Or I had stepped into the parked motor home of an itinerant serial killer who might return at any moment, where I had discovered two ferocious attack dogs that were determined to keep me from leaving, against which I had no weapons or defenses except one fluffy pink dust mop and six cans of warm Coke, which when shaken spewed foamy streams that terrified the killer canines.
As a teenager, I always intended to do my homework. But when the supplicant dead come to you for justice and you also have occasional prophetic dreams, life tends to interfere with your studies.
Now, as I hung twenty feet above the surface of the sea, the witchy shadows closed around me so completely that I couldn’t see the next piton thrusting from the pole above my head. I halted, pondering whether I could ascend safely in the pitch dark or should retreat to the narrow concrete ledge below.
The penetrating odor of creosote, applied to preserve the wood, had grown thicker as I climbed. I could no longer smell the ocean or the wet concrete pilings, or even my sweat: only the astringent scent of the preservative.
Just as I decided that prudence—which, as you know, is one of my most reliable character traits—required me to go back down to the ledge, lights blinked on under the pier.
Fixed to numerous wooden posts, five feet below my position, floodlights were directed down toward the sea. A long line of them extended from one end of the structure to the other.
I could not recall if the underside of the pier had been illuminated on other nights. These lamps might be automatically activated every evening at dusk.
If the floodlights were only for emergency situations, such as in the event someone fell off the pier, then perhaps a responsible citizen had seen me go over the side and had alerted the authorities.
More likely, the hulk and the redheaded gunmen had known where to find the switch. In that case, they had glimpsed me underwater, making for cover, and they had wasted no time scanning the incoming tide for a shorebound swimmer.
As I hung there in a quandary, trying to decide whether this meant I should continue upward or perhaps return to the water, I heard what for a moment I thought was a chain saw in the distance. Then I recognized the sound as that of an outboard engine.
After ten or fifteen seconds, the engine throttled back. The consequent throbbing chug could not be mistaken for anything but an outboard.
Cocking my head left, right, I tried to hear around the thick support to which I clung. Sounds bounced deceptively through the ranks of posts and crossbeams and ricocheted off the gently rolling water, but after half a minute, I was sure the craft was proceeding slowly shoreward from the ocean-end of the pier.
I looked westward but could not see the boat for the intervening substructure. The pilot might be cruising in open water, paralleling the pier, or he could be threading through the pilings to conduct a more thorough search.
Although the floodlamps were below my position and were directed downward, light bounced off the moving water. Shimmering phantoms swooped up the columns, across the horizontal beams, and fluttered all the way up against the underside of the pier deck.
In these quivering reflections, I was revealed. An easy target.
If I descended now, I would be going down to death.
Considering the events of the last couple of years, I was ready for death when my time came, and I did not fear it. But if suicide damns the soul, then I would never see my lost girl again. Peace is not worth the slightest risk of being denied that reunion.
Besides, I suspected that Annamaria was in trouble and that I had been drawn to Magic Beach, in part, to help her.
I climbed more rapidly than before, hoping to find a junction of beams or an angular nest between purlins and posts where I would be hidden not merely from the floodlamps reflecting off the water but also from probing flashlights, if the searchers had any.
Although I wasn’t afraid of heights, I could have composed an almost infinite list of places that I would rather have been than up a pier post, much like a cat treed by wolves. I counseled myself to be grateful that, indeed, there were not vicious attack dogs below; although on the other hand, to assist in self-defense, I didn’t have even so much as a fluffy pink dust mop or a six-pack of warm Cokes.
MONKEY-QUICK BUT CLUMSY IN MY DESPERATION, I scrambled up the post, feet stepping where my hands had grasped a moment earlier.
A loose piton cracked out of dry wood underfoot and fell away, and rang off concrete below. The chug of the approaching outboard masked the sound of the water receiving the steel.
The post bypassed a massive crossbeam. I clambered and clawed sideways onto that horizontal surface with such an ungainly series of maneuvers that no observer would have mistaken me for a member of a species that lived in trees and ate bananas by the bunch.
Although the beam was wide, it was not as wide as I was. Like radiant spirits, the leaping bright reflections of floodlamps off the rolling sea soared and swooned over me, making of me a pigeon, easy plinking for a practiced gunman shooting from below.
Fleeing on all fours is fine if your four are all feet, but hands and knees don’t allow much speed. Grateful that I was not afraid of high places, wishing that my stomach shared my insouciance about heights, I stood and my stomach sank.
I peered down into the drink and grew a little dizzy, then glanced west toward the grumble of the outboard. The ranks of intervening pier supports hid the boat from me.
At once, I discovered why high-wire walkers use a balance pole. With my arms tucked close to my sides and hands tensely fisted, I wobbled as if I were a drunk who had failed out of a twelve-step program in just four steps.
Defensively, I spread my arms and opened my hands. I cautioned myself not to look down at my feet but, instead, at the beam ahead, where I wanted my feet to go.
Quivering specters of reflected light painted an illusion of water across the beam and the surrounding posts, raising in me the irrational feeling that I would be washed off my perch.
This high above the sea, under the cowl of the pier, the odor of creosote intensified. My sinuses burned, and my throat. When I licked my dry lips, the taste of coal tar seemed to have condensed on them.
I halted and closed my eyes for a moment, shutting out the leaping ghosts of light. I held my breath and pressed away the dizziness, and moved on.
When I had crossed half the width of the pier, the north-south beam intersected another running east-west.
The outboard had grown louder, therefore nearer. Still the searchers had not hoved into view below.
I turned east, onto the intersecting beam. Always putting foot in front of foot on the narrow path, I was not as fleet as a ballet dancer hurrying en pointe across a stage, but I made swift progress.
My jeans did not accommodate such movement as well as a pair of tights would have. Instead they kept binding where too much binding would squeeze my voice into a permanent falsetto.
I crossed another intersection, continuing east, and wondered if I might be able to flee through this support structure all the way to shore.
Behind me, the outboard growled louder. Above the buzz of the engine, I heard the boat’s wake slapping against the concrete support columns twenty feet below, which suggested not just that the craft was making greater speed than previously but also that it was close.
As I approached another intersection, two radiant red eyes, low in front of me, brought me to a stop. The fairy light teased fitfully across the shape before me, but then revealed a rat sitting precisely where the two beams joined.
I am not afraid of rats. Neither am I so tolerant that I would welcome a swarm of them into my home in a spirit of interspecies brotherhood.
The rat was paralyzed by the sight of me looming over it. If I advanced another step, it had three routes by which it could flee to safety.
In moments of stress, my imagination can be as ornate as a carousel of grotesque beasts, standing on end like a Ferris wheel, spinning like a coin, casting off kaleidoscopic visions of ludicrous fates and droll deaths.
As I confronted the rat, I saw in my mind’s eye a scenario in which I startled the rodent, whereupon it raced toward me in a panic, slipped under a leg of my jeans, squirmed up my calf, squeaked behind my knee, wriggled along my thigh, and decided to establish a nest between my buttocks. Through all of this, I would be windmilling my arms and hopping on one foot until I hopped off the beam and, with the hapless rodent snugged between my cheeks, plunged toward the sea just in time to crash into the searchers’ boat, smashing a hole in the bottom with my face, thereupon breaking my neck and drowning.
You might think that I have earned the name Odd Thomas, but it has been mine since birth.
The racket of the outboard sawed through the support posts, echoing and re-echoing until it seemed that legions of lumberjacks were at work, intent on felling the entire structure.
When I took a step toward the rat, the rat did not relent. As I had nothing better to do, I took another step, then halted because the noise of the outboard abruptly became explosive.
I dared to look down. An inflatable dinghy passed below, wet black rubber glossy under the floodlamps.
The hulk in the Hawaiian shirt sat on the sternmost of two thwarts, one hand on the steering arm of the engine. He piloted the boat with expertise, weaving at speed between the concrete columns, as if late for a luau.
On the longer port and starboard inflation compartments that formed the rounded bulwarks of the craft, in yellow letters, were the words MAGIC BEACH/HARBOR DEPT. The dinghy must have been tied up to the pier; the giant had boldly stolen it to search for me.
Yet he never looked up between the floodlamps as he passed under me. If the dinghy doubled as a search-and-rescue craft, waterproof flashlights would be stowed aboard; but the hulk wasn’t using one.
The small craft disappeared among the staggered rows of columns. The engine noise gradually diminished. The ripples and dimples of the dinghy’s modest wake were smoothed away by the self-ironing sea.
I had expected to see three men in the boat. I wondered where the dead-eyed redheads had gone.
The other rat had vanished, too, but not up a leg of my blue jeans.
Exhibiting balletic poise, foot in front of foot, I stepped into the junction of beams, which the trembling rodent had once occupied. I meant to continue shoreward, but I stopped.
Now that the blond giant was under the pier, between me and the beach, I was not confident of continuing in that direction.
The mood had changed. An overwhelming sense of peril, of being in the mortal trajectory of a bullet, had propelled me into frantic flight. Now death seemed no less possible than it had before the passage of the dinghy, but less imminent.
The moment felt dangerous rather than perilous, characterized by uncertainty and by the tyranny of chance. If a bullet was coming, I now had hope of dodging it, though only if I made the right moves.
I looked north, east, south along the horizontal beams. West, over my shoulder. Down into floodlit tides. I looked up toward the underside of the pier deck, where the dancing sea translated itself into phrases of half-light that swelled and fluttered and shrank and swelled in an eerie choreography through geometric beams and braces.
I felt as indecisive as the feckless mob in The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, Act 4, when they vacillate repeatedly between swearing loyalty to the grotesque Cade, then to the rightful king.
Shakespeare again. Once you let him into your head, he takes up tenancy and will not leave.
The sound of the outboard engine had been waning. Abruptly it cut out altogether.
Briefly the silence seemed perfect. Then the wordless whispering and the soft idiot chuckling of the sea began to echo off surrounding surfaces.
In the brief period since the dinghy had passed under me, it could not have traveled all the way to the beach. It had probably gone little more than half that distance.
The hulk at the tiller would not surrender steering to the sea and let it pinball the dinghy from post to post. He must have somehow tied up to one of the concrete columns.
He would not have moored the dinghy unless he intended to disembark from it. Already he must be climbing into the pier support structure ahead of me.
Certain that I knew where the redheaded gunmen were, I looked over my shoulder, through the labyrinth of posts and beams to the west. They were not yet in sight.
One in front of me. Two behind. The jaws of a nutcracker.
WHILE I DITHERED AT THE INTERSECTION OF support beams, a pale form loomed out of the south, to my right.
Because occasionally spirits manifest suddenly, unexpectedly, with no regard for my nerves, I don’t startle easily. I swayed on the timber but did not plummet from it.
My visitor proved to be Boo, good dog and former mascot of St. Bartholomew’s Abbey in the California Sierra.
He could be seen by no one but me, and no touch but mine could detect any substance to him. Yet to my eyes at least, the shimmering reflections sprayed up by the rolling sea played off his flanks and across his face, as if he were as solid as I was.
Although he could have appeared in midair, he walked the crossbeam toward me, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father approaching the doomed prince on the platform before the castle.
Well, no. Boo had a tail, soft fur, and a friendly smile. Hamlet’s father had none of that, although Hollywood would no doubt eventually give him all three in some misguided adaptation.
I hoped that the Hamlet comparison was inappropriate in other ways. At the end of that play, the stage is littered with dead bodies.
Boo stopped when he knew that I had seen him, cocked his head, and wagged his tail. Suddenly facing away from me without having turned around, he padded south, paused, glanced back at me, and then continued.
Even if I had not watched a lot of old episodes of Lassie, I understood the dead well enough to know that I was expected to follow my dog. I took some small pride that, unlike young Timmy in the TV show, I didn’t need to be barked into obedience.
The blond hulk had not appeared in the east, nor the redheads in the west, so I hurried, if gingerly, after the ghostly shepherd, who led me toward the south side of the pier.
At the end of the timber path, I came to a large railed landing that served two flights of ascending stairs, one to the left, one to the right. The landing might have been a staging platform for workers of one kind or another.
When Boo climbed the stairs to the left, I went after him. The flight was short, and at the top lay a four-foot-wide railed catwalk.
The underside of the pier deck hung little more than one foot above my head. In this high corridor, where only a storm wind could have stirred the air, the stink of creosote thickened.
Darkness pooled deeper here than elsewhere. Nevertheless, the quivering marbled reflections, ever-changing on the ceiling, revealed electrical conduits, junction boxes, and copper pipes that must have been water lines.
The conduits brought power to the lampposts topside and to the emergency floodlamps below me. The copper lines served the freshwater faucets provided at regular intervals for the anglers who, on most nights, fished from the pier.