A tap on the shoulder made her jump, the celestial connection suddenly severed as a hand tugged on her earphones.
Jack Carter’s heart skipped a beat. Anna hardly ever called him “Daddy” anymore. Now, it was merely “Dad.” He tried to relish the moment but ruined it instead. “Do you know how long you’ve been up here?” It wasn’t a question. Her surprise changed to defense as he continued. “And why don’t you answer your phone? I’ve been calling you.”
Anna glanced down at her notes. “Sorry, Dad. I was listening to music.”
Jack put his worry behind him. Let it go. He wanted peace. Sparks flew between them too often now.
He smiled and handed Anna her jacket. “Got a surprise for you.”
Anna attempted a smile. What now? Popcorn and a movie? With Dad? Borrring. She said, “What’s up?”
Jack ignored this irritating lingo. “Your uncle called. He’s probably at the house now. I thought we’d go out. Want to tag along?”
“Uncle Joe’s here?” Anna’s face brightened. Her uncle was more like an older brother. Anna always loved his visits, but she seldom saw him now that he’d become a lieutenant commander. “Sure,” she said, hopping down from her post.
“He’s got a friend with him,” Jack announced.
“I’ve got a couple of rounds to make before heading home. You want a ride?”
They descended the short stairway to the roof. Anna glanced out at the fog and shivered. She did want a ride but... “No, thanks. I’ve got to synch this data. It won’t take long.”
Jack Carter almost insisted. If they hadn’t caught that cougar, he would have. He fought the impulse. He had to let her grow up. They descended the stairs and entered the building. Anna headed for the back offices, Jack for the front door. “Okay, then. See you at home in about an hour?”
Anna forced her mind off the thickening fog. It’s just fog, she reminded herself. She smiled brightly at her father, perhaps a little too brightly and a little too forced. “I’ll be careful. I’ll hold my cell in my hand.” She reached up and kissed his cheek. “See you soon.”
* * *
Anna let herself out of the observatory’s back door and sniffed the air.
Fog covered the grounds just below the large building. She thought it was strange how the fog crept up the hills and surrounded the observatory, but never rose further. She looked around. The fog spread through the grounds, but left the grand building alone. Standing at the top of the stairs that led to the lawns she could no longer see, Anna glanced up at the clear sky above her, the stars and moon, and then down at the mist that blanketed the Los Feliz neighborhood and most of Los Angeles.
She loved the night view of the City of Angels when it was clear. It reminded her of Christmas lights, a metropolis of lights to delight anyone lucky enough to see them.
But when it was foggy like this, there was no view. Only fog. Clouds, she supposed. A layer of mist was just a few steps down. Anna felt as if she were floating in the sky on these nights. She was safe as long as she stayed up here.
She took a deep breath and took the first step down into the thick mist.
It was darker than she’d anticipated. Anna glanced at the time on her cell, then quickened her pace. The hike down to their home just above Los Feliz seemed to take longer than normal. She should have taken the main route, but this way was shorter. The little-known trail cut the trek by almost a half-mile.
Still, it was darker than she’d anticipated. And quieter than she remembered. Anna could hear her breath. She moved silently, but her footsteps sounded loud to her. A twig snapped nearby. Just a squirrel. Right? She checked her cell phone again, this time to ensure that she had reception.
Anna had one secret that she’d kept from everyone. It was dumb, really, but she was afraid of fog. A stupid fear. She knew fog didn’t change anything. Every tree, rock and path was the same, clear or foggy. Still, Anna likened this fear to swimming in the ocean. Not being able to see what was moving around underneath her scared her. It didn’t mean anything. That’s what she usually told herself.
This fog, however, was becoming seriously dense. She tried to shake off her growing anxiety. Anna knew that she only had about fifteen more minutes of fog, and then she would be under it and come onto the main road where there were houses.
Her heart was beating fast, though, and she was only fourteen. Anna imagined she was being followed. She stopped abruptly to listen. Nothing. She held her breath, invisible on the steep trail. At the edge of her peripheral vision, she caught another movement off to her right. Anna looked, even though she could not see.
There it was again. A little closer. Anna’s brain knew it was a raccoon or perhaps a deer. But in her mind’s eye, she could see long, cold, slimy arms reaching out to grab her ankle or maybe even her hair.
Arms reaching slowly though the mist.
Arms waiting for her.
Arms grabbing for her.
Despite herself, Anna yelped and took off running.
Joe strode to the car and Mike hurried to keep pace.
After a total of six hours of questioning, plus the two hours driving from San Diego, he was exhausted. He and Mendoza had signed the confidentiality, top-secret papers without even reading them. He wanted to get the hell out of there, if only to have the privacy to vomit. They beat feet before the Agent in Black changed his mind.
In the car, Mike cranked up the air conditioner.
Joe forced his foot to ease up on the gas pedal until they exited the base. He drove to a local taco place and parked. He really felt like shit. Every bone and muscle in his body ached. He realized that he’d forgotten to go see a doctor and ask for antibiotics. He tried to think straight, concentrate. He took off his shades and winced as he eyed himself in the rearview mirror. He frowned at the reflection. He was pale, his lips chapped, his eyes bloodshot.
Mendoza was dozing already. Joe nudged him. “Take off your shades,” he said.
Despite the warm day, Mendoza shuddered. “Why?”
“Do your eyes look like mine?” Joe asked.
Mendoza reluctantly removed his sunglasses and the two regarded one another.
“I guess so,” Joe said, answering his own question. “How do you feel?”
“Like my stomach is full of worms or something, man. And I’m fuckin’ tired.”
“Yeah, but I can’t drink anything, or I’ll vomit. Not even a beer.”