Although the incoming swells were as gentle as they had been when we first entered the water, they felt meaner. They bit with teeth of cold white foam.
We swam side by side, careful not to lose sight of each other. The winter sky offered no comfort, the lights of town were as distant as stars, and the sea was hostile. All we had was our friendship, but we knew that in a crisis, either of us would die trying to save the other.
When we returned to our starting point, we barely had the strength to walk out of the surf. Exhausted, nauseated, paler than the sand, shivering violently, we spat out the astringent taste of the sea.
We were so bitterly cold that we could no longer imagine the heat of the crematorium furnace. Even after we had dressed, we were still freezing, and that was good.
We walked our bicycles off the sand, across the grassy park that bordered the beach, to the nearest street.
As he climbed on his bike, Bobby said, “Shit.”
“Yeah,” I said.
We cycled to our separate homes.
We went straight to bed as though ill. We slept. We dreamed. Life went on.
We never returned to the crematorium window.
We never spoke again of Mrs. Acquilain.
All these years later, either Bobby or I would still give his life to save the other—and without hesitation.
How strange this world is: Those things that we can so readily touch, those things so real to the senses—the sweet architecture of a woman’s body, one’s own flesh and bone, the cold sea and the gleam of stars—are far less real than things we cannot touch or taste or smell or see. Bicycles and the boys who ride them are less real than what we feel in our minds and hearts, less substantial than friendship and love and loneliness, all of which long outlast the world.
On this March night far down the time stream from boyhood, the crematorium window and the scene beyond it were more real than I would have wished. Someone had brutally beaten the hitchhiker to death—and then had cut out his eyes.
Even if the murder and the substitution of this corpse for the body of my father made sense when all the facts were known, why take the eyes? Could there possibly be a logical reason for sending this pitiable man eyeless into the all-consuming fire of the cremator?
Or had someone disfigured the hitchhiker sheerly for the deep, dirty thrill of it?
I thought of the hulking man with the shaved head and the single pearl earring. His broad blunt face. His huntsman’s eyes, black and steady. His cold-iron voice with its rusty rasp.
It was possible to imagine such a man taking pleasure from the pain of another, carving flesh in the carefree manner of any country gentleman lazily whittling a twig.
Indeed, in the strange new world that had come into existence during my experience in the hospital basement, it was easy to imagine that Sandy Kirk himself had disfigured the body: Sandy, as good-looking and slick as any GQ model; Sandy, whose dear father had wept at the burning of Rebecca Acquilain. Perhaps the eyes had been offered up at the base of the shrine in the far and thorny corner of the rose garden that Bobby and I had never been able to find.
In the crematorium, as Sandy and his assistant rolled the gurney toward the furnace, the telephone rang.
Guiltily, I flinched from the window as though I had triggered an alarm.
When I leaned close to the glass again, I saw Sandy pull down his surgical mask and lift the handset from the wall phone. The tone of his voice indicated confusion, then alarm, then anger, but through the dual-pane window, I was not able to hear what he was saying.
Sandy slammed down the telephone handset almost hard enough to knock the box off the wall. Whoever had been on the other end of the line had gotten a good ear cleaning.
As he stripped out of his latex gloves, Sandy spoke urgently to his assistant. I thought I heard him speak my name—and not with either admiration or affection.
The assistant, Jesse Pinn, was a lean-faced whippet of a man with red hair and russet eyes and a thin mouth that seemed pinched in anticipation of the taste of a chased-down rabbit. Pinn started to zip the body bag shut over the corpse of the hitchhiker.
Sandy’s suit jacket was hung on one of a series of wall pegs to the right of the door. When he lifted it off the peg, I was astonished to see that under the coat hung a shoulder holster sagging with the weight of a handgun.
Seeing Pinn fumbling with the body bag, Sandy spoke sharply to him—and gestured at the window.
As Pinn hurried directly toward me, I jerked back from the pane. He closed the half-open slats on the blind.
I doubted that I had been seen.
On the other hand, keeping in mind that I am an optimist on such a deep level that it’s a subatomic condition with me, I decided that on this one occasion, I would be wise to listen to a more pessimistic instinct and not linger. I hurried between the garage wall and the eucalyptus grove, through the death-scented air, toward the backyard.
The drifted leaves crunched as hard as snail shells underfoot. Fortunately, I was given cover by the soughing of the breeze through the branches overhead.
The wind was full of the hollow susurrant sound of the sea over which it had so long traveled, and it masked my movements.
It would also cloak the footsteps of anyone stalking me.
I was certain that the telephone call had been from one of the orderlies at the hospital. They had examined the contents of the suitcase, found my father’s wallet, and deduced that I must have been in the garage to witness the body swap.
With this information, Sandy had realized that my appearance at his front door had not been as innocent as it had seemed. He and Jesse Pinn would come outside to see if I was still lurking on the property.
I reached the backyard. The manicured lawn looked broader and more open than I remembered it.
The full moon was no brighter than it had been minutes earlier, but every hard surface that had previously absorbed this languid light now reflected and amplified it. An eerie silver radiance suffused the night, denying me concealment.
I dared not attempt to cross the broad brick patio. In fact I decided to stay well clear of the house and the driveway. Leaving via the same route by which I had arrived would be too risky.
I raced across the lawn to the acre of rose gardens at the back of the property. Before me lay descending terraces with extensive rows of trellises standing at angles to one another, numerous tunnel-like arbors, and a maze of meandering pathways.
Spring along our mellow coast doesn’t delay its debut to match the date celebrating it on the calendar, and already the roses were blooming. The red and other darkly colored flowers appeared to be black in the moonlight, roses for a sinister altar, but there were enormous white blooms, too, as big as babies’ heads, nodding to the lullaby of the breeze.
Men’s voices arose behind me. They were worn thin and tattered by the worrying wind.
Crouching behind a tall trellis, I looked back through the open squares between the white lattice crossings. Gingerly I pushed aside looping trailers with wicked thorns.
Near the garage, two flashlight beams chased shadows out of shrubbery, sent phantoms leaping up through tree limbs, dazzled across windows.
Sandy Kirk was behind one of the flashlights and was no doubt toting the handgun that I had glimpsed. Jesse Pinn might also have a weapon.
There was once a time when morticians and their assistants didn’t pack heat. Until this evening I had assumed I was still living in that era.
I was startled to see a third flashlight beam appear at the far corner of the house. Then a fourth. Then a fifth.
I had no clue as to who these new searchers might be or where they could have come from so quickly. They spread out to form a line and advanced purposefully across the yard, across the patio, past the swimming pool, toward the rose garden, probing with the flashlights, menacing figures as featureless as demons in a dream.
The faceless pursuers and the thwarting mazes that trouble us in sleep were now reality.
The gardens stepped in five broad terraces down a hillside. In spite of these plateaus and the gentleness of the slopes between them, I was gathering too much speed as I descended, and I was afraid that I would stumble, fall, and break a leg.
Rising on all sides, the arbors and fanciful trellises began to resemble gutted ruins. In the lower levels, they were overgrown with thorny trailers that clawed the lattice and seemed to writhe with animal life as I fled past them.
The night had fallen into a waking nightmare.
My heart pounded so fiercely that the stars reeled.
I felt as though the vault of the sky were sliding toward me, gaining momentum like an avalanche.
Plunging to the end of the gardens, I sensed as much as saw the looming wrought-iron fence: seven feet high, its glossy black paint glimmering with moonlight. I dug my heels into the soft earth and braked, jarring against the sturdy pickets but not hard enough to hurt myself.
I hadn’t made much noise, either. The spear-point verticals were solidly welded to the horizontal rails; instead of clattering from my impact, the fence briefly thrummed.
I sagged against the ironwork.
A bitter taste plagued me. My mouth was so dry that I couldn’t spit.
My right temple stung. I raised a hand to my face. Three thorns prickled my skin. I plucked them out.
During my flight downhill, I must have been lashed by a trailing rose brier, although I didn’t recall encountering it.
Maybe because I was breathing harder and faster, the sweet fragrance of roses became too sweet, sharpened into a half-rotten stench. I could smell my sunscreen again, too, almost as strongly as when it had been freshly applied—but with a sour taint now—because my perspiration had revitalized the scent of the lotion.
I was overcome by the absurd yet unshakable conviction that the six searchers could sniff me out, as though they were hounds. I was safe for the moment only because I was downwind of them.
Clutching the fence, out of which the thrumming had passed into my hands and bones, I glanced uphill. The search party was moving from the highest terrace to the second.
Six scythes of light slashed through the roses. Portions of the lattice structures, when briefly backlit and distorted by those bright sweeping swords, loomed like the bones of slain dragons.
The gardens presented the searchers with more possible hiding places to probe than did the open lawn above. Yet they were moving faster than before.
I scaled the fence and swung over the top, wary of snaring my jacket or a leg of my jeans on the spear-point pickets. Beyond lay open land: shadowed vales, steadily rising ranks of moonlit hills, widely scattered and barely discernible black oaks.
The wild grass, lush from the recent winter rains, was knee-high when I dropped into it from the fence. I could smell the green juice bursting from the blades crushed beneath my shoes.
Certain that Sandy and his associates would survey the entire perimeter of the property, I bounded downhill, away from the funeral home. I was eager to get beyond the reach of their flashlights before they arrived at the fence.
I was heading farther from town, which wasn’t good. I wouldn’t find help in the wilderness. Every step eastward was a step into isolation, and in isolation I was as vulnerable as anyone, more vulnerable than most.
Some luck was with me because of the season. If the searing heat of summer had already been upon us, the high grass would have been as golden as wheat and as dry as paper. My progress would have been marked by a swath of trampled stalks.
I was hopeful that the still-verdant meadow would be resilient enough to spring shut behind me, for the most part concealing the fact that I had passed this way. Nevertheless, an observant searcher would most likely be able to track me.
Approximately two hundred feet beyond the fence, at the bottom of the slope, the meadow gave way to denser brush. A barrier of tough, five-foot-high prairie cordgrass was mixed with what might have been goatsbeard and massive clumps of aureola.
I hurriedly pushed through this growth into a ten-foot-wide natural drainage swale. Little grew here because an epoch of storm runoff had exposed a spine of bedrock under the hills. With no rain in over two weeks, this rocky course was dry.
I paused to catch my breath. Leaning back into the brush, I parted the tall cordgrass to see how far down into the rose gardens the searchers had descended.
Four of them were already climbing the fence. Their flashlight beams slashed at the sky, stuttered across the pickets, and stabbed randomly at the ground as they clambered up and over the iron.
They were unnervingly quick and agile.
Were all of them, like Sandy Kirk, carrying weapons?
Considering their animal-keen instinct, speed, and persistence, perhaps they wouldn’t need weapons. If they caught me, maybe they would tear me apart with their hands.
I wondered if they would take my eyes.
The drainage channel—and the wider declivity in which it lay—ran uphill to the northeast and downhill to the southwest. As I was already at the extreme northeast end of town, I could find no help if I went uphill.
I headed southwest, following the brush-flanked swale, intending to return to well-populated territory as quickly as possible.
In the shallowly cupped channel ahead of me, the moon-burnished bedrock glowed softly like the milky ice on a winter pond, dwindling into obscurity. The embracing curtains of high, silvery cordgrass appeared to be stiff with frost.
Suppressing all fear of falling on loose stones or of snapping an ankle in a natural borehole, I gave myself to the night, allowing the darkness to push me as wind pushes a sailing ship. I sprinted down the gradual slope with no sensation of feet striking ground, as though I actually were skating across the frozen rock.
Within two hundred yards, I came to a place where hills folded into one another, resulting in a branching of the hollow. With barely any decrease in speed, I chose the right-hand course because it would lead more directly back into Moonlight Bay.
I had gone only a short distance past that intersection when I saw lights approaching. A hundred yards ahead, the hollow turned out of sight to the left, around a sweeping curve of grassy hillside. The source of the questing beams lay beyond that bend, but I could see that they must be flashlights.
None of the men from the funeral home could have gotten out of the rose gardens and ahead of me so quickly. These were additional searchers.
They were attempting to trap me in a pincer maneuver. I felt as though I were being pursued by an army, by platoons that had sprung sorcerously from the ground itself.
I came to a complete halt.
I considered stepping off the bare rock, into concealment behind the man-high prairie grass and other dense brush that still bracketed the drainage swale. No matter how little I disturbed this vegetation, however, I was nearly certain to leave signs of my passage that would be obvious to these trackers. They would burst through the brush and capture me or gun me down as I scrambled up the open hillside.
At the bend ahead, the flashlight beams swelled brighter. Sprays of tall prairie grass flared like beautifully chased forms on a sterling platter.