This catwalk, along which Boo led me, would be used by plumbers and electricians when problems arose with pier utilities.
After we had proceeded some distance shoreward, we came to a two-foot-by-five-foot pop-out in the catwalk. A wooden storage chest with two padlocks filled this space.
In the poor light, I could not see any words or markings on the chest. Perhaps it contained maintenance supplies.
Or interred in the chest might have been the shrunken remains of the pier master’s poor wife, Lorraine, who perhaps had been murdered twenty years ago when she complained once too often about a lingering creosote smell in his work clothes.
My eager imagination might have worked up a hair-raising image of Lorraine’s shriveled cadaver, pickled in creosote, if I had been able to believe there was actually such a position as a pier master. I don’t know where the name Lorraine came from.
Sometimes I am a mystery to myself.
Boo settled on the catwalk and rolled onto his side. He extended one paw toward me and raked the air—universal canine sign language that meant Sit down, stay awhile, keep me company, rub my tummy.
With three dangerous men searching for me, a tummy-rub session seemed ill-advised, like pausing in midflight across a howitzer-hammered battlefield to assume the lotus position and engage in some yoga to calm the nerves.
Then I realized that the brute in the orchid-pattern shirt was overdue for an appearance as he searched the support structure from east to west. The storage chest stood about two and a half feet high and offered cover that the open railing did not.
Good boy, I whispered.
Boo’s tail beat against the floor without making a sound.
I stretched out on the catwalk, on my side, left arm bent at the elbow, head resting on my palm. With my right hand, I rubbed my ghost dog’s tummy.
Dogs know we need to give affection as much as they need to receive it. They were the first therapists; they’ve been in practice for thousands of years.
After perhaps two minutes, Boo brought an end to our therapy session by rolling to his feet, ears pricked, alert.
I dared to raise my head above the storage chest. I peered down seven feet into the level of the support structure from which I had recently ascended.
At first I saw no one. Then I spotted the hulk proceeding along the series of east-west beams.
The eddying water far below cast luminous patterns that turned through the support structure like the prismatic rays from a rotating crystal chandelier in a ballroom. The hulk had no one to dance with, but he didn’t appear to be in a dancing mood, anyway.
THE BIG MAN DIDN’T WALK THE BEAMS WITH reticence and caution, as I had done, but with such confidence that his mother must have been a circus aerialist and his father a high-rise construction worker. His powerful arms were at his sides, a gun in one and a flashlight in the other.
He paused, switched on the flashlight, and searched among the vertical posts, along the horizontal supports.
On the catwalk, I ducked my head behind the storage chest. A moment later the probing light swept over me, east to west, back again, and then away.
Although Boo had moved past me and stood with his head through a gap in the railing, watching the giant, he remained visible only to me.
When the searcher had moved out of sight into the labyrinth of posts and purlins and struts, I rose to my feet. I continued east.
Padding ahead of me, Boo dematerialized. He appeared solid one moment, then became transparent, faded, vanished.
I had no idea where he went when he was not with me. Perhaps he enjoyed exploring new places as much as did any living dog, and went off to wander previously unvisited neighborhoods of Magic Beach.
Boo did not haunt this world in the way that the lingering human dead haunted it. They were by turns forlorn, fearful, angry, bitter. Transgressively, they refused to heed the call to judgment, and made this world their purgatory.
This suggested to me that the free will they had been given in this life was a heritage they carried with them into the next, which was a reassuring thought.
Boo seemed to be less a ghost than he was a guardian spirit, always happy and ready to serve, still on the earth not because he had remained behind after death but because he had been sent back. Consequently, perhaps he had the power and permission to move between worlds as he wished.
I found it comforting to imagine that when I didn’t urgently need him, he was in Heaven’s fields, at play with all the good dogs who had brightened this world with their grace and who had moved on to a place where no dog ever suffered or lived unloved.
Evidently Boo believed that for the immediate future I could muddle on without him.
I continued east along the catwalk until, glancing down at the opportune moment, I glimpsed the inflatable dinghy tied to a concrete column far below, bobbing gently on the floodlit swells. Here the hulk had ascended and had begun searching westward.
At least one-quarter of the pier’s length lay to the east of this position. I paused to brood about that.
As it turned out, Boo had been right to think that I would be able to puzzle my way through this development without his counsel. The hulk had not searched the last quarter of the support structure because he was confident that I could not have gone that far before he had climbed up here to look for me.
I did not believe, however, that he was as dumb as he was big. He would have left the last section unsearched only if, in the event that I slipped past him, someone waited on the shore to snare me.
Perhaps both redheads had not begun searching together from the west end of the pier, as I had imagined. One of them might be waiting ahead of me.
Had I been a dog and had Boo been a man, he would have given me a cookie, patted me on the head, and said, Good boy.
After climbing over the catwalk railing, I lowered myself onto a tie beam below, lost my balance, got it back. I went north toward the center of the pier.
Just before I reached the intersection with the east-west beam, I stepped off the timber, across a six-inch gap, and put one foot on a piton in one of the vertical supports. I grabbed another piton with one hand, and swung onto that post.
I descended to the concrete base column, slid down through the enshrouding colony of barnacles, breaking them with my jeans, taking care to spare my hands, and landed as quietly as I could on the sectioned floorboards of the inflatable dinghy. A softly rattling debris of broken crustacean shells arrived with me.
The boat bobbed under one of the floodlamps. I felt dangerously exposed and was eager to get out of there.
A mooring line extended from the bow ring to a cleat in the concrete: two horns of pitted steel that barely protruded past the barnacles. I did not dare untie the dinghy until I was prepared to struggle against the currents that would carry it toward land.
If I started the engine, the searchers would come at once. Considering the time that I, an inexperienced pilot, would need to negotiate among the pilings and into open water, I might not get out of pistol range before one of the gunmen arrived.
Therefore, I resorted to the oars. A pair were secured with Velcro straps against the starboard bulwark.
Because long oars were needed and space was at a premium in the dinghy, this pair had wooden paddles but telescoping aluminum poles. With a little fumbling and a lot of muttering—both activities at which I excel—I extended the oars and locked them at full length.
I fixed one oar in the port oarlock, but I kept the other one free. Because the staggered ranks of pilings would make it difficult if not impossible to paddle against the tide and also navigate around every column, I hoped to steer and propel the inflatable craft across the remaining width of the pier by pushing off one after another of those concrete impediments.
Finally I untied the belaying line from the cleat. Because the dinghy began at once to drift with the tide, I let the rope ravel on the floorboard as it wished.
Before the column receded beyond reach, I sat upon the forward thwart, seized the free oar, and used it to thrust off the concrete. Jaws clenched, pulse throbbing in my temples, I tried with all my strength to move the dinghy northward, across the shorebound tide.
And so it did, for a short distance, before the tide pulled it north-northeast, and then east. I corrected course by thrusting off the next piling, the next, the next, and although a couple of times the oar scraped or knocked the concrete, the sound was too brief and low to draw attention.
Inevitably, I could not entirely halt an eastward drift. But the distance to land remained great enough that I hoped the intervening supports would prevent anyone at that end of the pier from seeing me.
When open water lay ahead, I slipped the free pole into the starboard lock, and with both oars I rowed crosstide, pulling harder with the seaward paddle than with the landward.
In the open, I expected a bullet in the back. If it happened, I hoped that it would not cripple me, but cleanly kill me instead, and send me on to Stormy Llewellyn.
Full night had fallen while I had cat-and-moused through the support structure of the pier. The mist that had risen near dusk, just before I had decided Annamaria should leave the pier, was slowly thickening into a heartier brew.
The fog would cloak me quicker than the darkness alone. The poles creaked in the locks and the paddles sometimes struck splashes from the black water, but no one shouted behind me, and moment by moment, I felt more confident of escaping.
My arms began to ache, my shoulders and my neck, but I rowed another minute, another. I was increasingly impressed by the power of the sea, and grateful for the low sluggish waves.
When I allowed myself to look back, the shrouded glow of some of the pier lamps could still be discerned. But when I saw that the pier itself was lost to view in gray murk, I brought both oars aboard and dropped them on the sectioned floorboards.
Under a novice seaman, an inflatable dinghy can be a slippery beast, almost as bad as riding the back of an angry and intoxicated crocodile that wants to thrash you off and eat your cojones. But that’s a story for another time.
Fearful of falling overboard or capsizing the craft, I crept on my hands and knees to the rear thwart. I sat there with one hand on the steering arm of the outboard.
Instead of a starter rope, there was an electronic ignition, which I found by reading the engine as a blind man reads a line of Braille. A push of the button brought a roar, and then a whoosh of propeller blades chopping surf.
The engine noise prevented me from hearing any shouts that rose from the pier, but now the demonic trinity knew where I had gone.
STEERING STRAIGHT TO SHORE SEEMED UNWISE. The gunman who had been positioned at the landward end of the pier would race north along the beach, using the engine noise to maintain a fix on me.
The fog was not dense enough to bury all of Magic Beach. I could see some fuzzy lights from shoreside businesses and homes, and I used these as a guide to motor north, parallel to the coast.
For the first time since it had happened, I allowed myself to wonder why the big man’s hand upon my shoulder had cast me back into the previous night’s apocalyptic dream. I couldn’t be sure that he had shared my vision. But he had experienced something that made him want to take me somewhere private for the kind of intense questioning during which the interrogator acquires a large collection of the interrogee’s teeth and fingernails.
I thought of those yellow eyes. And of the voice that belonged to something that would eat Goldilocks with or without gravy: Who the hell are you?
My current circumstances were not conducive to calm thought and profound reasoning. I could arrive at only one explanation for the electrifying effect of his hand upon my shoulder.
My dream of that horrendous but unspecified catastrophe was not a dream but, beyond doubt now, a premonition. When the hulk touched me, he triggered a memory of the nightmare, which backwashed into him because the mysterious cataclysm that I had inadequately foreseen was one that he would be instrumental in causing.
The waves were too low to turn my stomach, but when my stomach turned nevertheless, it felt as viscous as an oyster sliding out of its shell.
When I had gone perhaps half a mile from the pier, I set the outboard’s steering arm, locked the throttle, stripped off the sodden sweatshirt that had encumbered me on my previous swim, and dived overboard.
Having worked up a sweat with my exertions, I had forgotten how cold the water was: cold enough to shock the breath out of me. I went under. A current sucked me down. I fought upward, broke the surface, spat out a mouthful of seawater, and gasped for air.
I rolled onto my back, using a flutter kick and a modified butterfly stroke to make for land at an easy pace. If one of the redheads waited on the shore for me, I wanted to give him time to hear the dinghy proceeding steadily north and to decide either to follow it or to return to the pier.
Besides, maybe a shark, a really huge shark, a giant mutant shark of unprecedented size would surface under me, kill me with one bite, and swallow me whole. In that event, I would no longer have to worry about Annamaria, the people of Magic Beach, or the possible end of the world.
All but effortlessly afloat in the buoyant salt water, gazing up into the featureless yet ever-changing fog, with no sounds but my breathing and the slop of water washing in and out of my ears, having adjusted to the cold but not yet aching from it, I was as close to the experience of a sensory-deprivation tank as I ever wanted to get.
With no distractions, this seemed like an ideal moment to walk my memory through the red-tide dream in search of meaningful details that had not initially registered with me. I would have been relieved to recall a neon sign that provided the month, day, and hour of the cataclysm, the precise location, and a description of the event.
Unfortunately, my predictive dreams don’t work that way. I do not understand why I have been given a prognostic gift vivid enough to make me feel morally obliged to prevent a foreseen evil—but not clear enough to allow me to act at once with force and conviction.
Because of the disturbing supernatural aspects of my life and because the weight of my unusual responsibilities outweighs my power to fulfill them, I risk being crushed by stress. Consequently, I have kept the nonsupernatural part of my life simple. As few possessions as possible. No obligations like a mortgage or a car payment to worry about. I avoid contemporary TV, contemporary politics, contemporary art: all too frantic, fevered, and frivolous, or else angry, bitter.
At times, even working as a fry cook in a busy restaurant became too complicated. I contemplated a less demanding life in tire sales or the retail shoe business. If someone would pay me to watch grass grow, I could handle that.
I have no clothes except T-shirts and jeans, and sweatshirts in cool weather. No wardrobe decisions to make.
I have no plans for the future. I make my life up as I go along.
The perfect pet for me is a ghost dog. He doesn’t need to be fed, watered, or groomed. No poop to pick up.