To spare Homeland Security confusion, I noted that no Memorial Park existed anywhere along Memorial Park Avenue or at either end, and I cautioned him not to expect to find Highcliff Drive along any of the town’s bluffs.
I told the FBI about the tugboat, and I’m telling you about the triggers, I said, because I don’t fully trust all this with one agency. And you should not trust everyone in the Magic Beach Police Department.
After I hung up, I went to the front door and looked through one of the flanking sidelights at the porch. I saw no coyotes, so I left the house.
Behind me, the phone began to ring. I knew it would be the young agent from Homeland Security or a telemarketing firm. I had nothing to say to either.
By the time I reached the porch steps, the pack materialized before me, as though the fog were not a weather condition but instead a doorway through which they could step in an instant off the dry inland hills fifty miles distant into this coastal night. Legions of radiant yellow eyes receded into the murk.
Trying to recall the effective words that Annamaria had used on the greenbelt along Hecate’s Canyon, I said, You do not belong here.
As I descended the steps, the coyotes failed to retreat.
The rest of the world is yours…but not this place at this moment.
As I descended the final step and arrived on the walkway, the coyotes swarmed around me, some growling low in their throats, others mewling with an eager hunger.
They smelled of musk and meadows, and their breath of blood.
Moving forward, I said, I am not yours. You will leave now.
They seemed to think that I was mistaken, that I was indeed theirs, that they had seen the menu with my name on it, and their bodies pressed against my legs.
Annamaria had quoted Shakespeare: Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.
I know, I told the coyotes, that you are not only what you appear to be, and I am not afraid of anything you are.
That was a lie, but it was not a fraction as outrageous as the multitudinous lies that I had told to Chief Hoss Shackett and his associates.
One of the beasts nipped the left leg of my jeans and tugged.
You will leave now, I said firmly but serenely, without a tremor in my voice, as Annamaria had said it.
Another coyote snatched at the right leg of my jeans. A third one nipped at my left shoe.
They were growing more aggressive.
Out of the mist, through their thickly furred and plume-tailed ranks, came one stronger than the others, with a proud chest ruff and a larger head than any in the pack.
Coyotes communicate—especially in the hunt—by the pricking of their flexible and expressive ears, by the positions of their tails, and with other body language.
As this leader approached me through the swarm that parted to give him passage, his every expression of ears and tail was at once mimicked by the others, as if he were marshaling them for attack.
I faltered to a halt.
Although I had the words that Annamaria used, I did not have Annamaria, and it was beginning to look as if that was the difference between coyotes skulking away in defeat and coyotes ripping my throat out.
Much earlier in the evening, in the Brick District, a still small voice deep inside me had said Hide when a harbor-department truck had turned the corner. Now through my mind rang two words: the bell.
I did not have Annamaria with me, but I had something that had belonged to Annamaria, and I fished it from under my sweatshirt.
Surely the silver bell, no larger than a thimble, would be too small, too alien to a coyote’s experience, too lacking in shine in this foggy dark to attract their notice.
Yet when I let it lie upon the blue field of my sweatshirt, the eyes of the leader went to it, and as well the eyes of the others.
The rest of the world is yours, I repeated, but not this place at this moment.
The leader did not relent, but some of the smaller individuals began to shy away from me.
Emboldened, I addressed the master of the others, making eye contact with him and with him alone. You will leave now.
He did not look away from me, but he stopped advancing.
You will leave now, I repeated, and I moved forward once more, bold and not fearful, as Shakespeare advised, though I couldn’t lay claim to goodness and virtue to the extent that I would have liked.
Now, I insisted, and with one hand touched the bell upon my chest. Go now.
One moment, the eyes of the leader were sharp with what seemed to be hatred, though no animal has the capacity for hate, an emotion that, like envy, humanity reserves for itself.
The next moment, his fierce eyes clouded with confusion. He turned his head, surveying the rapidly deserting throng that he had rallied. He seemed to be surprised to find himself here, at this late hour in this strange place.
When he stared directly at me again, I knew that he was now only what he appeared to be, a beautiful work of nature, and nothing else, and nothing darker.
Go, I said gently, back to your home.
As if he were more a cousin of the dog than of the wolf, he backed away, turned, and sought the path that would lead him home.
In a quarter of a minute, the fog closed all its yellow eyes, and the scent of musk faded beyond detection.
I walked unhindered to the Mercedes and drove away.
At the corner of Memorial Park Avenue and Highcliff Drive, the Salvation Army collection bin featured a revolving dump-drawer like those in bank walls for night deposits.
When I tried to lift the satchel from the trunk, it seemed to weigh more than the car itself. Suddenly I knew that the hindering weight was the same as the confrontational coyotes, and both those things the same as the curious light and the shuffling sound under the lightning-bolt drain grating, and all of them of an identical character with the phantom that had sat in the porch swing.
Twenty pounds, I said. No more than twenty pounds. No more of this. The night is done.
I lifted the satchel with ease. It fit in the bin’s revolving drawer, and I let it roll away into the softness of donated clothing.
I closed the trunk, got in the Mercedes, and drove back toward Blossom Rosedale’s place.
The fog gave no indication that it would lift on this quieter side of midnight. Dawn might not prevail against it, or even noon.
One redheaded gunman remained, but I suspected that he had been the wisest of that unwise crowd, that he had tucked his tail, lowered his head, and made for home, and that I would need neither bell nor bullet to dispel him.
I got Birdie Hopkins’s home phone number from information and called to tell her that I was alive. She said, Ditto, and it was a fine thing to think of her out there in Magic Beach, waiting for the next twinge that would send her in search of the person who needed her.
IN THE COTTAGE OF THE HAPPY MONSTER waited the lingering spirit of Mr. Sinatra, my ghost dog, Boo, the golden retriever once named Murphy, Annamaria—and Blossom in a state of high enchantment.
That long-ago barrel of fire had neither ruined her life nor stolen the essence of her beauty. When she had delight in her heart, her face transcended all her suffering, whereupon the scars and the deformed features and the mottled skin became the remarkable face of a hero and the cherished face of a friend.
Come see, you’ve got to see, she said, leading me by the hand from the front door to a kitchen suffused with candlelight.
Annamaria sat at the table, and around her gathered the visible and the invisible.
On the table lay one of the white flowers with thick waxy petals that grew as large as bowls on the tree I had not been able to name.
You have a tree that grows these? I asked Blossom.
No. I’d love such a tree. Annamaria brought this with her.
Raphael came to me, tail wagging, wiggling with pleasure, and I crouched to pet him.
I didn’t see you bring a flower, I told Annamaria.
She took it from her purse, said Blossom. Annamaria, show him. Show him about the flower.
On the table stood a cut-glass bowl of water. Annamaria floated the flower in it.
No, Blossom, she said. This is yours. Keep it to remember me. I’ll show Odd when he’s ready.
Here tonight? Blossom asked.
All things in their time.
For Blossom, Annamaria had one of those gentle smiles that you wanted to look at forever, but for me, a more solemn expression.
How are you doing, young man?
I don’t feel so young anymore.
It’s the foul weather.
It was very foul tonight.
Do you wish to leave town alone?
No. We’ll go together.
The candlelight seemed to attend her.
The decision is always yours, she reminded me.
You’re safest with me. And we better go.
I forgot! Blossom said. I was packing you a hamper for the road. She hurried to the farther end of the kitchen.
There will be sun in a few hours, Annamaria said.
Somewhere, I agreed.
Rising from the table, she said, I’ll help Blossom.
Mr. Sinatra came to me, and I stood up from Raphael to say, Thank you, sir. And I’m sorry for cranking you up that way.
He indicated that all was forgiven. He put one fist under my chin and gave me an affectionate faux punch.
I thought you might have gone by now. You shouldn’t have waited for me. It’s too important—moving on.
He made that gesture of a magician, rolling his hands over to present empty palms, an introduction to a performance.
Manifesting now in the clothes that he had worn when he had first fallen into step beside me on a lonely highway—hat tipped at the particular cocky angle he preferred, sport coat tossed over his shoulder—he walked across the kitchen, up a wall of cabinets, and vanished through the ceiling, always the entertainer.
How did the golden retriever get here? I asked.
He just showed up at the door, Blossom said, and he woofed so politely. He’s a sweet one. He doesn’t look like his people took good care of him. He needed to be better fed and brushed more.
I had seen on entering that Raphael was aware of Boo. And I had no doubt that the ghost dog led the living dog to Blossom’s place.
We should take him with us, said Annamaria.
The vote’s unanimous.
A dog is always a friend in hard times.
That sounds like you’re buying into trouble, I warned Raphael.
He produced a big goofy grin, as if nothing would please him more than trouble, and plenty of it.
This town’s no place for us now, I told Annamaria. We really need to go.
Blossom had packed a hamper to sustain a platoon, including beef and chicken for our four-legged companion.
She walked us out to the car, and after I stowed the hamper, I held her close. You take care of yourself, Blossom Rosedale. I’m going to miss beating you at cards.
Yeah, right. As soon as I join up with you, I’ll whup your butt as usual.
I leaned back from her and, in the porte-cochere lights, I read in her face the delight that had been there when she opened the door, but also a deeper joy that I had not initially recognized.
I’ll conclude business here in a few weeks, she said, and then I’ll come to win this Mercedes from you.
Then you’ll have to buy me another one.
I kissed her brow, her cheek. Indicating the charming cottage, the diamond-paned windows full of warm light, I said, You really want to leave all this?
All this is just a place, she said. And sometimes such a lonely one.
Annamaria joined us. She put one arm around Blossom’s shoulders, one around mine.
To Blossom, I said, What is this thing we’re doing? You know?
Blossom shook her head. I don’t understand it at all. But I’ve never wanted anything in my life like going with you.
As always, Annamaria’s eyes invited exploration but remained inscrutable.
I asked her, Where are we going? Where will she find us?
We’ll stay in touch by phone, Annamaria replied. And as for where we’re going…you always say, you make it up as you go along.
We left Blossom there alone, but not forever, and with the dogs in the backseat, I drove along the lane between the rows of immense drooping deodar cedars, which seemed to be robed giants in a stately procession.
I worried that the FBI or Homeland Security, or some nameless agency, would set up roadblocks, checkpoints, something, but the way remained clear. I suppose the last thing they wanted was to draw media attention.
Nevertheless, after we had crossed the town limits, for several miles south, as the fog thinned somewhat across land less hospitable to it, I continued to check the rearview mirror with the expectation of pursuit.
When abruptly I could not drive anymore, and found it necessary to pull to the side of the highway, I was surprised by how the world fell out from under me, leaving me feeling as if I had fallen off a cliff and could not see the bottom.
Annamaria seemed not surprised at all. I’ll drive, she said, and assisted me around the car to the passenger seat.
Desperately, I needed to be small, bent forward, curled tight, my face in my hands, so small that I should not be noticed, my face covered so that it should not be seen.
In recent hours, I had taken in too much of the sea, and now I had to let it out.
From time to time, she took a hand from the wheel to put it on my shoulder, and occasionally she spoke to comfort me.
She said, Your heart shines, odd one.
No. You don’t know. What’s in it.
And later: You saved cities.
The killing. Her eyes. I see them.
Cities, odd one. Cities.
She could not console me, and I heard myself saying, as from a distance, All death, death, death, as if by chanting I could do penance.
A time of silence heavier than thunder. The fog behind us. To the east, a disturbing geography of black hills. To the west, a dark sea and a setting moon.
Life is hard, she said, and her statement needed no argument or clarification.
Miles later, I realized that she had followed those three words with six more that I had not then been ready to hear: But it was not always so.
Well before dawn, she stopped in an empty parking lot at a state beach. She came around the car and opened my door.
The stars, odd one. They’re beautiful. Will you show me the constellation Cassiopeia?
She could not have known. Yet she knew. I did not ask how. That she knew was grace enough.
We stood together on the cracked blacktop while I searched the heavens.
Stormy Llewellyn had been the daughter of Cassiopeia, who had died in my sweet girl’s childhood. Together, we had often picked out the points of the constellation, because doing so made Stormy feel closer to her lost mother.
There, I said, and there, and there, and star by star I drew the Cassiopeia of classic mythology, and recognized in that familiar pattern the mother of my lost girl, and in the mother I saw also the daughter, there above, beautiful and bright, for all eternity, her timeless light shining upon me, until one day I at last stepped out of time and joined her.