How very peculiar.
That I wasn’t wearing chinos?
No. That I can’t remember them.
If I wasn’t wearing chinos, you wouldn’t remember them.
He thought about what I had said. That’s true enough.
Just enough, sir, I agreed, and changed the subject. I’m going to leave you a note about the dinner casserole.
Putting aside the novel he had been reading, he said, Aren’t you cooking dinner?
I’ve already made it. Chicken enchiladas in tomatillo sauce.
I love your tomatillo enchiladas.
And a rice and green-bean salad.
Does the rice have green sauce, too?
Oh, good. Do I heat them in the microwave?
That’s right. I’ll leave a note about time and power.
Could you put Post-its on the dishes?
Take the Post-its off before you put the dishes in the oven.
Of course. I wouldn’t make that mistake. Again. Going out?
Just for a little while.
You aren’t leaving for good, are you?
No, sir. And I didn’t steal Corrina’s jewelry, either.
I was a diamond merchant once, Hutch said. My wife conspired to have me killed.
Barbara Stanwyck. She was having an affair with Bogart, and they were going to run off to Rio with the diamonds. But, of course, something went very wrong for them.
Was it a tsunami?
You have a sly sense of humor, son.
No, no. I like it. I believe my career would have been much bigger if I’d been able to get roles in a few comedies. I can be quite funny in my own way.
I’m well aware.
Barbara Stanwyck was consumed by flesh-eating bacteria, and Bogart was hit by an asteroid.
I’ll bet the audience didn’t see that coming.
Picking up the book again, Hutch said, Do you enjoy the fog so much that you want to take a second walk in it, or is there something else I should know?
There’s nothing else you should know, sir.
Then I will wait for the doorbell and denounce you as a fiend to anyone who asks.
In the kitchen, I emptied the ice-filled OneZip bag into the sink and tossed it in the trash.
The lump on my head remained the size of half a plum, but it no longer throbbed.
On two yellow Post-its, with a blue pen, I wrote directions for heating the enchiladas and the rice salad. With a red pen, I printed REMOVE THIS TAG BEFORE PUTTING IN OVEN.
Standing at the kitchen island, I went through the contents of the wallet that I had taken off Flashlight Guy.
In his California driver’s-license photo, I recognized the man I had left lying on the beach, although he only slightly resembled something conjured out of a witch’s cauldron. His name was Samuel Oliver Whittle. Thirty years old, he had an address in Magic Beach.
In his Nevada driver’s-license photo, he smiled broadly at the camera, which was a mistake. His smile transformed his face, and not in a good way. He looked like a lunatic villain from a Batman movie.
Nevada, where he had an address in Las Vegas, knew him as Samuel Owen Bittel. In Vegas, he was two years older than he claimed to be in his California incarnation, but perhaps a Las Vegas lifestyle aged a person prematurely.
He had no credit cards. This made him suspicious in a country that not only looked to the future but lived on the earnings from it.
The wallet contained no insurance card, no Social Security card, nor any of the other ID you might have expected.
An employee-identification card revealed that he worked for the Magic Beach Harbor Department.
Suddenly a theme had developed. Perhaps the hulk with the chin beard had not taken the inflatable dinghy without permission; maybe he had the authority to use it because he, too, worked for the harbor department, which also had responsibility for the beaches and the town’s one pier.
I found it difficult to believe that the redheads were also on the municipal payroll. Thugs who worked for the government usually tried not to look like thugs.
After returning the cards to Sam Whittle’s wallet, I tucked it in my left hip pocket.
Whatever trouble I found in the coming hours, at least some of it would involve men with guns. I did not have a gun of my own and did not want one. On occasion I have used a bad guy’s firearm after taking it away from him, but only in desperation.
When I was a child, my mother spoiled guns for me, not because she disapproved of them, but because she had a psychotic attachment to a pistol. Guns spook me.
In a clutch or a corner, I tend to make a weapon out of what is near at hand. That can be anything from a crowbar to a cat, though if I had a choice, I would prefer an angry cat, which I have found to be more effective than a crowbar.
Although weaponless, I left the house by the back door, with two chocolate-pumpkin cookies. It’s a tough world out there, and a man has to armor himself against it however he can.
PAW AFTER PAW SILENT ON WET BLACKTOP, THE fog crept along the alleyway behind Hutch’s house, rubbing its furry flanks against the garages on both sides, slipping through fence pickets, climbing walls, licking into every niche and corner where mouse or lizard might have taken shelter.
These earthbound clouds swathed nearby things in mystery, made objects half a block away appear to be distant, dissolved the world entirely past the one-block mark, and raised in the mind a primitive conviction that the edge of the earth lay near at hand, a precipice from which I would fall forever into eternal emptiness.
Slowly turning in a circle, turning again, I ate one cookie and concentrated on Annamaria: on her long hair the color of molasses, on her face, on her too-pale skin. In my mind, I saw her delicate hand close around the ocean-polished orb of green bottle glass and retreat with it into the long sleeve of her sweater….
My imperfect gift has one more imperfect aspect, which I have discussed before, though not in this fourth manuscript. My lost girl, Stormy Llewellyn, had called it psychic magnetism.
If I wish to find someone whose whereabouts I don’t know, I can surrender myself to impulse and intuition, drive or bicycle or walk around wherever my whims take me, concentrating on that person’s face and name…and usually within half an hour, I will find him. Psychic magnetism.
This handy talent is problematic because I cannot control or foresee when or where the desired encounter will occur. I might spot my target across a busy street—or turn a corner and collide with him.
If I am seeking a bad guy, psychic magnetism might put me on his trail—or drop me into his talons.
And if I am in pursuit of someone who is no threat, someone I need to question or to sweep out of harm’s way, I cannot be sure the search will be successful. I usually find the person I’m seeking, but not always. Once in a while, resorting to psychic magnetism in desperate circumstances can be a waste of precious minutes when I have not a second to spare.
I am a half-assed champion of the imperiled innocent: able to see the lingering dead, but unable to hear what of value they might wish to tell me; informed by predictive dreams that never provide me with sufficient detail to be certain of what they predict, of when the event will occur, or of where the horror will go down; without gun or sword, armored only with cookies.
All of this fearsome uncertainty ought to have made a hermit of me, ought to have sent me fleeing to a cave or to a remote cabin, in curmudgeonly rejection of the dead and the living. But my heart tells me that the gift was given to be used, imperfect or not, and that if I deny it, I will wither away in despair and will earn no life after this one, no reunion with my lost girl.
At least this time, standing in the alleyway behind Hutch’s house, I sought not someone who wanted me dead, but instead a young woman who might need me to keep her alive. I most likely would not blunder into the teeth of the tiger.
The thick muffling fog was a time machine that rolled the night back more than one hundred years, silencing all the sounds of modern civilization—car engines, radios, the TV voices that often leaked from houses. The peaceful quiet of the nineteenth century coddled Magic Beach.
One cookie finished, concentrating on Annamaria, I suddenly set off north along the alley, as if I were a milk-wagon horse following a route so familiar that I did not need to think about my purpose or my destination.
Windows, usually electric-bright, glowed softly, as if the rooms beyond were candlelit. At the end of the alleyway, the sodium-yellow streetlight appeared to throb subtly, like gas flames, as a thousand slowly pulsing moth wings of fog pressed against the lenses of the lamp.
Nibbling my last cookie, I turned east where the alley met the street, and headed inland.
At only 6:45 on a Wednesday evening, the town appeared to have gone to bed for the night, snuggled down in Nature’s white blankets. The damp chill encouraged dog owners to take shorter walks than usual, and the blinding density of the fog dissuaded drivers from unnecessary trips.
By the time that I had gone three blocks east and one block north of Hutch’s place, I had seen only two ghostly cars in motion, each at least half a block distant. They looked like deep-sea submersibles in a Jules Verne tale, quietly motoring through a murky oceanic abyss.
In that quaint residential neighborhood known as the Brick District, which had no brick streets and only two brick houses, a large vehicle turned the corner at the farther end of the block. A soft kaleidoscope of fog formed shifting white-on-white patterns in the headlights.
Deep inside me, a still small voice said Hide.
I left the sidewalk, jumped a waist-high plum-thorn hedge, and knelt behind that greenery.
I smelled woodsmoke from fireplaces, wet foliage, and garden mulch.
In the hedge, something smelled me and bolted from cover. I almost startled to my feet before I realized I had spooked a rabbit, which was already gone across the lawn.
The truck approached with the throttled growl of a prowling beast, traveling even slower than the low visibility required.
Oppressed by a feeling that a deadly threat loomed behind me, I glanced toward the house in front of which I had taken refuge. The windowpanes were dark. Except for the lazily billowing fog, nothing moved, and as far as I could tell, no watcher waited in either the scud or the shadows.
Still on my knees, I kept my head bowed behind the hedge while the truck growled closer.
The surrounding fog drank in the twin beams of the vehicle and glowed like swamp gas, yet contained the light within itself and brightened neither me nor the hedge.
I held my breath, though the driver could not have heard me exhale.
As the truck skulked past, seeming to sniff at the pavement for the scent of prey, the fog around me darkled with the passage of the headlamps.
I dared to rise just far enough to peer across the plum thorn toward the street.
Although the vehicle passed less than ten feet away, the dashboard lights were not bright enough to reveal the driver, only a lumpish shadow. I was able, however, to make out the city seal emblazoned on the door. And black letters on an orange background announced MAGIC BEACH/HARBOR DEPARTMENT.
Fog folded the truck out of sight. Its engine faded to a distant guttural purr.
Rising to my feet, I breathed fog faintly scented with exhaust fumes. After my third inhalation, the last engine noise whispered away into another neighborhood.
I wondered what kind of corruption coiled in the heart of the harbor department.
Moving toward the break in the hedge that accommodated the front walkway, I heard a noise issue from the dark house. Not loud. The low squeak-ping of metal tweaking metal.
Although a sense of danger welled in me once more, I turned from the street and followed the walkway to the foot of the porch steps.
Intuition told me that pretending to have heard nothing would be taken as a sign of weakness. And weakness would invite attack.
The subtle sound was a kind of singing, still metallic but also reminiscent of an insect’s clicking serenade.
No less than the world around it, the porch was filled with fog and shadows.
Who’s there? I asked, but received no reply.
Climbing the steps, I saw movement to my right. The rhythmic sweep of a slatted form—forward, back—timed to the squeak-ping-click, drew me forward.
I found a bench swing suspended from ceiling hooks. The chains torqued as the bench came forward, and the torsion was released as it swung backward.
Someone must have been sitting here in the dark, not swinging but perhaps watching me as I hid from the truck. Judging by the size of the current arc, the watcher had shoved back with his feet and had gotten up mere seconds ago, leaving the swing in motion to attract my attention.
I stood alone on the porch.
If he had come down the steps as I ascended, I would have encountered him, and if he had vaulted over the porch railing, I would have heard him.
The front door, no matter how stealthily pulled open and drawn shut, would have made some noise if he had gone inside.
Four windows faced me. With no light to reflect, the glass was as black as the sky at the rim of the universe, beyond the light of all stars.
I took a moment to stare at each window. If someone had been observing me from the other side, I would have seen a form in a paler shade of black than that of the lightless room.
The swing continued to move.
For a moment I thought its arc had not diminished, as though an unseen occupant still powered it. The metallic song of the twisting chain links undeniably had subsided…and as I watched, the swing gradually slowed toward a stop.
I considered rapping softly on one of the windows, to see what I might stir up.
Instead, I retreated to the steps, descended.
Around me, fog and dark and quiet pooled.
On the porch, I had felt that I might be in the company of someone, something.
As one who sees the lingering dead, I had never imagined that a class of spirits might walk the earth invisible to me.
Now I considered that possibility—and rejected it. Something strange had occurred, but ghosts were not the explanation.
Concentrating once more on the face of Annamaria, I left the property of the porch-swing phantom, returned to the public sidewalk, and headed north. Soon I was in the grip of psychic magnetism.
No night birds sang. No dogs barked. No whiff of breeze, no roosting owl, no stalking cat rustled the leaves of any tree. I had gone too far inland to hear the susurration of the sea.
Although I repeatedly glanced behind, I caught no glimpse of anyone trailing me. Perhaps the skin on the back of my neck prickled not because someone might be following me but instead because I was so alone, with no friend to turn to except an eighty-eight-year-old actor who lived inside himself to such an extent that he never noticed the blood on my face or, later, the ice pack held to my head.
HUTCH’S PREDICTED TSUNAMI HAD SWEPT across the town, if you allowed that the fog was the white shadow of the dark sea, because it inundated every neighborhood, imposing the stillness of drowned cities. For all I knew, it measured a thousand feet high.