Page 24


The dog shook itself, whined, and padded to Del rubbing against her as if for comfort.


‘Good Scootie,’ she said, crouching to scratch the dog behind the ears. ‘Him were so quiet, so still. Him good baby, him is, mommy’s little Scootie-wootums.’


Scootie wagged his tail happily and chuffed.


To Tommy, Del said, ‘We better get out of here.’


‘You haven’t answered my question.’


‘You have so many questions,’ she said.


‘Right now, only this one about the birds.’


Rising from beside the dog, she said, ‘Will you feel better if I scratch behind your ears too?’


‘Del, damn it!’


‘They were just birds. Agitated about something.’


‘More than that,’ he disagreed.


‘Everything is more than it seems, but nothing is as mysterious as it appears to be.’


‘I want a real answer, not metaphysics.’


‘Then you tell me.’


‘What the hell is going on here, Del, what have I gotten into the middle of, what is this all about?’


Instead of answering, she said, ‘It might come back. We better get moving.’


Frustrated, he followed her and Scootie off the carou¬sel and into the rain. They went down the steps to Edgewater Avenue along which the thousands of birds had flocked.


At the end of the wall and the iron railing that defined the raised area where the carousel stood, they stopped and peeked out warily along the Fun Zone, east to where the demon had disappeared. The beast


was nowhere to be seen. All of the birds were gone as well.


Scootie led them onto the promenade.


A few dozen feathers in different hues were stuck to the wet concrete or floated in the puddles. Otherwise, it would have been easy to believe that the birds had not been real, but a phenomenal and phantasmagoric illusion.


‘This way,’ Del said, and she headed briskly west, the opposite direction from that in which the Samaritan-thing had gone.


‘Are you a witch?’ Tommy asked.


‘Certainly not.’


‘That’s suspicious.’


‘What?’ she asked.


‘Such a direct answer. You never give them.’


‘I always give direct answers. You just don’t listen to them properly.’


As they passed between the Fun Zone Game Room and the Fun Zone Boat Company, between Mrs. Fields Cookies and the deserted Ferris wheel, Tommy said exasperatedly, ‘Del, I’ve been listening all night, and I still haven’t heard anything that makes sense.’


‘That just proves what bad ears you have. You better make an appointment to see a good audiologist. But you sure do kiss a lot better than you hear, tofu boy.’


He had forgotten the kiss that they had shared on the carousel. How could he possibly have forgotten the kiss? Even with the sudden arrival of the Samaritan-thing followed by the astonishing flock of birds, how could he have forgotten that kiss?


Now his lips burned with the memory of her lips, and he tasted the sweetness of her darting tongue as though it was still in his mouth.


Her mention of the kiss left him speechless.


Maybe that had been her intention.


Just past the Ferris wheel at the intersection of Edgewater Avenue and Palm Street, Del stopped as if not sure which way to go.


Directly ahead, Edgewater was still a pedestrian promenade, though they were nearing the end of the Fun Zone.


Palm Street entered from the left. Though no parking was allowed along it, the street was open to vehicular traffic because it terminated at the boarding ramp to the Balboa Ferry.


At this hour no traffic moved on Palm, because the ferry was closed for the night. In the docking slip at the foot of the ramp, one of the barge-type, three-car ferries creaked softly, wallowing on the high tide.


They could turn left on Palm and leave the Fun Zone for the next street to the south, which was Bay Avenue. In the immediate vicinity, it was not a residential street, but they might still find a parked car or two that Del could hot-wire.


Tommy was thinking like a thief. Or at least he was thinking like a thief’s apprentice. Maybe blondes — at least this blonde — were every bit the corrupting influence that his mother had always believed them to be.


He didn’t care.


He could still taste the kiss.


For the first time, he felt as tough and adaptable and suave as his detective, Chip Nguyen.


Beyond Bay Avenue was Balboa Boulevard, the main drag for the length of the peninsula. With police no doubt still coming and going from the scene of the shooting farther east, Tommy and Del would be too noticeable on the well-lighted boulevard, where at this hour they would probably be the only pedestrians.


Scootie growled, and Del said, ‘It’s coming back.’


For an instant Tommy didn’t understand what she meant, and then he understood too well. Bringing up


the shotgun, he spun around to face east. The promenade was deserted as far as he could see, and even at night in the rain he could see past the carousel and as far as the Balboa Pavilion at the entrance to the Fun Zone.


‘It doesn’t know exactly where we are yet,’ she said, ‘but it’s coming back this way.’


‘Intuition again?’ he asked sarcastically.


‘Or whatever. And I don’t think we can outrun it on foot.’


‘So we’ve got to find a car,’ he said, still keeping a watch on the east end of the Fun Zone, expecting the Samaritan-thing to come racing toward them, birdless and furious.


‘Car, no. That’s too dangerous. That means going out toward the boulevard where a cop might pass by and see us and think we’re suspicious.’


‘Suspicious? What’s suspicious about two heavily armed people and a big strange black dog on the street at three in the morning in the middle of a storm?’


‘We’ll steal a boat,’ Del said.


Her announcement drew his attention away from the promenade. ‘A boat?’


‘It’ll be fun,’ she said.


Already she and Scootie were on the move, and Tommy glanced east along the deserted amusement area once more before scrambling after the woman and the dog.


Past the entrance ramp to the ferry was Balboa Boat Rentals, a business that offered a variety of sailing skiffs, small motor boats, and kayaks to the tourist trade.


Tommy didn’t know how to sail, wasn’t sure that he would be able to operate a motor boat, and didn’t relish paddling out onto the dark rain-lashed harbour in a kayak. ‘I’d prefer a car.’


Del and Scootie ran past the shuttered rental facil¬ity and departed the open promenade. They passed


between a couple of dark buildings and went to the sea wall.


Tommy followed them through a gate and along a pier. Though he wore rubber-soled shoes, the rain-soaked planks were slippery.


They were in what appeared to be a small marina area where docking space could be rented, though some of the docks to the west were evidently private. A line of boats — some commercial party boats, some charter-fishing craft, and a few private craft big enough to be classified as full-blown yachts — were fled up side by side in the pounding rain, dimly revealed by the pier security lamps.


Del and Scootie hurried along a dock head serving several slips and moorings, looking over ten boats before stopping at a sleek white double-deck cruiser. ‘This is good,’ she said as Tommy joined them.


‘Are you kidding? You’re going to take this? It’s huge!’


‘Not so big. Bluewater 563, fifty-six-foot length, four¬teen-foot beam.’


‘We can’t handle this — how could we ever handle this?


— we need a whole crew to handle this,’ Tommy babbled, wishing that he didn’t sound so panicky.


‘I can handle it just swell’ she assured him with her usual ebullience. ‘These Bluewater yachts are sweet, really sweet, about as easy as driving a car.’


‘I can drive a car, but I can’t drive one of these.’


‘Hold this.’ She handed him the .44 Magnum and moved out along the finger of the dock to which the Bluewater was tied.


Following her, he said, ‘Del, wait.’


Pausing briefly to untie the bow line from a dock cleat, she said, ‘Don’t worry. This baby’s got less than two feet of draft, a windage-reducing profile, and the hull’s after sections are virtually flat—’


‘You might as well be talking alien abductions again.’


‘—two deep, wide-spaced propeller pockets give it a whole lot more turning leverage,’ she continued as she passed three smaller lines and went to the back of the craft, where she untied the stern line from another dock cleat, coiled it, and tossed it aboard. ‘You have real shaft-angle efficiency with this sweetheart. Twenty-one tons, but I’ll make it pirouette.’


‘Twenty-one tons,’ he worried, following her back to midships. ‘Where are you planning on taking this —Japan?’


‘No, it’s a coastal cruiser. You wouldn’t want to take this too far out on the open sea. Anyway, we’re just going across the harbour to Balboa Island, where the police aren’t all agitated. We can get a car there without being spotted.’


As Del unzipped her ski jacket and stripped out of it, Tommy said, ‘Is this piracy?’


‘Not if no one’s aboard. Ordinary theft,’ she assured him brightly, handing her jacket to him.


‘What’re you doing?’


‘I’m going to have my hands full with the boat, so you’re our only line of defence. The jacket pockets are full of spare ammo. You might need it. Position yourself on the bow deck, and if the damn thing shows up, do what’s necessary to keep it from getting aboard.


As the skin crawled on the nape of his neck, Tommy looked back across the dock, along the pier and east to the gate through which they had come from the Fun Zone. The Samaritan-thing was not yet in sight.


‘It’s getting close,’ she assured him.


Her voice was no longer at his side, and when he turned to her, he saw that she had already climbed aboard the yacht through the gap in the port railing.


Scootie was also aboard, ascending the port-side steps to the open upper deck.


‘What about these lines?’ Tommy asked, indicating the three dock ties that she had not cast off.


‘Forward spring, after spring, and breast line. I’ll take care of them. You just get in position on the bow.’


He shoved the Desert Eagle under the waistband of his jeans, praying to God he wouldn’t stumble and fall and accidentally blow off his manhood. Draping Del’s jacket over the shotgun in his left hand, he grabbed the railing with his right hand, and pulled himself aboard.


As he started forward, another worry occurred to him, and he turned to Del. ‘Hey, don’t you need keys or something to start it?’


‘No.’


‘For God’s sake, it can’t be like an outboard motor with a pull cord.’


‘I have my ways,’ she assured him.


In spite of the deep gloom, he could see that her smile was even more enigmatic than any with which she had previously favoured him.


She leaned toward him, kissed him lightly on the mouth, and then said, ‘Hurry.’


He went forward to the open bow deck. At the foremost point of the yacht, he stepped into the slightly depressed well in which was mounted the anchor winch. He dropped the jacket, which wasn’t going anywhere because it weighed about ten pounds with all the ammo in its pockets.


With a sigh of relief at not having been neutered, he gingerly withdrew the pistol from his waistband and placed it on top of the jacket, where he could easily get hold of it if the need arose.


The rain-swept docks were still deserted.


A halyard rattled mutedly against a mast on a sailboat. Dock rollers creaked and rasped over concrete pilings, and jammed rubber fenders squeaked between a boat hull and a dock.


The water was oil-black and had a faint briny smell. In the detective novels he wrote, this was the cold, murky, secret-keeping water into which villains some¬times dropped chain-wrapped victims in concrete boots. In other writers’ books, such water was home to great white sharks, giant killer squid, and sea serpents.


He looked back at the dark windows of the enclosed lower deck, immediately behind him, wondering where Del had gone.


The smaller top deck began farther aft, and as he raised his gaze to it, soft amber light appeared at the windshield of what might be an upper helm station. Then he glimpsed Del as she slipped behind the wheel and looked over the instrumentation.


When Tommy checked the docks again, nothing moved on them, although he wouldn’t have been surprised to see policemen, harbour policemen, Coast Guardsmen, FBI agents, and so many other officers of one law-enforcement agency or another that the Samaritan-thing, if it showed up, would be unable to shoulder its way through the crowd. He had probably broken more laws tonight than in his entire previous thirty years combined.


The Bluewater’s twin diesel engines chugged, coughed, and then turned over with a hard rumble of power. The foredeck vibrated under Tommy’s shoes.


He looked toward the top-deck helm again and saw, beside Del, Scootie’s head, ears pricked. The Labrador was apparently standing with his forepaws on the instru¬ment board, and Del was patting his big head as if to say, Good dog.


For some reason he couldn’t grasp, Tommy was reminded of the swarming birds. He flashed back, as well, to the courtyard of Del’s house, when they had entered from the street with the Samaritan in pursuit of them, and the previously locked front door had seemed


to be open before she could have reached it. Abruptly he felt poised on the brink of a satori again, but then the moment passed without bringing him enlightenment.


This time, when he turned his attention to the docks, he saw the Samaritan-thing hurtling through the gate at the sea wall, no more than two hundred feet away, raincoat billowing like a cape behind it, no longer dazzled by birds, its eyes on the prize.


‘Go, go!’ Tommy urged Del as the yacht began to ease backward out of its slip.


The demon descended to the dock head and raced westward along the base of the sea wall, passing all of the boats that Del had rejected.


Standing in the anchor well, Tommy held the Mossberg in both hands, hoping the creature would never get close enough to require the use of the shotgun.


The yacht was halfway out of the slip and moving faster by the second.


Tommy heard the thudding of his own heart, and then he heard an even louder pounding: the hollow booming of the demon’s footfalls on the dock planks.


The yacht was three-quarters of the way out of the slip, and waves of black water rolled in where it had been, slapping the dock.

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