The cat called again, and its radiant eyes were all that I could see ahead. Guessing at the distance between us, judging by the angle at which I looked down upon the animal, I deduced that the floor of the huge culvert continued at an increased—but not drastic—slope.
I proceeded cautiously toward the lambent eyes. When I drew close to the creature, it turned away, and I halted at the loss of its twin beacons.
Seconds later it spoke again. Its green gaze reappeared and fixed unblinking on me.
Edging forward once more, I marveled at this odd experience. All that I had witnessed since sundown—the theft of my father’s body, the battered and eyeless corpse in the crematorium, the pursuit from the mortuary—was incredible, to say the least, but for sheer strangeness, nothing equaled the behavior of this small descendant of tigers.
Or maybe I was making a lot more of the moment than it deserved, attributing to this simple house cat an awareness of my plight that it didn’t actually possess.
Blindly, I came to another mound of debris smaller than the first. Unlike the previous heap, this one was damp. The flotsam squished beneath my shoes, and a sharper stench rose from it.
I clambered forward, cautiously groping at the darkness in front of me, and I discovered that the debris was packed against another steel-bar grate. Whatever trash managed to wash over the top of the first grate was caught here.
After climbing this barrier and crossing safely to the other side, I risked using the lighter. I cupped my hand around the flame to contain and direct the glow as much as possible.
The cat’s eyes blazed bright: gold now, flecked with green. We stared at each other for a long moment, and then my guide—if that’s what it was—whipped around and sprinted out of sight, down into the drain.
Using the lighter to find my way, keeping the flame low to conserve butane, I descended through the heart of the coastal hills, passing smaller tributary culverts that opened into this main line. I arrived at a spillway of wide concrete steps on which were puddles of stagnant water and a thin carpet of hardy gray-black fungus that probably thrived only during the four-month rainy season. The scummy steps were treacherous, but for the safety of maintenance crews, a steel handrail was bolted to one wall, hung now with a drab tinsel of dead grass deposited by the most recent flood.
As I descended, I listened for the sounds of pursuit, voices in the tunnel behind me, but all I heard were my own stealthy noises. Either the searchers had decided that I hadn’t escaped by way of the culvert—or they had hesitated so long before following me into the drain that I had gotten well ahead of them.
At the bottom of the spillway, on the last two broad steps, I almost plunged into what I thought at first were the pale, rounded caps of large mushrooms, clusters of vile-looking fungi growing here in the lightless damp, no doubt poisonous in the extreme.
Clutching the railing, I eased past sprouting forms on the slippery concrete, reluctant to touch them even with one of my shoes. Standing in the next length of sloping tunnel, I turned to examine this peculiar find.
When I cranked up the flame on the lighter, I discovered that before me lay not mushrooms but a collection of skulls. The fragile skulls of birds. The elongated skulls of lizards. The larger skulls of what might have been cats, dogs, raccoons, porcupines, rabbits, squirrels….
Not a scrap of flesh adhered to any of these death’s-heads, as if they had been boiled clean: white and yellow-white in the butane light, scores of them, perhaps a hundred. No leg bones, no rib cages, just skulls. They were arranged neatly side by side in three rows—two on the bottom step and one on the second from the bottom—facing out, as though, even with their empty eye sockets, they were here to bear witness to something.
I had no idea what to make of this. I saw no satanic markings on the culvert walls, no indications of macabre ceremonies of any kind, yet the display had an undeniably symbolic purpose. The extent of the collection indicated obsession, and the cruelty implicit in so much killing and decapitation was chilling.
Recalling the fascination with death that had gripped me and Bobby Halloway when we were thirteen, I wondered if some kid, far weirder than we ever were, had done this grisly work. Criminologists claim that by the age of three or four, most serial killers begin torturing and killing insects, progressing to small animals during childhood and adolescence, and finally graduating to people. Maybe in these catacombs, a particularly vicious young murderer was practicing for his life’s work.
In the middle of the third and highest row of these bony visages rested a gleaming skull that was markedly different from all the others. It appeared to be human. Small but human. Like the skull of an infant.
My voice whispered back to me along the concrete walls.
More than ever, I felt as though I were in a dreamscape, where even such things as concrete and bone were no more solid than smoke. Nevertheless, I did not reach out to touch the small human skull—or any of the others, for that matter. However unreal they might seem, I knew that they would be cold, slick, and too solid to the touch.
Anxious to avoid encountering whoever had acquired this grim collection, I continued downward through the drain.
I expected the cat with the enigmatic eyes to reappear, pale paws meeting concrete with feather-on-feather silence, but either it remained out of sight ahead of me or it had detoured into one of the tributary lines.
Sections of sloped concrete pipe alternated with more spillways, and just as I was beginning to worry that the lighter didn’t contain enough fuel to see me to safety, a circle of dim gray light appeared and gradually brightened ahead. I hurried toward it and found that no grate barred the lower end of the tunnel, which led into an open drainage channel of mortar-set river rock.
I was in familiar territory at last, the northern flats of town. A couple of blocks from the sea. Half a block from the high school.
After the dank culvert, the night air smelled not merely fresh but sweet. The high points of the polished sky glittered diamond-white.
According to the digital light board on the Wells Fargo Bank building, the time was 7:56 P.M., which meant that my father had been dead less than three hours, though days seemed to have passed since I’d lost him. The same sign set the temperature at sixty degrees, but the night seemed colder to me.
Around the corner from the bank and down the block, the Tidy Time Laundromat was flooded with fluorescent light. Currently no customers were doing their laundry.
With the dollar bill ready in my hand, with my eyes squinted to slits, I went inside, into the flowery fragrance of soap powders and the chemical keenness of bleach, my head lowered to maximize the protection provided by the bill of my cap. I ran straight to the change machine, fed it, snatched up the four quarters that it spat into the tray, and fled.
Two blocks away, outside the post office, stood a pay phone with winglike sound shields. Above the phone, mounted on the wall of the building, was a security light behind a wire cage.
When I hung my hat on the cage, shadows fell.
I figured that Manuel Ramirez would still be at home. When I phoned him, his mother, Rosalina, said that he had been gone for hours. He was working a double shift because another officer had called in sick. This evening he was on desk duty; later, after midnight, he would be on patrol.
I punched in the main number of the Moonlight Bay Police and asked the operator if I could speak to Officer Ramirez.
Manuel, in my judgment the best cop in town, is three inches shorter than I am, thirty pounds heavier, twelve years older, and a Mexican American. He loves baseball; I never follow sports because I have an acute sense of time slipping away and a reluctance to use my precious hours in too many passive activities. Manuel prefers country music; I like rock. He is a staunch Republican; I have no interest in politics. In movies, his guilty pleasure is Abbott and Costello; mine is the immortal Jackie Chan. We are friends.
“Chris, I heard about your dad,” Manuel said when he came on the line. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Neither do I, really.”
“No, there never is anything to say, is there?”
“Not that matters.”
“You going to be okay?”
To my surprise, I couldn’t speak. My terrible loss seemed suddenly to be a surgeon’s needle that stitched shut my throat and sewed my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
Curiously, immediately after Dad’s death, I’d been able to answer this same question from Dr. Cleveland without hesitation.
I felt closer to Manuel than to the physician. Friendship thaws the nerves, making it possible for pain to be felt.
“You come over some evening when I’m off duty,” Manuel said. “We’ll drink some beer, eat some tamales, watch a couple of Jackie Chan movies.”
In spite of baseball and country music, we have much in common, Manuel Ramirez and I. He works the graveyard shift, from midnight until eight in the morning, sometimes doubling on the swing shift when, as on this March evening, there is a personnel shortage. He likes the night as I do, but he also works it by necessity. Because the graveyard shift is less desirable than daytime duty, the pay is higher. More important, he is able to spend afternoons and evenings with his son, Toby, whom he cherishes. Sixteen years ago, Manuel’s wife, Carmelita, died minutes after bringing Toby into the world. The boy is gentle, charming—and a victim of Down’s syndrome. Manuel’s mother moved into his house immediately after Carmelita’s death and still helps to look after Toby. Manuel Ramirez knows about limitations. He feels the hand of fate every day of his life, in an age when most people no longer believe in purpose or destiny. We have much in common, Manuel Ramirez and I.
“Beer and Jackie Chan sound great,” I agreed. “But who makes the tamales—you or your mother?”
“Oh, not mi madre, I promise.”
Manuel is an exceptional cook, and his mother thinks that she is an exceptional cook. A comparison of their cooking provides a fearsomely illuminating example of the difference between a good deed and a good intention.
A car passed in the street behind me, and when I looked down, I saw my shadow pull at my unmoving feet, stretching from my left side around to my right, growing not merely longer but blacker on the concrete sidewalk, straining to tear loose of me and flee—but then snapping back to the left when the car passed.
“Manuel, there’s something you can do for me, something more than tamales.”
“You name it, Chris.”
After a long hesitation, I said, “It involves my dad…his body.”
Manuel matched my hesitation. His thoughtful silence was the equivalent of a cat’s ears pricking with interest.
He heard more in my words than they appeared to convey. His tone was different when he spoke this time, still the voice of a friend but also the harder voice of a cop. “What’s happened, Chris?”
“It’s pretty weird.”
“Weird?” he said, savoring the word as though it were an unexpected taste.
“I’d really rather not talk about it on the phone. If I come over to the station, can you meet me in the parking lot?”
I couldn’t expect the police to switch off all their office lights and take my statement by the glow of candles.
Manuel said, “We’re talking something criminal?”
“Deeply. And weird.”
“Chief Stevenson’s been working late today. He’s still here but not for much longer. You think maybe I should ask him to wait?”
In my mind rose the eyeless face of the dead hitchhiker.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, Stevenson should hear this.”
“Can you be here in ten minutes?”
“See you then.”
I racked the telephone handset, snatched my cap off the light cage, turned to the street, and shielded my eyes with one hand as two more cars drove past. One was a late-model Saturn. The other was a Chevy pickup.
No white van. No hearse. No black Hummer.
I didn’t actually fear that the search for me was still on. By now the hitchhiker would be charring in the furnace. With the evidence reduced to ashes, no obvious proof existed to support my bizarre story. Sandy Kirk, the orderlies, and all the nameless others would feel safe.
Indeed, any attempt to kill or abduct me would risk witnesses to that crime, who would then have to be dealt with, increasing the likelihood of still more witnesses. These mysterious conspirators were best served now by discretion rather than aggression—especially when their sole accuser was the town freak, who came out of his heavily curtained house only between dusk and dawn, who feared the sun, who lived by the grace of cloaks and veils and hoods and masks of lotion, who crawled even the night town under a carapace of cloth and chemicals.
Considering the outrageous nature of my accusations, few would find my story credible, but I was sure that Manuel would know I was telling the truth. I hoped the chief would believe me, too.
I stepped away from the telephone outside the post office and headed for the police station. It was only a couple of blocks away.
As I hurried through the night, I rehearsed what I would tell Manuel and his boss, Lewis Stevenson, who was a formidable figure for whom I wanted to be well prepared. Tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, Stevenson had a face noble enough to be stamped in profile on ancient Roman coins. Sometimes he seemed to be but an actor playing the role of dedicated police chief, although if it was a performance, then it was of award caliber. At fifty-two, he gave the impression—without appearing to try—that he was far wiser than his years, easily commanding respect and trust. There was something of the psychologist and something of the priest in him—qualities everyone in his position needed but few possessed. He was that rare person who enjoyed having power but did not abuse it, who exercised authority with good judgment and compassion, and he’d been chief of police for fourteen years without a hint of scandal, ineptitude, or inefficiency in his department.
Thus I came through lampless alleys lit by a moon riding higher in the sky than it had been earlier, came past fences and footpaths, past gardens and garbage cans, came mentally murmuring the words with which I hoped to tell a convincing story, came in two minutes instead of the ten that Manuel had suggested, came to the parking lot behind the municipal building and saw Chief Stevenson in a conspiratorial moment that stripped away all the fine qualities I’d projected onto him. Revealed now was a man who, regardless of his noble face, did not deserve to be honored by coins or by monuments or even by having his photograph hung in the station house next to those of the mayor, the governor, and the President of the United States.
Stevenson stood at the far end of the municipal building, near the back entrance to the police station, in a cascade of bluish light from a hooded security lamp above the door. The man with whom he conferred stood a few feet away, only half revealed in blue shadows.