Page 3


By the kitchen table stood a stranger in jeans and plaid hunting jacket. He was evidently the Tucker to whom her mother had spoken: tall, lean, all sharp edges and angles. His closecropped black hair bristled. His dark eyes were set under a deep, bony brow; his sharply ridged nose was like a stone wedge driven into the center of his face; his mouth was a thin slash, and his jaws were as prominent as those of a predator that preyed on small animals and snapped them in half with one bite. He was holding a physician's black leather bag.


Her father reached for Chrissie as she came out of the pantry' and she whipped up the can of WD-40, spraying him in the eyes from a distance of less than two feet. Even as her father howled in pain and surprise, Chrissie turned and sprayed her mother too, straight in the face. Half-blinded, they fumbled for her, but she slipped away from them and dashed across the kitchen.


Tucker was startled but managed to grab her by the arm.


She spun toward him and kicked him in the crotch.


He did not let go of her, but the strength went out of his big hands. She tore herself away from him and sprinted into the downstairs hallway.


4


From the east, twilight drifted down on Moonlight Cove, as if it were a mist not of water but of smoky purple light. When Sam Booker got out of his car, the air was chilly; he was glad that he was wearing a wool sweater under his corduroy sportcoat. As a photocell activated all the streetlamps simultaneously, he strolled along Ocean Avenue, looking in shop windows, getting a feel for the town.


He knew that Moonlight Cove was prosperous, that unemployment was virtually nonexistent—thanks to New Wave Microtechnology, which had headquartered there ten years ago—yet he saw signs of a faltering economy. Taylor's Fine Gifts and Saenger's Jewelry had vacated their shops; through their dusty, plate-glass windows, he saw bare shelves and empty display cases and deep, still shadows. New Attitudes, a trendy clothing store, was having a going-out-of-business sale, and judging by the dearth of shoppers, their merchandise was moving sluggishly even at fifty to seventy per,cent off the original prices.


By the time he had walked two blocks west, to the beach end of town, crossed the street, and returned three blocks along the other side of Ocean Avenue to Knight's Bridge tavern, twilight was swiftly waning. A nacreous fog was moving in from the sea, and the air itself seemed iridescent, shimmering delicately; a plum-colored haze lay over everything, except where the streetlamps cast showers of mist-softened yellow light, and above it all was a heavy darkness coming down.


A single moving car was in sight, three blocks away, and at the moment Sam was the only pedestrian. The solitude combined with the queer light of the dying day to give him the feeling that this was a ghost town, inhabited only by the dead. As the gradually thickening fog seeped up the hill from the Pacific - 19, it contributed to the illusion that all of the surrounding shops were vacant, that they offered no wares other than spider webs, silence, and dust.


You're a dour bastard, he told himself. Too grim by half.


Experience had made a pessimist of him. The traumatic course of his life to date precluded grinning optimism.


Tendrils of fog slipped around his legs. At the far edge of the darkening sea, the pallid sun was half extinguished. Sam shivered and went into the tavern to get a drink.


Of the three other customers, none was in a noticeably upbeat mood. In one of the black vinyl booths off to the left, a middleaged man and woman were leaning toward each other, speaking in low voices. A gray-faced guy at the bar was hunched over his glass of draft beer, holding it in both hands, scowling as if he had just seen a bug swimming in the brew.


In keeping with its name, Knight's Bridge reeked ersatz British atmosphere. A different coat of arms, each no doubt copied from some official heraldic reference book, had been carved from wood and hand-painted and inset in the back of every barstool. A suit of armor stood in one corner. Fox-hunting scenes hung on the walls.


Sam slid onto a stool eight down from the gray-faced man. The bartender hurried to him, wiping a clean cotton rag over the already immaculate, highly polished oak counter.


"Yes, sir, what'll it be?" He was a round man from every aspect a small round potbelly; meaty forearms with a thick thatching of black hair; a chubby face; a mouth too small to be in harmony with his other features; a puggish nose that ended in a round little ball; eyes round enough to give him a perpetual look of surprise.


"You have Guinness?" Sam asked.


"It's a fundamental of a real pub, I'd say. If we didn't have Guinness … why, we might as well convert to a tea shop."


His was a mellifluous voice; every word he spoke sounded as smooth and round as he looked. He seemed unusually eager to please.


"Would you like it cold or just slightly chilled? I keep it both ways."


"Very slightly chilled."


"Good man!" When he returned with a Guinness and a glass, the bartender said, "Name's Burt Peckham. I own the joint."


Carefully pouring the stout down the side of the glass to ensure the smallest possible head, Sam said, "Sam Booker. Nice place, Burt."


"Thanks. Maybe you could spread the word. I try to keep it cozy and well stocked, and we used to have quite a crowd, but lately it seems like most of the town either joined a temperance movement or started brewing their own in their basements, one or the other."


"Well, it's a Monday night."


"These last couple months, it's not been unusual to be half empty even on a Saturday night, which never used to happen."


Burt Peckham's round face dimpled with worry. He slowly polished the bar while he talked.


"What it is—I think maybe this health kick Californians have been on for so long has finally just gone too far. They're all staying home, doing aerobics in front of the VCR, eating wheat germ and egg whites or whatever the hell it is they eat, drinking nothing but bottled water and fruit juice and titmouse milk. Listen, a tipple or two a day is good for you."


Sam drank some of the Guinness, sighed with satisfaction, and said, "This sure tastes as if it ought to be good for you."


"It is. Helps your circulation. Keeps your bowels in shape. Ministers ought to be touting its virtues each Sunday, not preaching against it. All things in moderation—and that includes a couple of brews a day." Perhaps realizing that he was polishing the bar a bit obsessively, he hung the rag on a hook and stood with his arms folded across his chest. "You just passing through, Sam?"


"Actually," Sam lied, "I'm taking a long trip up the coast from L.A. to the Oregon line, loafing along, looking for a quiet place to semi-retire."


"Retire? You kidding?"


"Semi-retire. But you're only, what, forty, forty-one?"


"Forty-two."


"What are you—a bank robber?"


"Stockbroker. Made some good investments over the years. Now I think I can drop out of the rat race and get by well enough just managing my own portfolio. I want to settle down where it's quiet, no smog, no crime. I've had it with L. A."


"People really make money in stocks?" Peckham asked. "I thought it was about as good an investment as a craps table in Reno. Wasn't everybody wiped out when the market blew up a couple years ago?"


"It's a mug's game for the little guy, but you can do all right if you're a broker and if you don't get swept up in the euphoria of a bull market. No market goes up forever or down forever; you just have to guess right about when to start swimming against the current."


"Retiring at forty-two," Peckham said wonderingly. "And when I got into the bar business, I thought I was set for life. Told my wife—in good times, people drink to celebrate, in bad times they drink to forget, so there's no better business than a tavern. Now look." He indicated the nearly empty room with a sweeping gesture of his right hand. "I'd have done better selling condoms in a monastery."


"Get me another Guinness?" Sam asked.


"Hey, maybe this place will turn around yet!"


When Peckham returned with the second bottle of stout, Sam said, "Moonlight Cove might be what I've been looking for. I guess I'll stay a few days, get the feel of it. Can you recommend a motel?"


"There's only one left. Never been much of a tourist town. No one here really wanted that, I guess. Up until this summer, we had four motels. Now three are out of business. I don't know … even as pretty as it is, maybe this burg is dying. As far as I can see, we aren't losing population but … dammit, we're losing something." He snatched up the bar rag again and began to polish the oak.


"Anyway, try Cove Lodge on Cypress Lane. That's the last cross street on Ocean Avenue; it runs along the bluff, so you'll probably have a room with an ocean view. Clean, quiet place."


5


At the end of the downstairs hall, Chrissie Foster threw open the front door. She raced across the wide porch and down the steps, stumbled, regained her balance, turned right, and fled across the yard, past a blue Honda that evidently belonged to Tucker, heading for the stables. The hard slap of her tennis shoes seemed to boom like cannon fire through the swiftly fading twilight. She wished that she could run silently—and faster. Even if her parents and Tucker didn't reach the front porch until she was swallowed by shadows, they would still be able to hear where she was going.


Most of the sky was a burnt-out black, though a deep red glow marked the western horizon, as if all the light of the October day had been boiled down to that intense crimson essence, which had settled at the bottom of the celestial cauldron. Wispy fog crept in from the nearby sea, and Chrissie hoped it would swiftly thicken, dense as pudding, because she was going to need more cover.


She reached the first of the two long stables and rolled aside the big door. The familiar and not unpleasant aroma—straw, hay, feed grain, horseflesh, liniment, saddle leather, and dry manure—wafted over her.


She snapped the night-light switch, and three low-wattage bulbs winked on, bright enough to dimly illuminate the building without disturbing the occupants. Ten generously proportioned stalls flanked each side of the dirt-floored main aisle, and curious horses peered out at her above several of the half-size doors. A few belonged to Chrissie's parents, but most were being boarded for people who lived in and around Moonlight Cove. The horses snuffled and snorted, and one whinnied softly, as Chrissie ran past them to the last box on the left, where a dapple-gray mare named Godiva was in residence.


Access to the stalls also could he had from outside the building, although in this cool season the exterior Dutch-style doors were kept bolted both top and bottom to prevent heat escaping from the barn. Godiva was a gentle mare and particularly amicable with Chrissie, but she was skittish about being approached in the dark; she might rear or bolt if surprised by the opening of her exterior stall door at this hour. Because Chrissie could not afford to lose even a few seconds in calming her mount, she had to reach the mare from inside the stable.


Godiva was ready for her. The mare shook her head, tossing the thick and lustrous white mane for which she had been named, and blew air through her nostrils in greeting.


Glancing back toward the stable entrance, expecting to see Tucker and her parents storm in at any moment, Chrissie unlatched the half-door. Godiva came out into the aisle between the rows of stalls.


"Be a lady, Godiva. Oh, please be sweet for me."


She could not take time to saddle the mare or slip a bit between her teeth. With a hand against Godiva's flank, she guided her mount past the tack room and feed shed that occupied the last quarter of the barn, startling a mouse that scurried across her path into a shadowy corner. She rolled open the door at that end, and cool air swept in.


Without a stirrup to give her a leg up, Chrissie was too small to mount Godiva.


A blacksmith's shoeing stool stood in the corner by the tack room. Keeping a hand against Godiva to gentle her, Chrissie hooked the stool with one foot and pulled it to the horse's side.


Behind her, from the other end of the barn, Tucker shouted, "Here she is! The stable!" He ran toward her.


The stool did not give her much height and was no substitute for a stirrup.


She could hear Tucker's pounding footsteps, close, closer, but she didn't look at him.


He cried, "I got her!"


Chrissie grabbed Godiva's magnificent white mane, threw herself against the big horse and up, up, swinging her leg high, scrabbling desperately against the mare's side, pulling hard on the mane. it must have hurt Godiva, but the old girl was stoic. She didn't rear or whinny in pain, as if some equine instinct told her that this little girl's life depended on equanimity. Then Chrissie was on Godiva's back, tilting precariously but aboard, holding tight with her knees, one hand full of mane, and she slapped the horse's side.


"Go!"


Tucker reached her as she shouted that single word, grabbed at her leg, snared her jeans. His deep-set eyes were wild with anger; his nostrils flared, and his thin lips pulled back from his teeth. She kicked him under the chin, and he lost his grip on her.


Simultaneously Godiva leaped forward, through the open door, into the night.


"She's got a horse!" Tucker shouted.


"She's on a horse!"


The dapple-gray sprinted straight toward the meadowed slope that led to the sea a couple of hundred yards away, where the last muddy-red light of the sunset painted faint, speckled patterns on the black water. But Chrissie didn't want to go down to the shore because she was not sure how high the tide was. At some places along the coast, the beach was not broad even at low tide; if the tide were high now, deep water would meet rocks and bluffs at some points, making passage impossible. She could not risk riding into a dead end with her parents and Tucker in pursuit.


Even without the benefit of a saddle and at a full gallop, Chrissie managed to pull herself into a better position astride the mare, and as soon as she was no longer leaning to one side like a stunt rider, she buried both hands in the thick white mane, gripped fistfuls of that coarse hair, and tried to use it as a substitute for reins. She urged Godiva to turn left, away from the sea, away from the house as well, back along the stables, and out toward the half-mile driveway that led to the county road, where they were more likely to find help.


Instead of rebelling at this crude method of guidance, patient Godiva responded immediately, turning to the left as prettily as if she had a bit in her teeth and had felt the tug of a rein. The thunder of her hooves echoed off the barn walls as they raced past that structure.


"You're a great old girl!" Chrissie shouted to the horse. "I love you, girl."

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