After a moment, she fanned her face again, and closed her eyes.
I gazed through the windshield at the desolation of fog, which might have been the waste and void from the time before time, when mankind did not exist or any beast, when there was only darkness on the face of the deep.
Birdie said, What you said. All of it. Same for me. So one day my emptiness was filled. First twinge came. Tuesday afternoon in May, it was. Not a physical twinge. Just a feelin’, like why don’t I drive one of the old garbage-collection routes. Wound up at Nancy Coleman’s place, former employee of ours. Husband left her a year earlier. Four hours before I show up, she gets a cancer diagnosis. Scared, alone. That year, I drove her to chemo, doctors’ appointments, shoppin’ for a wig, spent so much time together, more laughin’ than either of us would have thought at the start.
She closed the fan and returned it to her purse.
Another time, I need to drive, wind up at Bodi Booker’s house. Insurance agent, lifelong bachelor. Says he’s busy, I talk my way in. He’s makin’ hot chocolate. So we start talkin’ Fred. He and my Fred were bowlin’-team buddies, went fishin’ like the son Fred and I never could have. Half an hour, he tells me the hot cocoa was to wash down a bottle of pills, to kill himself. Year later, Nancy Coleman doesn’t have cancer anymore, she has Bodi, they married.
She retrieved her white gloves and worked her hands into them.
What about Swithin busted from bad romance? I asked.
Swithin Murdoch. Good man, made a fool of himself over this girl. Leanna cleaned out his bank accounts, took a powder. Swithin almost lost his house, business, the works. I made a loan, he paid it back. So why you, Harry Lime?
I think something bad would have happened to me at that storm drain if you hadn’t showed up.
Bad like what?
Although her journey since Fred had shown her that under the apparent chaos of life lies a strange order, the truth of me would be more than she could absorb in the time that it would take her to drive the rest of the way to the harbor.
I don’t know, ma’am. Just a feeling I have.
She switched on the headlights and shifted the car out of park.
For true, you don’t know?
Whatever event had been pending at the storm-drain grate, it had been related to the peculiar behavior of the coyotes and to the porch swing that had swung itself. I did not understand what linked those three experiences, nor what power or purpose lay behind them, so I could answer honestly.
For true, I assured her. How far to the harbor?
Piloting the Cadillac back into the fog-flooded street, she said, Three minutes, four.
My wristwatch and her car clock agreed—9:59.
After a silence, Birdie said, What’s so different about you, child?
I don’t know, ma’am. Maybe…because I spent seven months as a guest at a monastery. The serenity of the monks kind of rubbed off on me.
Nothin’ rubbed off. Your difference is all yours.
Anything I could say would be a lie or an evasion, and because she had somehow saved me, I did not want to lie to her more than necessary.
Birdie said, You sometimes sense somethin’ big is comin’?
Big like what?
So big the world changes.
Watching the news too much can make you crazy, I advised.
Don’t mean the kind of bushwa newsmen jabber. Not war or plague, not water gives you cancer or here comes a new ice age.
Then what kind of bushwa? I asked.
Some kind nobody would ever expect.
I thought of the absolute whiteout through which the golden retriever and I had traveled, but if that had been not just weather but also a premonition, I did not know the meaning of it.
I can’t have done right by you yet, she said.
I appreciate the ride.
Wasn’t twinged out of my cozy home just to be a taxi. What you need, child?
Nothing, ma’am. I’m good.
Place to stay?
Comes with my job. Nice ocean-view room.
Have nothing against them, but I don’t need one.
Got a bad feelin’ for you.
I’ll be okay.
Some need you’ve got. I feel it.
Considering Hoss Shackett and Utgard Rolf and the kind of men who would be aligned with them, I had a long list of things I needed, starting with a platoon of Marines.
Money? she asked.
Solemnly, quietly, she said, Gun?
I hesitated before I replied. I don’t like guns.
Might not like them, but you need one.
Sensing that I had said too much, I said no more.
It’s in the purse, she told me.
I looked at her, but she kept her attention on the street, where the headlights seemed to bake the batter of fog into a solid cake.
Why would you have a gun? I asked.
Old lady in an ugly time—she has to take precautions.
You bought it legally?
I look like Clyde’s Bonnie to you?
No, ma’am. I just mean, anything I did with it would be traced back to you.
A few days, I report it stolen.
What if I rob a bank with it?
You can’t be sure. You hardly know me.
Child, have you been listenin’ to me?
What was it with Nancy Coleman?
Well…she had cancer.
What was it with Bodi Booker?
Flat busted from bad romance.
I could name more. None needed help robbin’ a bank. Just good people in trouble. You think I’ve gone to the dark side?
Not for a minute.
You’re good people in trouble. I trust you.
This is more than trust, I said.
It might be. Look in the purse.
The weapon was a pistol. I examined it.
No safeties, she said. Double action. Ten rounds in the magazine. You know how to use such a thing?
Yes, ma’am. I’m no Bonnie’s Clyde, but I won’t shoot my foot, either.
I thought of Annamaria saying that she didn’t work, that people gave her a free place to live and even money when she needed it.
Now a gun came to me when I most needed one.
Something more was happening in Magic Beach than just a plot to smuggle nuclear weapons into the country and my attempt to thwart it.
This place was the still point of the turning world, and this night was the still point between the past and the future. I felt monumental forces gathering that I either could not comprehend or was afraid to contemplate.
My cursed life, my blessed life, my struggles with grievous loss and my striving toward wonder had often seemed to me to be the random path of a flippered pinball, from post to post and bell to bell and gate to gate, rolling wherever I might be knocked.
Instead, all the while, from childhood, I had been moving toward Magic Beach and toward a moment when, with full free will, I would either take upon myself a tremendous burden—or turn away from it. I did not know what the burden might prove to be, but I could feel the weight of it descending, and my moment of decision drawing near.
All things in their time.
Birdie Hopkins pulled the Cadillac to the curb and stopped once more.
Pointing, she said, Harbor’s one block that way. Maybe you’d rather walk the last part to…whatever it is.
I’ll use the gun only to defend myself.
Thought different, I wouldn’t give it.
Or an innocent life.
Hush now. It’s like you said.
What did I say?
This is more than trust.
The fog, the night, the future pressed at the windows.
One more thing I might need.
Do you have a cell phone?
She took it from the purse, and I accepted it.
When you’re safe, she said, will you let me know?
Yes, ma’am. Thank you for everything.
I started to open the door, then hesitated.
Unshed tears stood in Birdie’s eyes.
Ma’am, I shined you on about something earlier. What you feel coming isn’t from watching the news too much.
She bit her lower lip.
I said, Something big is coming. I sense it, too. I think I’ve sensed it all my life.
What? Child, what is it?
I don’t know. So big the world changes—but like you said, some kind of change nobody would ever expect.
Sometimes I’m so afraid, mostly in the night, and Fred not here to talk me through to a quiet heart.
You don’t ever need to be afraid, Birdie Hopkins. Not a woman like you.
She reached out to me. I held her hand.
Keep safe, she said.
When she was ready to let go of my hand, I got out of the sedan and closed the door. I slid her cell phone into a pocket of my jeans, and I tucked the pistol in the waistband so that the sweatshirt would cover it.
As I walked to the corner, crossed the intersection, and headed toward the harbor, the big engine of the Cadillac idled in the night until I went too far to hear it anymore.
ALONG THE SOUTHERN HORN OF THE NARROW-MOUTHED bay, toward the seaward end, the vessels in the small commercial-fishing fleet tied up where they could come and go with the least disturbance to the bayside residents and to the noncommercial boat traffic.
Where I stood on the quay, along the crescent shore of the northern horn, I could not see those distant trawlers, seiners, and clippers through the thousand white veils of the night. From their direction, however, once every thirty seconds, came the low mournful bleat of the foghorn out on the southern arm of the harbor-entrance breakwater.
Here in the north, the marina offered protection from the storm surges that, in bad weather, muscled in through the entrance channel. Four hundred slips were occupied by a variety of pleasure craft: small electric-motor bay cruisers, sportfishers with metal lookout towers rising above their bridges, sailing yachts with canvas furled, motor yachts, and racing boats. The largest of these craft were sixty feet, and most were smaller.
As I descended a short flight of stairs from the sea wall to the wharf, I could see only a few of the closest craft through the soup. Even those appeared to be ghost vessels, moored in a dream.
Regularly spaced dock lamps receded into the mist, a necklace of radiant pearls, and under them the wet planks glistened darkly.
I remained alert for the sound of voices, for footsteps, but no one seemed to be out and about in the chilly mist.
Some of the sailing yachts were full-time residences. Their lighted portholes were as golden as scattered coins, faux doubloons that shimmered and, as I walked, paled away into the murk.
Avoiding the dock lamps was easy enough, for the feathered air constrained their reach. I made my way through shadows, my sneakers squishing so faintly on the wet planks that even I could barely hear the noise I made.
The sea beyond the bay had been flatline all day; and the currents in the harbor were so gentle that the boats wallowed only slightly in their berths. They creaked and sometimes softly groaned, but the motion was not strong enough to clink halyards against metal masts.
As I walked, I took slow deep breaths of the briny air, and relying on psychic magnetism to pull me toward the conspirators, I concentrated on the images from my dream. Red sky. Red tide. Fiery phantoms of reflected flames swarming the beach.
At the west end of the marina, on the sea wall above the wharf, stood the building housing the harbor department, which was under the authority of the city police. Here below, the last several berths were reserved for department vessels.
Three were the twenty-foot, firehouse-red harbor-patrol boats that, among other tasks, chased down those who violated the five-mile-per-hour speed limit pertaining from the main channel to shore.
Of the other three craft, only one drew my interest: a seagoing tugboat, half again as big as the sturdy tug that worked only in the bay. From it came the rhythmic laboring of a generator. Many of the portholes and the large windows of the bridge were aglow; a work lamp shone upon a small crane fixed to the long, low afterdeck; and the running lights were on, as if the boat would soon leave port.
The sudden scent of cigarette smoke warned me that someone shared the dock with me. The fog would have filtered out the smell if the smoker had been as far away as the tugboat.
I moved closer to the stone face of the quay and took shelter against a wharf shack, which had been painted red to indicate that it stored firefighting gear.
When I peered around the corner of the shack, I could see the break in the dock railing where a gangway led down to the slip in which the tug was berthed.
After I had stared for a couple of minutes, and only when the eddying fog briefly opened a clearer line of sight for me, I saw the guard move. He was hunkered down this side of the entrance to the gangway, his back against the dock railing. The lamp above him had been broken, probably a short while ago, to provide a dark place where he could not be seen as long as he remained still.
At police headquarters, when Polterfrank had done his thing, Shackett must have thought that I, Harry Lime, federal psychic agent, had tapped a power of my own to escape.
Those events had occurred within the hour, so the conspirators would be at their highest alert, searching for me all over town but expecting that I might come to them. Panic would have seized them: the fear that with one phone call I would bring a hundred FBI agents, or others, down on them before they could take delivery of the nukes and get them out of town.
Evidently, loath to forfeit their newfound wealth, they hadn’t canceled the rendezvous at which they would acquire possession of the deadly cargo. Judging by preparations at the tugboat, they intended to transship the weapons from another vessel at sea.
Now that I knew their intentions and I was on the loose, they might have decided that they dared not return to the harbor with the bombs. If they executed a contingency plan to bring the nukes ashore elsewhere along the coast, I had no chance of stopping the operation unless I stowed away with them.
To get aboard, I would have to take out the guard here on the dock, but I could see no way to do so quietly.
Besides, I had to cross a swath of open planking to reach him, and I had no doubt that he would be better armed than I was. A better marksman. A better fighter. Tougher than I was. More brutal. Probably a kung fu master. Wicked with knives and martial-arts throwing stars that would be secreted in six places on his superbly fit body. And if I was somehow able to disarm him of every murderous implement, this guy would know how to make a lethal weapon from one of his shoes, either the left or right, he wouldn’t care which.
As I worried myself toward paralysis, a man appeared on the long afterdeck of the tug. In spite of the fog, I could see him, a shadowy figure, because of the brightness of the big work lamp focused on the deck crane.
He called out to someone named Jackie, and Jackie proved to be the guard who was hunkered along the deck railing, waiting to kill me with either of his shoes. Jackie rose out of his shadowy lair and disappeared down the gangway to the slip in which the tug was berthed.