound and destroy one another, although as targets they prefer those who are innocent and as pure as this world allows anyone to be. They feed on violence, but they feast on the despoiling of what is good.
As Annamaria and I walked off the observation deck and toward the shore, I was dismayed that no one had come onto the pier. Usually a few evening fishermen would already have arrived with rods and tackle boxes.
I glanced back and saw Boo moving closer to the three men, who were oblivious of him. The hulk with the chin beard looked over the heads of the other two, again staring at Annamaria and me.
The shore was still distant. The shrouded sun slowly sank behind a thousand fathoms of clouds, toward the drowning horizon, and rising mist damped the lamplight.
When I looked back again, the freckled pair were approaching at a brisk walk.
Keep going, I told Annamaria. Off the pier, among people.
She remained calm. I’ll stay with you.
No. I can handle this.
Gently, I pushed her ahead of me, made sure that she kept moving, and then turned toward the redheads. Instead of standing my ground or backing away, I walked toward them, smiling, which surprised them enough to bring them to a halt.
As the one with the bad teeth looked past me at Annamaria, and as number two reached inside his unzipped jacket, I said, You guys know about the tsunami warning?
Number two kept his hand in his jacket, and the poster boy for dental hygiene shifted his attention to me. Tsunami?
They estimate twenty to thirty feet.
Even thirty feet, I said, won’t wash over the pier. She got scared, didn’t want to stay, but I want to ride it out, see it. We must be—what?—forty feet off the water. It could be cool.
Throughout all this, the big guy had been approaching. As he joined us, number two asked him, You hear about a tsunami?
I said with some excitement, The break slope on the shore here is twenty feet, but the other ten feet of the wave, man, it’s gonna wipe out the front row of buildings.
Glancing back, as if to assess the potential for destruction, I was relieved to see Annamaria reaching the end of the pier.
But the pier has deep pilings, I said. The pier will ride it out. I’m pretty sure. It’s solid. Don’t you think the pier will ride it out?
The big guy’s mother had probably told him that he had hazel eyes. Hazel is a light golden-brown. He did not have hazel eyes. They were yellow rather than golden, and they were more yellow than brown.
If his pupils had been elliptical instead of round, I could almost have believed that he was a humanoid puppet and that an intelligent mutant cat was curled up in his skull, peering at me through the empty sockets. And not a nice intelligent mutant cat.
His voice dispelled the feline image, for it had a timbre more suited to a bear. Who’re you?
Instead of answering, I pretended excitement about the coming tsunami and looked at my wristwatch. It could hit shore in like a few minutes. I gotta be on the observation deck when it comes.
Who’re you? the hulk repeated, and he put his big right paw on my left shoulder.
The instant he touched me, reality flipped out of sight as if it were a discarded flashcard. I found myself not on the pier but on the shore instead, on a beach across which squirmed reflections of fire. A hideous bright something rose in a sea that pulsed with hellish light under an apocalyptic sky.
Reality flipped into view again.
The hulk had snatched his hand back from my shoulder. With his wide eyes focused on his spread fingers, he looked as if he had been stung—or had seen the red tide of my dream.
Never before had I passed a dream or a vision, or a thought, or anything but a head cold, to someone else by a touch. Surprises like this spare me from a dull life.
Like the cold-jewel stare of a stone-temple god, the yellow gaze fixed on me again, and he said, Who the hell are you?
The tone of his voice alerted the redheads that an extraordinary event had occurred. The one with his hand inside his jacket withdrew a pistol, and the one with bad teeth reached into his jacket, most likely not for dental floss.
I ran three steps to the side of the pier, vaulted the railing, and dropped like a fry cook through mist and fading light.
Cold, dark, the Pacific swallowed me, my eyes burned in the brine, and as I swam beneath the surface, I fought the buoyant effect of the salt water, determined that the sea would not spit me up into a bullet-riddled twilight.
STUNG, MY WIDE-OPEN EYES SALTED THE SEAWATER with tears.
As I breast-stroked and frog-kicked, the marine murk at first seemed to be without a scintilla of light. Then I became aware of a sullen-green phosphorescence, universally distributed, through which faint amorphous shadows writhed, perhaps clouds of sand swept off the bottom or long undulant stalks and fronds of seaweed.
The green dismalness abruptly darkened into true gloom. I had swum under the pier, between two of the many concrete columns on which the timber support posts stood.
A blind moment later, I encountered another column bristling with barnacles. I followed it to the surface.
Gasping for air that smelled of iodine and tar, that tasted of salt and chalk, I clung to the encrusted concrete, the barnacles sharp and slick under my hands, and I pulled my sweatshirt sleeves down to protect against cuts as best I could.
At the moment low on energy, the ocean rolled rhythmically and without violence between the pilings, toward shore. Although tame, it nevertheless sought to pull me away from the column.
Every minute I strove to hold fast would drain my strength. My sodden sweatshirt felt like a heavy flak jacket.
The liquid soliloquy of the sea echoed in murmurs and whispers along the pier floor, which was now my ceiling. I heard no shouts from above, no thunder of running footsteps.
Daylight as clouded and as gray as bilge water seeped into this sheltered space. Overhead, an architecture of thick vertical posts, horizontal tie beams, struts, and purlins dwindled into shadows.
The top of this piling, on which one of the posts stood, lay less than three feet above my head. I toed and kneed and clawed upward, repeatedly slipping backward but stubbornly gaining more ground than I lost.
These barnacles were of the stalkless variety, snugged tight to the concrete. As inch by inch I pulled myself out of the water, the calcareous shells of the crustaceans cracked and splintered, so the air smelled and tasted chalkier than ever.
This was no doubt a cataclysm for the barnacle community. I felt some regret about the destruction I wreaked, although not as much as I would have felt if, weighed down and weakened by my sodden clothes, I had sunk deep into snares of seaweed, and drowned.
Seated on the thirty-inch-diameter concrete base, an eighteen-inch-diameter wooden column rose high into shadows. Thick stainless-steel pitons had been driven into the wood to serve as handholds and as anchors for safety lines during construction. Using these, I pulled myself onto the six-inch ledge that encircled the post.
Standing there on my toes, dripping and shivering, I tried to find the bright side to my current situation.
Pearl Sugars, my maternal grandmother, a fast-driving and hard-drinking professional poker player now deceased, always encouraged me to find the bright side of any setback.
If you let the bastards see you’re worried, Granny Sugars said, they’ll shake you, break you, and be walking around in your shoes tomorrow.
She traveled the country to high-stakes private games in which the other players were men, most of them not nice men, some of them dangerous. Although I understood Granny’s point, her solemn advice conjured in my mind an image of scowling tough guys parading around in Granny’s high-heels.
As my racing heart slowed and as I caught my breath, the only bright side I could discern was that if I lived to be an old man—a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged, hairless old man without a nose—at least I wouldn’t be able to complain that my life had lacked for adventure.
Most likely the mist and the murky water had prevented the hulk with the chin beard and the two gunmen from seeing that I had taken refuge under the pier. They would expect me to swim to shore, and they would by now be arrayed along the beach, searching the low swells for a swimmer.
Although I had leaped off the pier in the last quarter of its length, the tide had carried me closer to land as I’d been swimming for cover. I remained, however, seaward of the structure’s midpoint.
From my current perch, I could see a length of the shore. But I doubted that anyone patrolling the beach would have been able to catch sight of me in the deepening gloom.
Nevertheless, when not throwing myself headlong into trouble and leaping off piers, I am a prudent young man. I suspected I would be wise to ascend farther into the webwork of wood.
In some cozy high redoubt, I would roost until the thugs decided that I had drowned. When they went away to raise a toast to my death in whatever greasy barroom or opium den their kind frequented, I would safely go ashore and return home, where Hutch would be washing his face in sanitizing gel and waiting for the tsunami.
Piton to piton, I climbed the pole.
During the first ten feet or so, those eyeletted spikes were solidly planted. Perhaps the greater humidity near the water kept the wood swollen tight around them.
As I continued to ascend, I found some pitons that moved in my hands, the aged and drier wood having shrunk somewhat away from them. They bore my weight, did not pull loose.
Then under my right foot, a piton ripped from the post. With a clink, the spike bounced off the concrete below, and I could even hear the faint plop as it met the sea.
I have no incapacitating fear of either heights or darkness. We spend nine months in a nurturing darkness before we’re born, and we aspire to the highest of all places when we die.
As the day faded and as I climbed into the substructure of the pier, the shadows grew deeper, more numerous. They joined with one another like the billowing black cloaks of Macbeth’s witches as they gathered around their cauldron.
Since going to work for Hutch, I had read some of the volumes of Shakespeare’s plays that were in his library. Ozzie Boone, the famous mystery writer, my mentor and cherished friend in Pico Mundo, would be delighted if he knew that I was thus continuing my education.
In high school, I had been an indifferent student. In part, my lack of academic achievement could be attributed to the fact that while other kids were at home, dutifully poring through their Macbeth assignment, I was being chained to a pair of dead men and dumped off a boat in the middle of Malo Suerte Lake.
Or I was bound with rope, hanging from a rack in a refrigerated meat locker, beside a smiling Japanese chiropractor, waiting for a quartet of unreasonable men to return and torture us, as they had promised to do.