I was tense enough without having to listen to his shrill predictions of disaster. I switched off the radiotelephone.
The depth-finder began to pong more frequently.
Ode to Joy played again. Based on my experience with Utgard Rolf, something by Wagner or anything by any gangster-rap group would have been a better fit with his personality.
What had Beethoven ever done to Utgard that such lovely music should be used as a crime-phone ring?
On the screen: the white of a deep-water channel narrowing and funneling toward a narrow crescent of blue ahead, and beyond the blue a crescent of green, and beyond the green a great stately gold swath of land as solid as anyone could want it, the magnificent western ramparts of America the beautiful.
Motoring right down the center of the channel.
No need to check the fuel gauge. Only a few ounces were required to complete the trip.
The voltmeter. To hell with the voltmeter. I had no idea what a voltmeter did. Probably no more than one in a million people knew what a voltmeter did. Yet there it was, occupying a prime lower-left corner of the gauge board, so proud of itself, mocking everyone who was not a lifelong seaman with high voltmeter awareness.
Gear-oil pressure gauge, engine-oil pressure gauge, water temperature gauge, tachometers: They were of no interest to me now, suppliers of useless data, silly instruments of no import.
What respect I still had for marine technology was reserved for the depth-finder, the sonar soundings, ponging faster and louder, faster.
My plan, as patchwork as it might be, had been predicated on the belief that nuclear bombs were pretty much as hard to detonate as were sticks of dynamite.
You can throw a fat stick of dyn**ite against a wall, whack it with a hammer, stab it with a knife—and, at least as I understand the subject, it will not explode. A lit fuse will do the trick, as perhaps will a jolt of electric current from a plunger box, but if you want to drive across twenty thousand sticks of dyn**ite in a Peterbilt, you can do so, if I have my facts straight, without risk of being blown to bits.
Pure nitroglycerin is another matter.
I had separated the nukes from their triggers or from objects that I sincerely believed to be their triggers. At the time these events occurred, I was not a nuclear physicist—nor am I one now, as I write this—but I felt as certain as a nonphysicist could be that all four thermonuclear devices would ride out a hard jolt without vaporizing me.
The fog did not relent: nothing but fog, fog, fog.
I took a wide stance, leaning toward the console, feet pressed hard against the deck, and gripped the wheel tightly with my left hand.
The pong of the sonar counted a cadence grossly out of sync with the rhythm of Ode to Joy, and relying sheerly on intuition, I chose what I hoped might be the last best moment to punch the ENGINE STOP button.
I gripped the wheel now with both hands, holding course but mostly just holding tight.
A boat has no brakes. The only way to halt forward motion is to reverse engines. Switching off the engines, as I had done, at once kills further forward thrust but has no effect on current momentum.
We traveled the final meters of the Hecate’s Canyon channel with significant momentum. Water, of course, offers momentum-diminishing resistance, but less than you might think when the boat has a modest beam, a V-bow, and a round-bottom hull.
Only subsequent to these events did I learn about these aspects of the seagoing tug’s design, and come to appreciate fully how much it still has to give even after you kill its engines.
Sand offers greater resistance than water, as you might imagine, and mud outperforms sand in this regard. I cannot claim to have been able to discern when the tugboat finished ramming through sand and began beaching itself more firmly in mud. All I remember is that one second the channel was still deep enough to accommodate the boat’s draft, and the next second it was not deep enough.
The bullet-punctured bridge window shattered completely out of its frame, and every unsecured item aboard the boat flew as objects do in any building rocked by an earthquake. Nothing clobbered me, which spoke well to Utgard’s attention to maritime safety.
My legs went out from under me, but I held fast to the wheel.
Shrieking, twanging, cracking, popping, hissing, the tugboat climbed out of the waters of the cove—bow rising, rising—like a prehistoric amphibian deciding that the hour had come to declare itself sufficiently evolved for life on land.
When the craft came to a stop, I got my feet under myself, but for a long moment my cramped hands would not let go of the wheel.
ALTHOUGH I HAD STOPPED THE ENGINES BEFORE impact, I assumed a fire might still break out, even though diesel fuel does not burn as readily as gasoline.
The question about whether thermonuclear weapons might detonate from a hard knock had happily been answered in the negative. Fire, if it erupted, was not likely to faze the cast-steel jackets in which the shaped plutonium appeared to have been encased; therefore, I was not concerned about the release of radioactive material.
Finally able to let go of the helm, I retrieved the satchel containing the bomb triggers.
Earlier, when so much had remained to be done to convey the nukes to a place from which they could not easily be spirited away, I had been too frantic to notice how heavy the bag was. Handling the first of the triggers, I had estimated its weight at four or five pounds. That extrapolated to a maximum combined weight of twenty pounds, but the satchel was at least half again as heavy as that.
James Bond, especially as played by Daniel Craig, would have snatched up the satchel as if it contained politicians’ promises. Smiling insouciantly, he would have dashed off with the triggers at a pace qualifying him as a marathon runner in the Olympics.
Bond, of course, has the advantage of being fortified with a diet largely consisting of martinis. I drink nothing stronger than red wine, and not much of that.
Muttering something derogatory about bomb designers’ tendency to make everything bigger and heavier than it probably had to be, about their blithe disregard for the need to conserve precious resources, I carried the leather bag off the bridge. I closed the door behind me and held fast to it for a moment, getting my bearings.
The tugboat listed to port, and the deck sloped down toward the stern because the bow had climbed onto the beach. Although the wet deck had not been a serious challenge when we had been at sea, this degree of incline promised to provide me with entertainment.
Slipping, as they say, like a pig on ice, I crossed the canted deck to the railing and looked down. Wondering why a pig would ever be on ice, I saw dark ground under the eddying fog.
I hefted the satchel over the railing and let it drop. All the triggers were wrapped in double-walled felt bags, as if they had been purchased in an upscale store like Tiffany; consequently, they did not clank rudely upon impact.
Because the boat listed in this direction, I had to climb out onto the railing as well as scramble over it. When I landed beside the satchel, on solid ground, I promised myself that my seagoing days were over.
In the past, I had lied to myself about such things. For the moment, however, I was willing to disregard those previous false promises, perfidious as they might have been, and to take joy in my commitment to a landlubber’s life.
I considered heading directly inland, through Hecate’s Canyon, where coyotes prowled and where the buried bodies of at least two murdered girls—victims of the art teacher, Arliss Clerebold—had never been found.
Instead, I picked up the satchel and, leaning to the right as though I remained on a listing deck, I stepped within sight of the breaking surf and followed it north, which was to my right as I faced the Pacific. In this white wilderness, the water line was the only reliable guide available to me.
According to the GPS sea map on the tugboat bridge, the cove had a crescent beach that curved between the steep slopes that formed the terminus of the canyon. At the northwest end of the cove, the beach continued north along the coast all the way past town to the harbor.
That turn, from cove to coastal shore, could be underwater at high tide. Fortunately, this was not high tide, and at a brisk walk I reached the main beach in two or three minutes.
A bluff diminished northward for the next quarter of a mile or more. I followed it until it petered out, and then headed inland until I came to Magic Beach’s quaint concrete boardwalk, on which I continued north.
I was tired. The events of the night justified my weariness. I felt that it would be within my rights to lie down for a nice sleep on the boardwalk, and to hell with the in-line skaters whose early-morning speedfest would be presented with one more obstacle in addition to the usual old men with canes and little old ladies with walkers.
Weariness alone did not explain my increasing difficulty with the leather satchel. Weary or not, the farther you carry any heavy burden, the heavier it seems, but neither did that truth solve the puzzle of the rapidly escalating weight. I had been lugging the bag for less than ten minutes, and already it felt twice as heavy as when I had dropped it over the tugboat railing.
With caution, I approached Hutch Hutchison’s house from the alleyway. Although I did not have to worry that Utgard Rolf might be waiting inside for me, and although I figured Hoss Shackett must be busy elsewhere, tearing his hair out and contemplating an extreme identity change that would include gender alteration, the pair of redheaded gunmen might have time on their hands and the patience to wait here like trap-door spiders.
After letting myself through the gate beside the garage, I had to carry the satchel with both hands. By then it felt as though it contained the grand piano that Laurel and Hardy had never been able to get up those narrow stairs.
I put it down on the brick patio, next to the wrought-iron chair on which earlier I had draped my sand-caked jeans and socks. I had to roll my shoulders and stretch my arms to relieve the strain that had knotted my muscles.
I stepped back from the house, to a corner of the garage, where I flipped open the cell phone given to me by Birdie Hopkins. I called the Cottage of the Happy Monster. Annamaria answered on the third ring.
It’s me, I said. Where’s Blossom?
Making popcorn. She’s the dearest person.
I knew you’d like her.
She will be with me always, Annamaria said, which seemed to me an odd way to say that she would never forget Blossom Rosedale.
I’ll be coming for you soon, I said. Within the hour. We’ll have to leave town, if that’s all right with you.
What will be will be.
Here we go again.
You’re my protector, and I’m your charge. We do as you think best.
I did not know why I felt now a greater weight upon me than when in my sole possession, aboard the death boat, had been four nuclear bombs and their triggers.
When I found myself with no reply, she said, You’re always free to retract your pledge, Odd Thomas.
In memory, I saw her in the light of the oil lamp: Will you die for me?
I had said yes, and had taken the offered bell.
No, I said. I’m with you. Wherever this is leading. Until the end of it. We’re leaving town. I’ll be there within the hour.
I closed the phone and slipped it in a pocket of my jeans.
Although Ozzie Boone’s tutelage and the writing of these four manuscripts have given me some facility with language, I don’t have the words to describe the strange feeling that overcame me then.
Of all the things I am, a killer is one of them. Not a murderer, but still a killer. And a fool. The only child of a mad mother and a narcissistic father. A failed hero. A confused boy. A troubled man. A guy who makes his life up as he goes along. A seeker who cannot find his way.
No one should entrust someone like me with a treasure. Whether Annamaria herself was the treasure, or her child, or neither of them, but instead some mysterious thing yet to be revealed, I knew that she believed she had a treasure that required protection. Her judgment in the matter had a conviction that convinced me.
In spite of an acute awareness of my inadequacies, I intuited that, for all my faults, this was my duty and my honor. What I felt then, by Hutch’s garage, that I cannot describe is a nameless emotion below humility, a deference immeasurably greater than what the meek feel in the shadow of the mighty, what a sparrow might feel if Nature charged him with carrying on his small wings all the living things of a dying Earth to a new world.
And I did not know why I felt all this, because I did not know to what I had committed. Or perhaps I knew in my heart, but kept the knowledge from myself, preferring to proceed in ignorance, for fear the truth would paralyze me, petrify me as solidly as eons of time can petrify living wood into hardest stone.
IN CASE THE REDHEADED GUNMEN HAD COME visiting Hutch, had not been convinced by his performance, and had settled down to wait for me, I examined the compact pistol. The ten-round magazine held nine. I switched off the safety.
Most likely because I had recently spent too much time at sea, I muttered, Okay, fish or cut bait.
The Ziploc pill bag in the terra-cotta bowl of cyclamens. The key in the bag.
Ease open the door. Quiet. The fading cinnamon aroma of homemade cookies. The golden glow of the string lights hidden in the recessed toe kick of the cabinets.
All as it should be. Never a good sign.
This time wearing pants, I crossed the cozy kitchen and warily entered the downstairs hall.
When I peered cautiously through the open parlor door, I saw Hutch in the armchair where I had left him. The chenille throw lay across his lap and draped his knees; but he had put the book aside. He snored softly.
I engaged the safety on the little pistol, and pocketed the weapon.
Hutch must have had dinner while I’d been gone, and had returned to the parlor to watch television. On the TV played an old movie in which he had starred. He had muted the sound.
I stood watching the silent screen.
His co-star in this one had been the wondrous Deborah Kerr, as beautiful as she had been in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as haunting as in An Affair to Remember, as elegant as in Bonjour Tristesse, as fresh-faced and innocent as in Black Narcissus.
Hutch had not been storklike in those days. With his height and his mane of hair, he had been a lion on the screen. Time had not yet carved his noble profile into a caricature, brow and beak and blunted chin.
Whatever he was currently saying to Deborah Kerr and she to him, the conversation was intense. He held her tenderly by her shoulders, and she gazed up at him, and the moment was building to a kiss as surely as lightning leads to thunder.
She was magnificent, Hutch said, having awakened as I stood entranced by the images on the TV.
Were you in love with her, sir?
Oh, yes. Very much so. From a distance. She was untouchable, however. A true lady. There are none like her now.
And here came the kiss. A few more words. And a second kiss. Dissolve to a European battlefield.