In sunshine, their coats would be tan with reddish highlights and a peppering of black hairs. Here they were the patinated gray of old sil­ver. Subtly their eyes glowed with a moony madness.
Solely because it appeared to be the boldest of the trio, I pegged the nearest coyote as the pack leader. It was the biggest specimen, as well, with a grizzled chin that suggested much experience in the hunt.
Experts advise that, when confronted by an angry dog, you should avoid eye contact. This constitutes a challenge to which the animal will respond aggressively.
If the canine in question is a coyote pondering your nutritional value, the experts will get you killed. Failure to make eye contact will be read as weakness, which indicates that you are suitable prey; you might as well offer yourself on a platter with double spuds twice in Hell and an order of midnight whistleberries.
Making eye contact with the pack leader, I tapped one of the bot­tles against the metal door frame, then tapped harder, breaking it. I was left holding the neck, jagged shards protruding from my fist.
This would be a less than ideal weapon with which to confront an adversary that had the stiletto-packed jaws of a dedicated carnivore, but it was marginally better than my bare hands.
I hoped to challenge them with such confidence that they would have a momentary doubt about my vulnerability. All I might need to reach the open back door of the Chevy was a three- or four-second hesitation on their part.
Letting the door fall shut behind me, I moved toward the pack leader.
At once it bared a wicked clench of teeth. A low vibrous growl warned me to back off.
Ignoring the warning, I took another step, and with a sharp snap of my wrist, I threw the intact beer bottle. It struck the leader hard on the snout, bounced off, and shattered on the pavement at its feet.
Startled, the coyote stopped growling. It moved to the front of the car, not retreating from me, not drawing any closer, either, but merely repositioning itself to present a united front with its two companions.
This had the desirable effect of presenting me with a direct, un­guarded route to the open back door of the Chevy. Unfortunately, a full-out run for cover would require that I take my attention off the pack.
The moment that I sprinted for the car, they would spring at me. The distance between them and me was not much greater than the distance between me and the open door - and they were far quicker than I was.
Holding the broken bottle in front of me, thrusting it at them in sharp, threatening jabs, I edged sideways toward the idling Chevy, counting every inch a triumph.
Two watched with obvious curiosity: their heads raised, mouths open, tongues lolling. Curious but also alert for any opportunity that I might give them, they stood with their weight shifted toward their hind legs, ready to launch forward with their powerful haunch muscles.
The leader’s posture troubled me more than that of the other pack members. Head lowered, ears laid back against its skull, teeth bared but not its tongue, this individual stared at me intently from under its lowered brow.
Its forepaws were pressed so hard against the ground that even in the wan moonlight, its toes spread in clear definement. With the for­ward knuckles sharply bent, the beast seemed to be standing on the points of its claws.
Although I continued to face them, they weren’t directly in front of me any longer, but to my right. The open car door was to my left.
Fierce snarling could not have frayed my nerves as effectively as their bated breath, their expectant silence.
Halfway to the Chevy, I figured that I could risk a rush to the back-seat, throw myself into the car, and pull the door shut just in time to ward off their snapping jaws.
Then I heard a muted growl to my left.
The pack now numbered four, and the fourth had stolen up on me from the back of the Chevy. It stood between me and the open door.
Sensing movement to my right, I snapped my attention to the threesome again. During my brief distraction, they had slunk closer to me.
Moonlight silvered a ribbon of drool that slipped from the lips of the pack leader.
To my left, the fourth coyote’s low growl grew louder, rivaling the grumble of the car. It was a living engine of death, idling right now but ready to shift into high gear, and at the periphery of my vision, I saw it creep toward me.
THE DOOR OF THE QUONSET HUT LAY A DAUNTING DIS­tance behind me. Before I reached it, the pack leader would be on my back, its teeth in my neck, and the others would be tearing at my legs, dragging me down.
In my hand, the broken beer bottle felt fragile, a woefully inade­quate weapon, good for nothing more than slashing my own throat.
Judging by a sudden overwhelming pressure in my bladder, these predators would be getting marinated meat by the time they took a bite of me -
- but then the nasty customer to my left chewed up his growl and let out a submissive mewl.
The fearsome trio to the right of me, as one, traded menace for perplexity. They rose from their stalking posture, stood quite erect, ears pricked and cupped forward.
The change in the coyotes’ demeanor, so abrupt and inexplicable, imparted to the moment a quality of enchantment, as though a guardian angel had cast a rapture of mercy over these creatures, grant­ing me a reprieve from evisceration.
I stood stiff and stupefied, afraid that by moving I would break the spell. Then I realized that the coyotes’ attention had shifted to some­thing behind me.
Warily turning my head, I discovered that my guardian was a pretty but too thin young woman with tousled blond hair and delicate fea­tures. She stood behind and to the left of me, barefoot, na*ed but for a pair of skimpy, lace-trimmed panties, slender arms crossed over her breasts.
Her smooth pale skin seemed luminous in the moonlight. Beryl-blue eyes, lustrous pools, were windows to a melancholy so profound that I knew at once she belonged to the community of the restless dead.
The lone coyote on my left settled to the ground, all hungers for­gotten, the fight gone out of it. The beast regarded her in the manner of a dog waiting for a word of affection from its adored master.
To my right, the first three coyotes were not as humbled as the fourth, but they, too, were transfixed by this vision. Although they hadn’t exerted themselves, they panted, and they licked their lips in­cessantly - two signs of nervous stress in any canine. As the woman stepped past me and toward the Chevy, they shied from her, not in a fearful way but as if in deference.
When she reached the car, she turned to me. Her smile was an in­verted crescent of sadness.
I stooped to put the broken bottle quietly on the ground, then rose with new respect for the perceptions and priorities of coyotes, which seemed to give greater importance to the experience of wonder than to the demands of appetite.
At the car, I closed the back door on the passenger’s side, opened the front door.
The woman regarded me solemnly now, as though she was as
deeply moved by being seen, years after her death, as I was moved by seeing her in this purgatory of her own creation,
As lovely as a rose half bloomed and still containing promise, she appeared to have been not much more than eighteen when she died, too young to have sentenced herself for so long to the chains of this world, to such an extended lonely suffering.
She must have been one of the three prostitutes who were shot by an unbalanced man five years earlier, in the event that had closed Whispering Burger forever. Her chosen work should have hardened her; but she seemed to be a tender and timid spirit.
Touched by her vulnerability and by the harsh self-judgment that kept her here, I held out a hand to her.
Instead of taking my hand, she bowed her head demurely. After a hesitation, she uncrossed her arms and lowered them to her sides, re­vealing her br**sts - and the two dark bullet holes that marred her cleavage.
Because I doubted that she had any unfinished business in this des­olate place, and because her life had evidently been so hard that she would have little reason to love this world too much to leave it, I as­sumed that her reluctance to move on arose from a fear of what came next, perhaps from a dread of punishment.
“Don’t be afraid,” I told her. “You weren’t a monster in this life, were you? Just lonely, lost, confused, broken - like all of us who pass this way.”
Slowly she raised her head.
“Maybe you were weak and foolish, but many are. So am I.”
She met my eyes again. Her melancholy seemed deeper to me now, as acute as grief but as enduring as sorrow.
“So am I,” I repeated. “But when I die, I will move on, and so should you, without fear.”
She wore her wounds not as she would have worn divine stigmata, but as if they were the devil’s brand, which they were not.
“I’ve no idea what it’s like, but I know a better life awaits you, be­yond the miseries you’ve known here, a place where you’ll belong and where you’ll be truly loved.”
From her expression, I knew that the idea of being loved had been for her only a cherished hope that had never been realized in her short unhappy life. Terrible experience, perhaps from the cradle to the sound of the shot that killed her, had left her in a poverty of imagina­tion, unable to envision a world beyond this one, where love was a promise fulfilled.
She raised her arms once more and crossed them over her chest, concealing both her br**sts and her wounds.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said again.
Resumed, her smile seemed to be as melancholy as before, but also now enigmatic. I couldn’t tell if what I’d said had been of comfort to her.
Wishing that I were more persuasive in my faith, and wondering why I wasn’t, I got into the front passenger’s seat of the car. I dosed the door and slid behind the steering wheel.
I didn’t want to leave her there among the dead palm trees and the corroded Quonset huts, with as little hope as she had physical sub­stance.
Yet the night ticked on, the moon and all the constellations moving across the heavens as relentlessly as hands across the face of a clock. In too few hours, terror would descend on Pico Mundo, unless I could somehow stop it.
As I slowly drove away, I glanced repeatedly at the rearview mirror. There she stood in the moonlight, the charmed coyotes resting on the ground at her feet, as if she were the goddess Diana between one hunt
and another, mistress of the moon and all its creatures, receding, dwindling, but not ready to go home to Olympus.
I drove from the Church of the Whispering Comet back into Pico Mundo, from the company of a gunshot stranger to the bad news about a gunshot friend.
IF I HAD KNOWN THE NAME OR EVEN THE FACE OF THE one I should be seeking, I might have tried a session of psychic mag­netism, cruising Pico Mundo until my sixth sense brought me in contact with him. The man who had killed Bob Robertson, and who craved to kill others in the coming day, remained nameless and face­less to me, however, and as long as I sought only a phantom, I would be wasting gasoline and time.
The town slept, but not its demons. Bodachs were in the streets, more numerous and more fearsome than packs of coyotes, racing through the night in what seemed to be an ecstasy of anticipation.
I passed houses where these living shadows gathered and swarmed with particular inquisitiveness. At first I tried to remember each of the haunted residences, for I still believed that the people who interested the bodachs were also those who would be murdered between the next dawn and the next sunset.
Although small by comparison to a city, our town is much larger than it once was, with all its new neighborhoods of upscale tract
houses, encompassing more than forty thousand souls in a county of half a million. I have met only a tiny fraction of them.
Most of the bodach-infested houses belonged to people I didn’t know. I had no time to meet them all, and no hope of gaining their confidence to the extent that they would take my advice and change their Wednesday plans, as Viola Peabody had done.
I considered stopping at the houses of those who were known to me, to ask them to list every place they expected to be the following afternoon. With luck, I might discover the single destination that would prove common to them all.
None were in my small inner circle of friends. They didn’t know of my supernatural gift, but many regarded me as a sweet eccentric, to one degree or another, and therefore wouldn’t be surprised by either my unscheduled visit or my questions.
By seeking this information in the presence of bodachs, however, I would earn their suspicion. Once alert to me, they would eventually discern my unique nature.
I remembered the six-year-old English boy who had spoken aloud of the bodachs - and had been crushed between a concrete-block wall and a runaway truck. The impact had been so powerful that numer­ous blocks had shattered into gravel and dust, exposing the ribs of steel rebar around which they had been mortared.
Although the driver, a young man of twenty-eight, had been in per­fect health, his autopsy revealed that he suffered a massive, instantly fatal stroke while behind the wheel.
The stroke must have killed him at the precise moment when he crossed the crest of a hill - at the bottom of which stood the English boy Accident-scene analysis by the police determined that the lateral angle of the slope, in relationship to the cross street below, should have carried the unpiloted truck away from the boy, impacting the
wall thirty feet from where it actually came to a deadly stop. Evidently, during part of the descent, the dead body of the driver had been hung up on the steering wheel, countering the angle of the street that should have saved the child.
I know more about the mysteries of the universe than do those of you who cannot see the lingering dead, but I do not understand more than a tiny fraction of the truth of our existence. I have nevertheless reached at least one certain conclusion based on what I know: There are no coincidences.
On the macro scale, I perceive what physicists tell us is true on the micro: Even in chaos, there is order, purpose, and strange meaning that invites - but often thwarts - our investigation and our under­standing.
Consequently, I didn’t stop at any of those houses where the bo­dachs capered, didn’t wake the sleeping to ask my urgent questions. Somewhere a healthy driver and a massive truck needed only a timely cerebral aneurysm and an expedient failure of brakes to bring it across my path in a sudden rush.
Instead, I drove to Chief Porter’s house, trying to decide if I should wake him at the ungodly hour of three o’clock.
Over the years, I had only twice before interrupted his sleep. The first time, I had been wet and muddy, still wearing one of the shack­les - and dragging a length of chain - that had bound me to the two corpses with which I had been dumped into Malo Suerte Lake by bad men of sour disposition. The second time that I’d awakened him, there had been a crisis needing his attention.
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