When we reached the midpoint of the main pier, I looked back and saw neither the cat nor a more fearsome pursuer.
Nevertheless, I said to Orson, “Damn, but it’s starting to feel like the end of the world.”
He chuffed in agreement as we left the stench of death behind us and walked toward the glow of the quaint ship lanterns that were mounted on massive teak pilasters at the main pier entrance.
Moving out of an almost liquid gloom beside the marina office, Lewis Stevenson, the chief of police, still in uniform as I had seen him earlier in the night, crossed into the light. He said, “I’m in a mood here.”
For an instant, as he stepped from the shadows, something about him was so peculiar that a chill bored like a corkscrew in my spine. Whatever I had seen—or thought I’d seen—passed in a blink, however, and I found myself shivering and keenly disturbed, overcome by an extraordinary perception of being in the presence of something unearthly and malevolent, without being able to identify the precise cause of this feeling.
Chief Stevenson was holding a formidable-looking pistol in his right hand. Although he was not in a shooting stance, his grip on the weapon wasn’t casual. The muzzle was trained on Orson, who was two steps ahead of me, standing in the outer arc of the lantern light, while I remained in shadows.
“You want to guess what mood I’m in?” Stevenson asked, stopping no more than ten feet from us.
“Not good,” I ventured.
“I’m in a mood not to be screwed with.”
The chief didn’t sound like himself. His voice was familiar, the timbre and the accent unchanged, but there was a hard note when before there had been quiet authority. Usually his speech flowed like a stream, and you found yourself almost floating on it, calm and warm and assured; but now the flow was fast and turbulent, cold and stinging.
“I don’t feel good,” he said. “I don’t feel good at all. In fact, I feel like shit, and I don’t have much patience for anything that makes me feel even worse. You understand me?”
Although I didn’t understand him entirely, I nodded and said, “Yes. Yes, sir, I understand.”
Orson was as still as cast iron, and his eyes never left the muzzle of the chief’s pistol.
I was acutely aware that the marina was a desolate place at this hour. The office and the fueling station were not staffed after six o’clock. Only five boat owners, other than Roosevelt Frost, lived aboard their vessels, and they were no doubt sound asleep. The docks were no less lonely than the granite rows of eternal berths in St. Bernadette’s cemetery.
The fog muffled our voices. No one was likely to hear our conversation and be drawn to it.
Keeping his attention on Orson but addressing me, Stevenson said, “I can’t get what I need, because I don’t even know what it is I need. Isn’t that a bitch?”
I sensed that this was a man at risk of coming apart, perilously holding himself together. He had lost his noble aspect. Even his handsomeness was sliding away as the planes of his face were pulled toward a new configuration by what seemed to be rage and an equally powerful anxiety.
“You ever feel this emptiness, Snow? You ever feel an emptiness so bad, you’ve got to fill it or you’ll die, but you don’t know where the emptiness is or what in the name of God you’re supposed to fill it with?”
Now I didn’t understand him at all, but I didn’t think that he was in a mood to explain himself, so I looked solemn and nodded sympathetically. “Yes, sir. I know the feeling.”
His brow and cheeks were moist but not from the clammy air; he glistened with greasy sweat. His face was so supernaturally white that the mist seemed to pour from him, boiling coldly off his skin, as though he were the father of all fog. “Comes on you bad at night,” he said.
“Comes on you anytime, but worse at night.” His face twisted with what might have been disgust. “What kind of damn dog is this, anyway?”
His gun arm stiffened, and I thought I saw his finger tighten on the trigger.
Orson bared his teeth but neither moved nor made a sound.
I quickly said, “He’s just a Labrador mix. He’s a good dog, wouldn’t harm a cat.”
His anger swelling for no apparent reason, Stevenson said, “Just a Labrador mix, huh? The hell he is. Nothing’s just anything. Not here. Not now. Not anymore.”
I considered reaching for the Glock in my jacket. I was holding my bike with my left hand. My right hand was free, and the pistol was in my right-hand pocket.
Even as distraught as Stevenson was, however, he was nonetheless a cop, and he was sure to respond with deadly professionalism to any threatening move I made. I didn’t put much faith in Roosevelt’s strange assurance that I was revered. Even if I let the bicycle fall over to distract him, Stevenson would shoot me dead before the Glock cleared my pocket.
Besides, I wasn’t going to pull a gun on the chief of police unless I had no choice but to use it. And if I shot him, that would be the end of my life, a thwarting of the sun.
Abruptly Stevenson snapped his head up, looking away from Orson. He drew a deep breath, then several that were as quick and shallow as those of a hound following the spoor of its quarry. “What’s that?”
He had a keener sense of smell than I did, because I only now realized that an almost imperceptible breeze had brought us a faint hint of the stench from the decomposing sea creature back under the main pier.
Although Stevenson was already acting strangely enough to make my scalp crinkle into faux corduroy, he grew markedly stranger. He tensed, hunched his shoulders, stretched his neck, and raised his face to the fog, as though savoring the putrescent scent. His eyes were feverish in his pale face, and he spoke not with the measured inquisitiveness of a cop but with an eager, nervous curiosity that seemed perverse: “What is that? You smell that? Something dead, isn’t it?”
“Something back under the pier,” I confirmed. “Some kind of fish, I guess.”
“Dead. Dead and rotting. Something…It’s got an edge to it, doesn’t it?” He seemed about to lick his lips. “Yeah. Yeah. Sure does have an interesting edge to it.”
Either he heard the eerie current crackling through his voice or he sensed my alarm, because he glanced worriedly at me and struggled to compose himself. It was a struggle. He was teetering on a crumbling ledge of emotion.
Finally the chief found his normal voice—or something that approximated it. “I need to talk to you, reach an understanding. Now. Tonight. Why don’t you come with me, Snow.”
“My patrol car’s out front.”
“But my bicycle—”
“I’m not arresting you. Just a quick chat. Let’s make sure we understand each other.”
The last thing I wanted to do was get in a patrol car with Stevenson. If I refused, however, he might make his invitation more formal by taking me into custody.
Then, if I tried to resist arrest, if I climbed on my bicycle and pumped the pedals hard enough to make the crank axle smoke—where would I go? With dawn only a few hours away, I had no time to flee as far as the next town on this lonely stretch of coast. Even if I had ample time, XP limited my world to the boundaries of Moonlight Bay, where I could return home by sunrise or find an understanding friend to take me in and give me darkness.
“I’m in a mood here,” Lewis Stevenson said again, through half-clenched teeth, the hardness returning to his voice. “I’m in a real mood. You coming with me?”
“Yes, sir. I’m cool with that.”
Motioning with his pistol, he indicated that Orson and I were to precede him.
I walked my bike toward the end of the entrance pier, loath to have the chief behind me with the gun. I didn’t need to be an animal communicator to know that Orson was nervous, too.
The pier planks ended in a concrete sidewalk flanked by flower beds full of ice plant, the blooms of which open wide in sunshine and close at night. In the low landscape lighting, snails were crossing the walkway, antennae glistening, leaving silvery trails of slime, some creeping from the right-hand bed of ice plant to the identical bed on the left, others laboriously making their way in the opposite direction, as if these humble mollusks shared humanity’s restlessness and dissatisfaction with the terms of existence.
I weaved with the bike to avoid the snails, and although Orson sniffed them in passing, he stepped over them.
From behind us rose the crunching of crushed shells, the squish of jellied bodies tramped underfoot. Stevenson was stepping on not only those snails directly in his path but on every hapless gastropod in sight. Some were dispatched with a quick snap, but he stomped on others, came down on them with such force that the slap of shoe sole against concrete rang like a hammer strike.
I didn’t turn to look.
I was afraid of seeing the cruel glee that I remembered too well from the faces of the young bullies who had tormented me throughout childhood, before I’d been wise enough and big enough to fight back. Although that expression was unnerving when a child wore it, the same look—the beady eyes that seemed perfectly reptilian even without elliptical pupils, the hate-reddened cheeks, the bloodless lips drawn back in a sneer from spittle-shined teeth—would be immeasurably more disturbing on the face of an adult, especially when the adult had a gun in his hand and wore a badge.
Stevenson’s black-and-white was parked at a red curb thirty feet to the left of the marina entrance, beyond the reach of the landscape lights, in deep night shade under the spreading limbs of an enormous Indian laurel.
I leaned my bike against the trunk of the tree, on which the fog hung like Spanish moss. At last I turned warily to the chief as he opened the back door on the passenger side of the patrol car.
Even in the murk, I recognized the expression on his face that I had dreaded seeing: the hatred, the irrational but unassuageable anger that makes some human beings more deadly than any other beast on the planet.
Never before had Stevenson disclosed this malevolent aspect of himself. He hadn’t seemed capable of unkindness, let alone senseless hatred. If suddenly he had revealed that he wasn’t the real Lewis Stevenson but an alien life-form mimicking the chief, I would have believed him.
Gesturing with the gun, Stevenson spoke to Orson: “Get in the car, fella.”
“He’ll be all right out here,” I said.
“Get in,” he urged the dog.
Orson peered suspiciously at the open car door and whined with distrust.
“He’ll wait here,” I said. “He never runs off.”
“I want him in the car,” Stevenson said icily. “There’s a leash law in this town, Snow. We never enforce it with you. We always turn our heads, pretend not to see, because of…because a dog is exempted if he belongs to a disabled person.”
I didn’t antagonize Stevenson by rejecting the term disabled. Anyway, I was interested less in that one word than in the six words I was sure he had almost said before catching himself: because of who your mother was.
“But this time,” he said, “I’m not going to sit here while the damn dog trots around loose, crapping on the sidewalk, flaunting that he isn’t on a leash.”
Although I could have noted the contradiction between the fact that the dog of a disabled person was exempt from the leash law and the assertion that Orson was flaunting his leashlessness, I remained silent. I couldn’t win any argument with Stevenson while he was in this hostile state.
“If he won’t get in the car when I tell him to,” Stevenson said, “you make him get in.”
I hesitated, searching for a credible alternative to meek cooperation. Second by second, our situation seemed more perilous. I’d felt safer than this when we had been in the blinding fog on the peninsula, stalked by the troop.
“Get the goddamn dog in the goddamn car now!” Stevenson ordered, and the venom in this command was so potent that he could have killed snails without stepping on them, sheerly with his voice.
Because his gun was in his hand, I remained at a disadvantage, but I took some thin comfort from the fact that he apparently didn’t know that I was armed. For the time being, I had no choice but to cooperate.
“In the car, pal,” I told Orson, trying not to sound fearful, trying not to let my hammering heart pound a tremor into my voice.
Reluctantly the dog obeyed.
Lewis Stevenson slammed the rear door and then opened the front. “Now you, Snow.”
I settled into the passenger seat while Stevenson walked around the black-and-white to the driver’s side and got in behind the wheel. He pulled his door shut and told me to close mine, which I had hoped to avoid doing.
Usually I don’t suffer from claustrophobia in tight spaces, but no coffin could have been more cramped than this patrol car. The fog pressing at the windows was as psychologically suffocating as a dream about premature burial.
The interior of the car seemed chillier and damper than the night outside. Stevenson started the engine in order to be able to switch on the heater.
The police radio crackled, and a dispatcher’s static-filled voice croaked like frog song. Stevenson clicked it off.
Orson stood on the floor in front of the backseat, forepaws on the steel grid that separated him from us, peering worriedly through that security barrier. When the chief pressed a console button with the barrel of his gun, the power locks on the rear doors engaged with a hard sound no less final than the thunk of a guillotine blade.
I had hoped that Stevenson would holster his pistol when he got into the car, but he kept a grip on it. He rested the weapon on his leg, the muzzle pointed at the dashboard. In the dim green light from the instrument panel, I thought I saw that his forefinger was now curled around the trigger guard rather than around the trigger itself, but this didn’t lessen his advantage to any appreciable degree.
For a moment he lowered his head and closed his eyes, as though praying or gathering his thoughts.
Fog condensed on the Indian laurel, and drops of water dripped from the points of the leaves, snapping with an unrhythmical ponk-pank-ping against the roof and hood of the car.
Casually, quietly, I tucked both hands into my jacket pockets. I closed my right hand around the Glock.
I told myself that, because of my overripe imagination, I was exaggerating the threat. Stevenson was in a foul mood, yes, and from what I had seen behind the police station, I knew that he was not the righteous arm of justice that he had long pretended to be. But this didn’t mean that he had any violent intentions. He might, indeed, want only to talk, and having said his piece, he might turn us loose unharmed.