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My name is Christopher Snow. The following account is an installment in my personal journal. If you are reading it, I am probably dead. If I am not dead, then because of the reportage herein, I am now--or soon will be--one of the most famous people on the planet. If no one ever reads this, it will be because the world as we know it has ceased to exist and human civilization is gone forever. I am no more vain than the average person, and instead of universal recognition, I prefer the peace of anonymity. Nevertheless, if the choice is between Armageddon and fame, I'd prefer to be famous.
Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach. At dawn, when the night retreats across the pacific toward distant Asia, it is reluctant to go, leaving deep black pools in alleyways, under parked cars, in culverts, and beneath the leafy canopies of ancient oaks.
According to Tibetan folklore, a secret sanctuary in the sacred Himalayas is the home of all wind, from which every breeze and raging storm throughout the world is born. If the night, too, has a special home, our town is no doubt the place.
On the eleventh of April, as the night passed through Moonlight Bay on its way westward, it took with it a five-year-old boy named Jimmy Wing.
Near midnight, I was on my bicycle, cruising the residential streets in the lower hills not far from Ashdon College, where my murdered parents had once been professors. Earlier, I had been to the beach, but although there was no wind, the surf was mushy; the sloppy waves didn't make it worthwhile to suit up and float a board. Orson, a black Labrador mix, trotted at my side.
Fur face and I were not looking for adventure, merely getting some fresh air and satisfying our mutual need to be on the move. A restlessness of the soul plagues both of us more nights than not.
Anyway, only a fool or a madman goes looking for adventure in picturesque Moonlight Bay, which is simultaneously one of the quietest and most dangerous communities on the planet. Here, if you stand in one place long enough, a lifetime's worth of adventure will find you.
Lilly Wing lives on a street shaded and scented by stone pines. In the absence of lampposts, the trunks and twisted branches were as black as char, except where moonlight pierced the feathery boughs and silvered the rough bark.
I became aware of her when the beam of a flashlight swept back and forth between the tree trunks. A quick pendulum of light arced across the pavement ahead of me, and tree shadows jumped. She called her son's name, trying to shout but defeated by breathlessness and by a quiver of panic that transformed Jimmy into a six--syllable word.
Because no traffic was in sight ahead of or behind us, Orson and I were traveling the center of the pavement: kings of the road. We swung to the curb.
As Lilly hurried between two pines and into the street, I said, "What's wrong, Badger?"
For twelve years, since we were sixteen, "Badger" has been my affectionate nickname for her. In those days, her name was Lilly Travis, and we were in love and believed that a future together was our destiny. Among our long list of shared enthusiasms and passions was a special fondness for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, in which the wise and courageous Badger was the stalwart defender of all good animals in the Wild Wood. "Any friend of mine walks where he likes in this country," Badger had promised Mole, "or I'll know the reason why!" Likewise, those who shunned me because of my rare disability, those who called me vampire because of my inherited lack of tolerance for more than the dimmest light, those teenage psychopaths who plotted to torture me with fists and flashlights, those who spoke maliciously of me behind my back, as if I'd chosen to be born with xeroderma pigmentosum--all had found themselves answering to Lilly, whose face flushed and whose heart raced with righteous anger at any exhibition of intolerance. As a young boy, out of urgent necessity, I learned to fight, and by the time I met Lilly, I was confident of my ability to defend myself; nevertheless, she had insisted on coming to my aid as fiercely as the noble Badger ever fought with claw and cudgel for his friend Mole.
Although slender, she is mighty. Only five feet four, she appears to tower over any adversary. She is as formidable, fearless, and fierce as she is graceful and good-hearted.
This night, however, her usual grace had deserted her, and fright had tortured her bones into unnatural angles. When I spoke, she twitched around to face me, and in her jeans and untucked flannel shirt, she seemed to be a bristling scarecrow now magically animated, confused and terrified to find itself suddenly alive, jerking at its supporting cross.
The beam of her flashlight bathed my face, but she considerately directed it toward the ground the instant she realized who I was. "Chris. Oh, God."
"What's wrong?" I asked again as I got off my bike.
"No." She turned from me and hurried toward the house. "This way, here, look."
Lilly's property is ringed by a white picket fence that she herself built. The entrance is flanked not by gateposts but by matched bougainvillea that she has pruned into trees and trained into a canopy. Her modest Cape Cod bungalow lies at the end of an intricately patterned brick walkway that she designed and laid after teaching herself masonry from books.
The front door stood open. Enticing rooms of deadly brightness lay beyond.
Instead of taking me and Orson inside, Lilly quickly led us off the bricks and across the lawn. In the still night, as I pushed my bike through the closely cropped grass, the tick of wheel bearings was the loudest sound. We went to the north side of the house.
A bedroom window had been raised. Inside, a single lamp glowed, and the walls were striped with amber light and faint honey-brown shadows from the folded cloth of the pleated shade. To the left of the bed, Star Wars action figures stood on a set of bookshelves. As the cool night sucked warmth from the house, one panel of the curtains was drawn across the sill, pale and fluttering like a troubled spirit reluctant to leave this world for the next.
"I thought the window was locked, but it mustn't have been," Lilly said frantically. "Someone opened it, some sonofabitch, and he took Jimmy away.
"Maybe it's not that bad."
"Some sick bastard," she insisted.
The flashlight jiggled, and Lilly struggled to still her trembling hand as she directed the beam at the planting bed alongside the house.
"I don't have any money," she said.
"To pay ransom. I'm not rich. So no one would take Jimmy for ransom. It's worse than that."
False Solomon's seal, laden with feathery sprays of white flowers that glittered like ice, had been trampled by the intruder. Footprints were impressed in trodden leaves and soft damp soil. They were not the prints of a runaway child but those of an adult in athletic shoes with bold tread, and judging by the depth of the impressions, the kidnapper was a large person, most likely male.
I saw that Lilly was barefoot.
"I couldn't sleep, I was watching TV, some stupid show on the TV," she said with a note of self-flagellation, as if she should have anticipated this abduction and been at Jimmy's bedside, ever vigilant.
Orson pushed between us to sniff the imprinted earth.
"I didn't hear anything," Lilly said. "Jimmy never cried out, but I got this feeling...."
Her usual beauty, as clear and deep as a reflection of eternity, was now shattered by terror, crazed by sharp lines of an anguish that was close to grief. She was held together only by desperate hope. Even in the dim backwash of the flashlight, I could hardly bear the sight of her in such pain.
"It'll be all right," I said, ashamed of this facile lie.
"I called the police," she said. "They should be here any second. Where are they?"
Personal experience had taught me to distrust the authorities in Moonlight Bay. They are corrupt. And the corruption is not merely moral, not simply a matter of bribe-taking and a taste for power; it has deeper and more disturbing origins.
No siren shrieked in the distance, and I didn't expect to hear one. In our special town, the police answer calls with utmost discretion, without even the quiet fanfare of flashing emergency lights, because as often as not, their purpose is to conceal a crime and silence the complainant rather than to bring the perpetrator to justice.
"He's only five, only five," Lilly said miserably. "Chris, what if this is that guy on the news?"
"The serial killer. The one who...burns kids."
"That's not around here."
"All over the country. Every few months. Groups of little kids burned alive. Why not here?"
"Because it isn't," I said, "It's something else."
She swung away from the window and raked the yard with the flashlight beam, as though she hoped to discover her tousle-haired, pajama-clad son among the fallen leaves and the curled strips of papery bark that littered the grass under a row of tall eucalyptus trees.
Catching a troubling scent, Orson issued a low growl and backed away from the planting bed. He peered up at the windowsill, sniffed the air, put his nose to the ground again, and headed tentatively toward the rear of the house.
"He's got something," I said.
Lilly turned. "Got what?"
When he reached the backyard, Orson broke into a trot.
"Badger," I said, "don't tell them that Orson and I were here."
A weight of fear pressed her voice thinner than a whisper. "Don't tell who?"
"I'll be back. I'll explain. I swear I'll find Jimmy. I swear I will."
I could keep the first two promises. The third, however, was something less meaningful than wishful thinking and was intended only to provide a little hope with which she might keep herself glued together.
In fact, as I hurried after my strange dog, pushing the bicycle at my side, I already believed that Jimmy Wing was lost forever. The most I expected to find at the end of the trail was the boy's dead body and, with luck, the man who had murdered him.
When I reached the rear of Lilly's house, I couldn't see Orson. He was so coaly black that even the light of a full moon was not sufficient to reveal him.
From off to the right came a soft woof, then another, and I followed his call.
At the end of the backyard was a freestanding garage that could be entered by car only from the alley beyond. A brick walkway led alongside the garage to a wooden gate, where Orson stood on his hind legs, pawing at the latch.
For a fact, this dog is radically smarter than ordinary mutts. Sometimes I suspect that he is also considerably smarter than I am.
If I didn't have the advantage of hands, no doubt I would be the one eating from a dish on the floor. He would have control of the most comfortable easy chair and the remote control for the television.
Demonstrating my single claim to superiority, I disengaged the bolt latch with a flourish and pushed open the creaking gate.
A series of garages, storage sheds, and backyard fences lay along this flank of the alley. On the farther side, the cracked and runneled blacktop gave way to a narrow dirt shoulder, which in turn led to a like of massive eucalyptuses and a weedy verge that sloped into a canyon.
Lilly's house is on the edge of town, and no one lives in the canyon beyond her place. The wild grass and scattered scrub oaks on the descending slopes provide homes for hawks, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, field mice, and snakes.
Following his formidable nose, Orson urgently investigated the weeds along the edge of the canyon, padding north and then south, softly whining and grumbling to himself.
I stood at the brink, between two trees, peering down into a darkness that not even the fat moon could dispel. No flashlight moved in those depths. If Jimmy had been carried into that gloom, the kidnapper must have uncanny night vision.
With a yelp, Orson abruptly abandoned his search along the canyon rim and returned to the center of the alleyway. He moved in a circle, as though he might start chasing his tail, but his head was raised and he was excitedly sniffing spoor.
To him, the air is a rich stew of scents. Every dog has a sense of smell thousands of times more powerful than yours or mine.
The medicinal pungency of the eucalyptus trees was the only aroma that I could detect. Drawn by another and more suspicious scent, as if he were but a bit of iron pulled inexorably toward a powerful magnet, Orson raced north along the alley.
Maybe Jimmy Wing was still alive.
It's my nature to believe in miracles. So why not believe in this one.
I climbed on my bike and pedaled after the dog. He was swift and certain, and to match his pace, I really had to make the drive chain hum.
In block after block, only a few widely spaced security lamps glowed at the back of the residential properties that we passed. By habit I steered away from those radiant pools, along the darker side of the alleyway, even though I could have sailed through each patch of lamplight in less than a second or so, without significant risk to my health.
Xeroderma pigmentosum--XP for those who aren't able to tie their tongues in knots--is an inherited genetic disorder that I share with an exclusive club of only one thousand other Americans. One of us per 250,000 citizens. XP renders me highly vulnerable to skin and eye cancers caused by exposure to any ultraviolet radiation. Sunshine. Incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. The shining, idiot face of a television screen.
If I dared to spend just half an hour in summer sun, I would burn severely, though a single searing wouldn't kill me. The true horror of XP, however, is that even minor exposure to ultraviolet radiation shortens my life, because the effect is cumulative. Years of imperceptible injuries accrete until they manifest as visible lesions, malignancies. Six hundred minutes of exposure, spread one by one over an entire year, will have the same ultimate effect as ten continuous hours on a beach in brightest July. The luminosity of a streetlamp is less dangerous to me than the full ferocity of the sun, but it's not entirely safe.
You, with your properly functioning genes, are able routinely to repair the injury to your skin and eyes that you unknowingly suffer every day. Your body, unlike mine, continuously produces enzymes that strip out the damaged segments of nucleotide strands in your cells, replacing them with undamaged DNA.
I must exist in shadows, while you live under exquisitely blue skies, and yet I don't hate you. I don't resent you for the freedom that you take for granted-although I do envy you.
I don't hate you because, after all, you are human, too, and therefore have limitations of your own. Perhaps you are homely, slow-witted or too smart for your own good, deaf or mute or blind, by nature given to despair or to self-hatred, or perhaps you are unusually fearful of Death himself. We all have burdens. On the other hand, if you are better-looking and smarter than I am, blessed with five sharp senses, even more optimistic than I am, with plenty of self-esteem, and if you also share my refusal to be humbled by the Reaper...well, then I could almost hate you if I didn't know that, like all of us in this imperfect world, you also have a haunted heart and a mind troubled by grief, by loss, by longing.
Rather than rage against XP, I regard it as a blessing. My passage through life is unique.
For one thing, I have a singular familiarity with the night. I know the world between dusk and dawn as no one else can know it, for I am a brother to the owl and the bat and the badger. I am at home in the darkness. This can be a greater advantage than you might think.
Of course, no number of advantages can compensate for the fact that death before the age of consent is not uncommon for those with XP. Survival far into adulthood isn't a reasonable expectation--at least not without progressive neurological disorders such as tremors of the head and hands, hearing loss, slurred speech, even mental impairment.
Thus far I have tweaked Death's cold nose without retribution. I've also been spared all the physical infirmities that my physicians have long predicted.
I am twenty-eight years old.
To say that I am living on borrowed time would be not merely a cliché but also an understatement. My entire life has been a heavily mortgaged enterprise.
But so is yours. Eventual foreclosure awaits all of us. More likely than not, I'll receive my notice before you do, though yours, too, is in the mail.
Nevertheless, until the postman comes, be happy. There is no other rational response but happiness. Despair is a foolish squandering of precious time.
Now, here, on this cool spring night, past the witching hour but with dawn still far away, chasing my sherlock hound, believing in the miracle of Jimmy Wing's survival, I cycled along empty alleys and deserted avenues, through a park where Orson did not pause to sniff a single tree, past the high school, onto lower streets. He led me eventually to the Santa Rosita River, which bisects our town from the heights to the bay.
In this part of California, where annual rainfall averages a mere fourteen inches, rivers and streams are parched most of the year. The recent rainy season had been no wetter than usual, and this riverbed was entirely exposed: a broad expanse of powdery silt, pale and slightly lustrous in the lunar light. It was as smooth as a bedsheet except for scattered knots of dark driftwood like sleeping homeless men whose limbs were twisted by nightmares.
In fact, though it was sixty to seventy feet wide, the Santa Rosita looked less like a real river than like a man-made drainage channel or canal. As part of an elaborate federal project to control the flash floods that could swell suddenly out of the steep hills and narrow canyons at the back door of Moonlight Bay, these riverbanks had been raised and stabilized with wide concrete levees from one end of town to the other.
Orson trotted off the street, across a barren strip of land, to the levee.
Following him, I coasted between two signs, sets of which alternated with each other for the entire length of the watercourse. The first declared that public access to the river was restricted and that anti-trespassing ordinances would be enforced. The second, directed at those lawless citizens who were undeterred by the first sign, warned that high water at a storm's peak could be so powerful and fast-moving that it would overwhelm anyone who dared to venture into it.
In spite of all the warnings, in spite of the obvious turbulence of the treacherous currents and the well-known tragic history of the Santa Rosita, a thrill seeker with a homemade raft or a kayak-or even just a pair of water wings-is swept to his death every few years. In a single winter, not long ago, three drowned.
Human beings can always be relied upon to assert, with vigor, their God-given right to be stupid.
Orson stood on the levee, burly head raised, gazing east toward the Pacific Coast Highway and the serried hills beyond. He was stiff with tension, and a thin whine escaped him.
This night, neither water or anything else moved along the moonlit channel. Not enough of a breeze slipped off the Pacific even to stir a dust ghost from the silt.
Orson trotted to a wide concrete access ramp that descended along the levee wall to the Santa Rosita. In June and July, dump trucks and excavators would use this route when maintenance crews removed a year's worth of accumulated sediment and debris from below, restoring a flood-preventing depth to the dry watercourse before the next rainy season.
I followed the dog down to the riverbed. On the darkly mottled concrete slope, his black form was no more substantial than a shadow. On the faintly luminous silt, however, he appeared to be stone solid even as he drifted eastward like a homeward-bound spirit crossing a waterless Styx.
Because the most recent rainfall had occurred three weeks in the past, the floor of the channel wasn't damp. It was still well compacted, however, and I was able to ride the bicycle without struggle.
At least as far as the pearly moonlight revealed, the bike tires made few discernible marks in the hard-packed silt, but a heavier vehicle had passed this way earlier, leaving clear tracks. Judging by the width and depth of the tread impressions, the tires were those of a van, a light truck, or a sports utility vehicle.
Flanked by twenty-foot-high concrete ramparts, I had no view of any of the town immediately around us. I could see only the faint angular lines of the houses on higher hills, huddled under trees or partially revealed by streetlamps. As we ascended the watercourse, the townscape ahead also fell away from sight beyond the levees, as though the night were a powerful solvent in which all the structures and citizens of Moonlight Bay were dissolving.
At irregular intervals, drainage culverts yawned in the levee walls, some only two or three feet in diameter, a few so large that a truck could have been driven into them. The tire tracks led past all those tributaries and continued up the riverbed, as straight as typed sentences on a sheet of paper, except where they curved around a punctuation of driftwood.
Although Orson's attention remained focused ahead, I regarded the culverts with suspicion. During a cloudburst, torrents gushed out of them, carried from the streets and from the natural drainage swales high in the grassy eastern hills above town. Now, in fair weather, these storm drains were the subterranean lanes of a secret world, in which one might encounter exceptionally strange travelers. I half expected someone to rush at me from one of them.
I admit to having an imagination feverish enough to melt good judgment. Occasionally it has gotten me into trouble, but more than once it has saved my life.
Besides, having roamed all the storm drains large enough to accommodate a man my size, I've encountered a few peculiar tableaux. Oddities and enigmas. Sights to wring fright from even the driest rag of imagination.
Because the sun rises inevitably every day, my night life must be conducted within the town limits, to ensure that I'm always close to the safely darkened rooms of my house when dawn draws near. Considering that our community has a population of twelve thousand and a student population, at Ashdon College, of an additional three thousand, it offers a reasonably large board for a game of life; it can't fairly be called a jerkwater burg. Nevertheless, by the time I was sixteen, I knew every inch of Moonlight Bay better than I knew the territory inside my own head. Consequently, to fend off boredom, I am always seeking new perspectives on the slice of the world to which XP confines me; for a while I was intrigued by the view from below, touring the storm drains as if I were the Phantom prowling the realms beneath the Paris Opera House, though I lacked his cape, cloche hat, scars, and insanity.
Recently, I've preferred to keep to the surface. Like everyone born into this world, I'll take up permanent residence underground soon enough.
Now, after we passed another culvert without being assaulted, Orson suddenly picked up his pace. The trail had gotten hot.
As the riverbed rose toward the east, it gradually grew narrower, until it was only forty feet wide where it passed under Highway 1. This tunnel was more than a hundred feet long, and although faint silvery moonlight glimmered at the farther end, the way ahead was dauntingly dark.
Apparently, Orson's reliable nose didn't detect any danger. He wasn't growling.
On the other hand, he didn't sprint confidently into the gloom, either. He stood at the entrance, his tail still, his ears pricked, alert.
For years I have traveled the night with only a modest amount of cash for the infrequent purchases I make, a small flashlight for those rare instances when darkness might be more of a enemy than a friend, and a compact cell phone clipped to my belt. Recently, I'd added one other item to my standard kit: a 9-millimeter Glock pistol.
Under my jacket, the Glock hung in a supple shoulder holster. I didn't need to touch the gun to know that it was there; the weight of it was like a tumor growing on my ribs. Nevertheless, I slipped one hand under the coat and pressed my fingertips against the grip of the pistol as a superstitious person might touch a talisman.
In addition to the black leather jacket, I was dressed in black Rockports, black socks, black jeans, and a black long-sleeve cotton pullover. The black-on-black is not because I style myself after vampires, priests, ninja assassins, or Hollywood celebrities. In this town, at night, wisdom requires you to be well armed but also to blend with the shadows, calling as little attention to yourself as possible.
Leaving the Glock in the holster, still straddling my bike but with both feet on the ground, I unclipped the small flashlight from the handlebars. My bicycle doesn't have a headlamp. I have lived so many years in the night and in rooms lit mostly by candles that my dark-adapted eyes don't often need assistance.
The beam penetrated perhaps thirty feet into the concrete tunnel, which had straight walls but an arched ceiling. No threat lurked in the first section of that passage.
Orson ventured inside.
Before following the dog, I listened to the traffic roaring south and north on Highway 1, far above. To me, as always, this sound was simultaneously thrilling and melancholy.
I've never driven a car and probably never will. Even if I protected my hands with gloves and my face with a mask, the ceaseless oncoming headlights would pose a danger to my eyes. Besides, I couldn't go any significant distance north or south along the coast and still return home before sunrise.
Relishing the drone of the traffic, I peered up the broad concrete buttress in which the river tunnel was set. At the top of this long incline, headlights flared off the steel guardrails that defined the shoulder of the highway, but I couldn't see the passing vehicles.
What I did see--or thought I saw--from the corner of my eye, was someone crouched up there, to the south of me, a figure not quite as black as the night around him, fitfully backlit by the passing traffic. He was on the buttress cap just this side of the guardrails, barely visible yet with an aura as menacing as a gargoyle at the corner of a cathedral parapet.
When I turned my head for a better look, the lights from a dense cluster of speeding cars and trucks caused shadows to leap like an immense flock of ravens taking flight in a lightning storm. Among those swooping phantoms, an apparently more solid figure raced diagonally downward, moving away from me and from the buttress, south along the grassy embankment.
In but a flicker of time, he was beyond the reach of the strobing headlights, lost in the deeper darkness and also blocked from view by the levee walls that towered twenty feet above me. He might be circling back to the edge of the channel, intending to enter the riverbed above me.
Or he might not be interested in me at all. Though it would be comforting to think that galaxies revolve around me, I am not the center of the universe.
In fact, this mysterious figure might not even exist. I'd gotten such a brief glimpse of it that I couldn't be absolutely certain it was more than an illusion.
Again I reached under my coat and touched the Glock.
Orson had padded so far into the passageway beneath Highway One that he was almost beyond the reach of my flashlight.
After glancing at the channel behind me and seeing no stalker, I followed the dog. Instead of riding my bike, I walked beside it, guiding it with my left hand.
I didn't like having my right hand--my gun hand--occupied with the flashlight. Besides, the light made me easy to follow and easy to target.
Although the riverbed was dry, the walls of the tunnel gave off a not unpleasant damp odor, and the cool air was scented with a trace of lime from the concrete.
From the roadbed high above, the rumble-hum of passing cars and trucks translated all the way down through layers of steel, concrete, and earth, echoing across the vault overhead. Repeatedly, in spite of the screening thrum of the traffic, I thought I heard someone stealthily approaching. Each time I swung toward the sound, the flashlight revealed only the smooth concrete walls and the deserted river behind me.
The tire tracks continued through the tunnel into another open stretch of the Santa Rosita, where I switched off the flashlight, relieved to rely on ambient light. The channel curved to the right, out of sight, leading east-southeast away from Highway 1, rising at a steeper grade than before.
Although houses still stippled the surrounding hills, we were nearing the edge of town.
I knew where we were going. I had known for some time but was disturbed by the prospect. If Orson was on the right trail and if Jimmy Wing's abductor was driving the vehicle that had left these tracks, then the kidnapper had fled with the boy into Fort Wyvern, the abandoned military base that was the source of many of Moonlight Bay's current problems.
Wyvern, which covers 134,456 acres--far more territory than our town-is surrounded by a high chain-link fence supported by steel posts sunk in concrete caissons, topped with helixes of razor wire. This barrier bisected the river, and as I rounded the curve in the channel, I saw a dark-colored Chevrolet Suburban parked in front of it, and at the end of the tracks we had been following.
The truck was about sixty feet away, but I was reasonably sure no one was in it. Nevertheless, I intended to approach it with caution.
Orson's low growl indicated a wariness of his own.
With Orson at my side, I approached the Suburban. No driver or passenger waited inside. The hood was still warm with engine heat; the truck had been parked here only minutes.
Footprints led from the driver's door around to the front door on the passenger's side. From there, they continued toward the nearby fence. They appeared to be similar--if not identical--to the prints in the planting bed under Jimmy Wing's bedroom window.
The silver-coin moon was rolling slowly toward the dark purse of the western horizon, but its glow remained bright enough to allow me to read the license plate on the back of the vehicle. I quickly memorized the number.
I found where a bolt cutter had been used to breach the chain-link fence. Evidently, this was accomplished some time ago, before the most recent rain, because the water-smoothed silt was not heavily disturbed, as it would have been by someone doing all that work.
Several culverts also link Moonlight Bay to Wyvern. Usually, when I explore the former army base, I enter by one of those more discreet passages, where I have used my own bolt cutter.
On this river-spanning fence--as elsewhere along the entire perimeter and throughout the sprawling grounds of Wyvern--a sign with red and black lettering warned that although this facility had been shut down at the recommendation of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, as a consequence of the end of the Cold War, trespassers would nevertheless be prosecuted, fined, and possibly imprisoned under a list of relevant federal statutes so long that it occupied the bottom third of the notice. The tone of the warning was stern, uncompromising, but I wasn't deterred by it. Politicians also promise us peace, perpetual prosperity, meaning, and justice. If their promises are ever fulfilled, perhaps then I'll have more respect for their threats.
Here, at the fence, the kidnapper's tracks were not the only marks in the riverbed. The gloom prevented me from positively identifying the new impressions.
I risked using the flashlight. Hooding it with one hand, I flicked it on for only a second or two, which was long enough for me to figure out what had happened here.
Although the breach in the fence apparently had been made well ahead of time, in preparation for the crime, the kidnapper had not left a gaping hole. He'd created a less obvious pass-through, and tonight he had needed only to pull the loosely hanging flap of chain-link out of his way. To free both hands for this task, he had put down his captive, ensuring against an escape attempt either by paralyzing Jimmy with vicious threats or by tethering the boy.
The second set of tracks was considerably smaller than the first. And shoeless. These were the prints of a child who had been snatched barefoot from his bed.
In my mind's eye, I saw Lilly's anguished face. Her husband, Benjamin Wing, a power-company lineman, had been electrocuted almost three years ago in a work-related accident. He'd been a big, merry-eyed guy, half Cherokee, so full of life that it had seemed as if he would never run short of it, and his death had stunned everyone. As strong as Lilly was, she might be broken if she had to suffer this second and even more terrible loss so soon after the first.
Although she and I had long ago ceased to be lovers, I still loved her as a friend. I prayed that I'd be able to bring her son back to her, smiling and unharmed, and see the anguish vanish from her face.
Orson's whine was filled with worry. He was quivering, eager to give pursuit.
After tucking the small flashlight under my belt once more, I peeled up the flap of fence. A soft twang of protest sang through the steel links.
I promised, "Frankfurters for the brave of heart," and Orson shot through the gap.