Skidding on the wet planks, the fat-man-that-wasn’t-a-fat-man reached the head of the slip and sprinted onto the port-side finger, desperately trying to catch them before they reversed all the way into the channel.
The beast was close enough for Tommy to see its radiant green eyes in the pale face of the Samaritan, as improbable and frightening in the countenance of the fat man as in that of the rag doll.
The Bluewater reversed all the way out of the slip, churning hard through water now festooned with gar¬lands of phosphorescent foam.
The demon sprinted to the end of the port-side finger
of the slip just as the yacht pulled away. It didn’t stop, but leaped across the six-foot gap between the end of the dock and the boat, slammed into the pulpit only three feet in front of Tommy, and seized the railing with both hands.
As the thing tried to pull itself over the railing and aboard, Tommy squeezed off a round from the shotgun, point-blank in its face, flinching at the roar and at the gout of flame that spurted from the muzzle of the Mossberg.
In the pearlescent glow of the running lights, he saw the fat man’s face vanish in the blast, and he gagged in revulsion at the grisly spectacle.
But the Samaritan-thing didn’t let go of the pulpit railing. It should have been torn loose by the powerful hit that it had taken, but the relentless beast still hung from the bow and continued trying to drag-heave-roll itself onto the foredeck.
Out of the raw, oozing mass of torn flesh left by the shotgun blast, the fat man’s glistening white face at once miraculously re-formed, utterly undamaged, and the green serpent eyes blinked open, radiant and fierce.
The thick-lipped mouth yawned wide, gaping silently for a moment, and then the Samaritan-thing screamed at Tommy. The piercing voice was not remotely human, less like an animal sound than like an electronic shriek.
Cast back on the faith of his youth, pleading with the Holy Virgin, Mother of God, to save him, Tommy pumped another round into the breech, fired, worked the pump action again, and fired a third round, both from a distance of only three feet.
The hands on the railing were not human any more. They had metamorphosed into chitinous pincers with serrated edges and were locked so fiercely that the stainless-steel tubing actually appeared to be bending in the creature’s grip.
Tommy pumped, fired, pumped, squeezed the trigger,
pumped, squeezed the trigger, and then realized that he was dry firing. The magazine of the Mossberg was empty.
Shrieking again, the beast hauled itself higher on the pulpit railing as the bow of the reversing yacht came around to port and away from the dock.
Tommy dropped the empty shotgun, snatched up the Desert Eagle, slipped, and fell backward. He landed on his butt on the bow deck with his feet still in the anchor well.
The gun was beaded with rain. His hands were wet and shaking. But he didn’t drop the weapon when he landed.
Clambering over the railing, shrieking in triumph, the serpent-eyed Samaritan loomed over Tommy. The moon-round, moon-pale visage split open from chin to hairline, as if it wasn’t a skull at all but a strained sausage skin, and the halves of the bifurcated face peeled apart, with the demented green eyes bulging at either side, and out of the sudden gash sprouted an obscene mass of writhing, segmented, glossy-black tentacles as thin as whips, perhaps two feet long, and as agitated as the appendages of a squid in a feeding frenzy. At the base of the squirming tentacles was a wet sucking hole full of clashing teeth.
Two, four, five, seven times Tommy fired the .44 Magnum. The pistol bucked in his hands and the recoil slammed through him hard enough to rattle his verte¬brae. At such close quarters, he didn’t have to be as first-rate a marksman as Del was, and every round seemed to strike home.
The creature shuddered with the impact of the shots and pitched backward over the pulpit railing. Pincers flailed, grabbed, and one of them locked tightly on the steel tubing. Then the eighth and ninth rounds found their mark, and simultaneously a section of railing gave
way with a gong-like clang, and the beast plunged backward into the harbour.
Tommy scrambled to the damaged railing, slipped, almost pitched through the gap, clutched a firmly anchored section tightly with one hand, and searched the black water for some sign of the creature. It had vanished.
He didn’t believe that it was really gone. He anxiously scanned the water, waiting for the Samaritan-thing to surface.
The yacht was cruising forward now, east along the channel, past the other boats in the moorings and the small marina. A speed limit was in effect in the harbour, but Del wasn’t obeying it.
Moving aft along the short bow deck, clutching at the starboard railing, Tommy searched the waters on that side, but soon the area where the creature had disap¬peared was well behind them and receding rapidly.
The crisis wasn’t over. The threat wasn’t gone. He was not going to make the mistake of taking another breather. He wasn’t safe until dawn.
He returned to the pulpit to retrieve the shotgun and the ski jacket full of ammunition. His hands were shaking so badly that he dropped the Mossberg twice.
The yacht was cruising fast enough to stir up a wind of its own in the windless night. Although the skeins of rain still fell as straight as the strands of a glass-bead curtain, the speed at which the boat surged forward made it seem as if the droplets were being flung at Tommy by the fury of the storm.
Carrying both of the guns and the ski jacket, he retreated along the narrow port-side pass way and hur¬riedly climbed the steep stairs to the upper deck.
The aft portion of the open-air top deck contained a built-in table for alfresco dining and an enormous
elevated sun-bathing pad across the entire stern. Toward starboard, an enclosed stairwell led to the lower deck.
Scootie was standing on the sunbathing pad, gazing down at the foaming wake that trailed away from the stern. He was as focused on the churning water as he might have been on a taunting cat, and he didn’t look up at Tommy.
Forward on the top deck, the upper helm station had a hardtop roof and a windshield, but the back of it was meant to be open in good cruising weather. Currently a custom-sewn vinyl enclosure was snugged to the supporting rear framework of the hardtop, forming a weather-proofed cabin of sorts, but Del had unsnapped the centre vent to gain access to the wheel.
Tommy pushed through the loose flaps, into the dim light beyond, which arose only from the control board.
Del was in the captain’s seat. She glanced away from the rain-streaked windshield. ‘Nice job.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said worriedly, putting the guns down on the console behind her. He began to unzip pockets on the ski jacket. ‘It’s still out there some¬where.’
‘But we’re outrunning it now, on the move and safe.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ he said as he added nine rounds of ammo to the Desert Eagle magazine, replenishing the thirteen-shot capacity as quickly as his trembling hands could cope with the cartridges. ‘How long to cross the harbour?’
Bringing the Bluewater sharply and expertly around to port, she said, ‘We’re starting the run right now. Going so fast, I’ll have to throttle back just a little, but it should still take like maybe two minutes.’
At various points down the centre of the broad harbour, clusters of boats bobbled at permanent moorings, grey shapes in the gloom that effectively divided the expanse of water into channels. But as far as could
be seen in the rain, theirs was the only craft currently making way. Del said, ‘Problem is — when we get to Balboa Island, I need to find an empty slip, a suitable dock to tie up to, and that might take some time. Thank God, it’s high tide and this baby has such a low draft, ‘cause we can slide in almost anywhere.’
Reloading the Mossberg, he said, ‘How’d you start the engines without keys?’
‘Hot-wired the sucker.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Found a key.’
‘Well,’ she said airily, ‘those are your choices.’
Outside on the open top deck, Scootie began to bark ferociously.
Tommy’s stomach fluttered nervously, and his heart swelled with dread. ‘Jesus, here we go already.’
Armed with both the shotgun and the pistol, he pushed through the vinyl flaps, into the night and rain.
Scootie still stood vigilantly on the sunbathing pad, staring down at the churning wake.
Balboa Peninsula was swiftly receding.
Tommy stepped quickly past the dining table and the upholstered horseshoe bench that encircled it, to the platform on which the dog stood.
No railing encircled the outer edge of the sunbathing pad, only a low wall, and Tommy didn’t want to risk standing on it and perhaps pitching over the stern. He wriggled forward on his belly, across the wet canvas ¬upholstered pad, beside the Labrador, where he peered down at the turbulent wake.
In the murk, he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
The dog barked more savagely than ever.
‘What is it, fella?’
Scootie glanced at him and whined.
He could see the wake but nothing of the boat’s stern, which was recessed beneath the top deck. Easing forward, his upper body extended over the low sun-deck wall, Tommy squinted down and back at the lower portion of the yacht.
Under Tommy, behind the enclosed first deck, was a back-porch-type afterdeck. It was overhung by the sunbathing platform on which he lay, and was therefore largely concealed.
Sans raincoat, the fat man was climbing out of the harbour and over the afterdeck railing. He disappeared under the overhang before Tommy could take a shot at him.
The dog scrambled to a closed stair head hatch immedi¬ately starboard of the sunbathing platform.
Joining the Labrador, Tommy put down the pistol. Holding the Mossberg in one hand, he opened the hatch.
A small light glowed at the bottom of moulded-fibreglass steps, revealing that the Samaritan-thing was already clambering upward. Its serpent eyes flashed, and it shrieked at Tommy.
Grasping the shotgun with both hands, Tommy pumped the entire magazine into the beast.
It grasped at a rail and held on tenaciously, but the last two blasts tore it loose and hurled it to the bottom of the steps. The thing rolled out of the stairwell, onto the afterdeck again, out of sight.
The indomitable creature would be stunned, as before. Judging by experience, however, it wouldn’t be out of action for long. There wasn’t even any blood on the steps. It seemed to absorb the buckshot and bullets without sustaining any real wounds.
Dropping the shotgun, Tommy retrieved the .44 pistol. Thirteen rounds. That might be enough ammunition to
knock the beast back down the stairs twice more, but then there would be no time to reload.
Del appeared at his side, looking gaunt and more worried than she had been before. ‘Give me the gun,’ she said urgently.
‘I locked the wheel. Give me the gun and go forward, down the port stairs to the foredeck.’
‘What are you going to do?’ he demanded, reluctant to leave her there even if she had the Desert Eagle.
‘I’ll start a fire,’ she said.
‘You said fire distracted it.’
He remembered the enraptured mini-kin at the blazing Corvette, lost to all sensation except the dancing flames. ‘How’re you going to start a fire?’
Below, the recuperated Samaritan-thing shrieked and entered the bottom of the stairwell.
‘Give me the damn gun!’ she snarled, and virtually tore it out of Tommy’s grip.
The Desert Eagle bucked in her hands — once, twice, three times, four times — and the roar echoed back at them out of the stairwell, like cannon fire.
Squealing, spitting, hissing, the creature crashed down to the afterdeck again.
To Tommy, Del shouted, ‘Go, damn it, go!’
He stumbled across the open top deck to the port stairs farther forward, beside the helm station.
More gunfire erupted behind him. The beast had come back at her faster this time than before.
Clutching at the railing, he descended the open port¬side stairs, up which he had climbed earlier. At the bottom, the narrow railed passway led forward to the bow but didn’t lead back toward the stern, so there was
no easy route by which the Samaritan-thing could make its way to him directly from the afterdeck — unless it broke into the enclosed lower deck, rampaged forward through the staterooms, and smashed out at him through a window.
More gunfire crashed above and aft, and the hard sound slapped across the black water, so it seemed as though Newport had gone to war with neighbouring Corona Del Mar.
Tommy reached the bow deck, where only a few min¬utes ago he’d taken a stand against the Samaritan-thing when it had first tried to board the vessel.
In the night ahead, Balboa Island loomed.
‘Holy shit,’ Tommy said, horrified by what was about to happen.
They were approaching Balboa Island at considerable speed, on a line as direct and true as if they were being guided by a laser beam. With the wheel locked and the throttles set, they would pass between two large private docks and ram the sea wall that surrounded the island.
He turned, intending to go back to the helm and make Del change course, but he halted in astonishment when he saw that the aft end of the yacht was already ablaze. Orange and blue flames leaped into the night. Shimmering with reflections of the fire, the falling rain looked like showers of embers from a celestial blaze.
Scootie padded along the port-side pass way and onto the bow deck.
Del was right behind the Labrador. ‘The damn thing’s in the stairwell, burning in ecstasy, like you said. Creepy as hell.’
‘How did you set it on fire so quick?’ Tommy demanded, half shouting to be heard above the drum¬ming rain and the engines.
‘Diesel fuel,’ she said, raising her voice as well.
‘Where’d you get diesel fuel?’
‘There’s six hundred gallons aboard.’ ‘But in tanks somewhere.’
‘Not any more.’
‘And diesel fuel doesn’t burn that fiercely.’
‘So I used gasoline.’
‘You’re lying to me again!’ he fumed.
‘You’re making it necessary.’
‘I hate this crap.’
‘Sit on the deck,’ she instructed.
‘This is so nuts!’
‘Sit down, grab hold of the railing.’
‘You’re some crazy gonzo Amazon witch or some¬thing.’
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