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Just after three in the morning, Sam Dryden surrendered the night to insomnia and went running on the boardwalk. Cool humidity clung to him and filtered the lights of El Sedero to his left, the town sliding past like a tanker in the fog. To his right was the Pacific, black and silent as the edge of the world tonight. His footfalls on the old wood came back to him from every part of the darkness.
It was just as well not to sleep. Sleep brought dreams of happier times, worse than nightmares in their own way.
Mercury lights over the boardwalk shone down into the mist. They snaked away in a chain to the south, the farthest all but lost in the gloom where the boardwalk terminated at the channel. Dryden passed the occasional campfire on the beach and caught fragments of conversations amplified in the fog. Soft voices, laughter, huddled silhouettes haloed by firelight. Shutter glimpses of what life could be. Dryden felt like an intruder, seeing them. Like a ghost passing them in the dark.
These nighttime runs were a new thing, though he’d lived in El Sedero for years. He’d started taking them a few weeks before, at all hours of the night. They came on like fits—compulsions he wasn’t sure he could fight. He hadn’t tried to, so far. He found the exertion and the cold air refreshing, if not quite enjoyable. No doubt the exercise was good for him, too, though outwardly he didn’t seem to need it. He was lean for his six-foot frame and looked at least no older than his thirty-six years. Maybe the jogs were just his mind’s attempt to kick-start him from inertia.
Inertia. That was what a friend had called it, months ago. One of the few who still came around. Five years back, right after everything had happened, there had been lots of friends. They’d been supportive when they were supposed to be, and later they’d been insistent—they’d pushed him the way people did when they cared. Pushed him to start his life again. He’d said he appreciated it, said they were right—of course you had to move on after a while. He’d agreed and nodded, and watched the way their eyes got sad when they understood he was only saying those things to make them stop talking. He hadn’t tried to explain his side of it. Hadn’t told them that missing someone could feel like a watch you’d been assigned to stand. That it could feel like duty.
He passed the last of the fires. Here the beach beneath the walk became rocky and damp, the moisture catching the glow from each lamppost. The shore lay vacant for the next several hundred yards. A minute later, in the middle of the dead stretch, Dryden came to an intersection in the boardwalk; a second branch led away inland.
He slowed and stopped. He almost always did, at this spot. He wasn’t sure what drew him to it—maybe just the emptiness of it. The junction lay in the darkness between lights, and there was never anyone around. Nights like this, with no moon and no surf, this place was the equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber.
He leaned on the wooden rail with his elbows, facing the sea. As his breathing slowed, faint sounds finally came to him. The hiss of tires on the freeway, a mile inland beyond the dunes. Tiny animals moving in the beach grass behind the walk. Dryden had been standing there for over a minute when he heard another sound: running footsteps on the boardwalk’s planking.
For a moment he thought it was another jogger. Then he knew otherwise—the cadence was too fast. This was someone sprinting full-out. In the saturated air, the sound’s origin was hard to trace. He looked left and then right along the shoreline stretch of the walk, but against the light glow he saw nobody coming. He was just stepping back from the rail, turning to look down the inland route, when the sprinting figure crashed into him from that direction.
He heard a gasp—the voice of a young girl. Instantly she was fighting, pushing back from him in a panic, already turning to bolt away along the shoreline course.
“Hey,” Dryden said. “Are you alright?”
She stopped and faced him. Even in the faint light, Dryden could see that she was terrified of something. She regarded him with nothing but caution and kept herself balanced to sprint again, though she seemed too out of breath to go much farther. She wore jeans and a T-shirt but no shoes or socks. Her hair—dark brown, hanging below her shoulders—was clean but uncombed. The girl could not have been more than twelve. For the briefest moment her eyes intensified; Dryden could see the calculation going on behind them.
Just like that, her defensive posture changed. She remained afraid, but not of him. She turned her gaze inland instead, back the way she’d come from, and scrutinized the darkness there. Dryden looked, too, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The inland run of the boardwalk led to the harbor road, across which lay the dune ridge, shrouded in the thick night. All appeared calm and quiet.
“You live near here?” the girl asked.
“Who’s after you?”
She turned to him again and moved closer.
“I need somewhere to hide,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything, but please get me out of here first.”
“I’ll take you to the police station, kid, but I can’t—”
“Not the police,” she said, so abruptly that Dryden felt an impulse to turn and continue his jog. Whatever the girl was in trouble for, getting caught up in it was not going to improve his night.
Seeing his change of expression, she stepped forward fast and grabbed his hand, her eyes pleading. “I’m not running from the police. It’s not like that.”
Her gaze snapped to the side again, in the same moment that Dryden sensed movement in his peripheral vision. He followed her stare, and for a moment couldn’t make sense of what he saw. Somehow he could discern the shapes of the dunes now, invisible in the gloom only moments earlier. They were rimmed with a faint, shifting light. The girl’s breathing trembled.
“Yes or no,” she said. “I can’t wait any longer.”
Dryden knew the sound of real terror in a person’s voice. This girl wasn’t afraid of getting busted for some misdemeanor; she was afraid for her life.
The light around the dunes sharpened, and Dryden suddenly understood what he was seeing: People with flashlights were about to crest the ridge from the far side. The urge to distance himself from the girl was gone, replaced by a sense that something was very wrong here, and that she wasn’t lying.
“Come on,” Dryden said.
Still holding her hand, he ran north along the boardwalk, back in the direction of his house. He had to slow his pace only slightly for her. As they ran, Dryden kept looking to the dunes. He and the girl had gone no more than fifty yards when the first sharp spike of light topped the ridge. Within seconds, three more appeared. He was surprised by how close they were; the night had been playing tricks on his sense of distance.
Directly ahead along the boardwalk, one of the overhead mercury lights was coming up fast. Dryden stopped, the girl almost pulling his arm off as she stopped with him.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She watched the pursuers as tensely as Dryden did.
He nodded to the cone of light on the boardwalk. “They’ll see us if we run through the light.”
“We can’t stay here,” the girl said.
The men with flashlights—six of them now—were descending the face of the dune ridge at sprint speed.
Dryden looked over the rail on the ocean side of the boardwalk. The beach was only a few feet below. He gestured to it, and the girl understood. She slipped under the waist-high rail, and he followed, his feet touching down on the loose stones piled beneath the walk. Beyond the stones, the beach extended a hundred feet to the waterline, rocky but still mostly sand. Dryden knelt and touched the surface; it was smooth and flat, saturated by the mist, and bore not a footprint as far as he could see in the near-dark. If he and the girl made any move on the beach, the pursuers would easily spot their prints and follow.
He turned his attention to the space beneath the walk. It wasn’t promising. The piled stones were volleyball sized; picking their way over them would be slow going, especially in the deep shadows there. Worse, support beams crisscrossed the space every few feet. They’d make little progress before the men arrived, and certainly at least one of the six would drop to the beach to put some light under the boardwalk. As a hiding place, it was a dead giveaway.
Dryden looked up over the planking and saw the men reach the base of the dune. It was all happening too quickly. In the still night he heard their running footsteps on the asphalt of the harbor road, and then on the wood of the inland boardwalk stretch. In less than thirty seconds, they would reach the rail above this very spot.
Dryden looked at the cross bracing under the walk and saw the only solution available. He guided the girl underneath. She was shaking but seemed relieved to be getting out of sight. Below the surface planks, heavy beams ran lengthwise along the walkway. These were in turn supported by far thicker beams, running sideways like the planking. Above these lower beams were gaps, not big enough for a person to fit into, but big enough for a pair of feet or hands.
“Hold on to me,” Dryden said, and pulled the girl against his chest. She complied without hesitating; the footsteps of the approaching men began to shake the boardwalk.
With the girl hugging tight against him, Dryden reached up and grabbed one of the lower beams with his fingertips—it was far too big to get his hands around—and then swung his feet up and hooked them into the gap above the next beam, five feet away. He made a hammock of himself, with the girl atop him, and pulled himself as tightly against the underside of the boardwalk as he could. It was like doing a push-up in reverse.
It was immediately clear he could not hold this position for long. Everything about it was wrong. His fingertips had no traction on the giant beam, requiring him to apply pressure to hang on. The muscles in his forearms were burning within seconds. At the same time, keeping his body straight involved contracting half of his muscles in ways they weren’t meant to be used.
The girl seemed to understand, perhaps feeling his muscle tremors. As the footsteps thundered toward them, she put her mouth to his ear and whispered, “They have guns. They’ll kill us.”
A moment later, the gaps in the boardwalk above filled with flashlight glare. The men had reached the shoreline stretch of the walk and had begun to fan out along it.
One of them spoke, his voice ringing clear and strong. It sounded like a voice accustomed to giving orders.
“Search the beach. Search beneath the causeway.”
Boots scuffed the wood, then landed hard on the rocks nearby. The glow of the flashlights filled Dryden’s peripheral vision, though for the moment the beams remained pointed toward the sea. The girl hugged him tighter; he thought he could feel her shutting her eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder. The pain in his muscles was beyond burning now, but pain wasn’t the problem. There were ways to disregard agony—Dryden had learned them long ago—but at some point his muscles would simply fail. Willpower couldn’t beat physics forever.
He managed to swivel his head a few degrees toward the beach. The flashlight beams finished sweeping the sand, and then one by one they turned to scour the space beneath the boardwalk. Dryden looked upward again, to prevent his eyes from shining. Staring at the planking above his face, he saw the diffused glow as beams passed directly beneath him. If even one of the searchers was clever or suspicious enough to raise his light by two feet, it would all be over. Dryden waited for the blinding glare that would signal that very thing.
It never came.
The vague wash of light subsided. Darkness. Dryden counted to ten and risked another glance at the beach. The searchers had moved on to the north, inspecting the boardwalk as they went. It was time to swing down and try for a quiet getaway, whatever the risk. Every moment he delayed increased the chance that hed simply fall, which would be anything but quiet. He was starting to slide his feet out of the gap when a sound stopped him.
Footsteps. Heavy and slow, on the boardwalk above. They approached from the south, the direction the searchers had come from. Dryden remained frozen. The man on the boardwalk stopped directly above him; traces of sand fell in Dryden’s face.
“Clay,” the man called out. It was the leader. The guy with the voice. He’d remained on the boardwalk while the others searched.
One of the men on the beach, Clay apparently, turned and approached, his flashlight playing haphazardly over the ground. He stopped at the edge of the boardwalk, looking up at the leader. Had he lowered his gaze and looked straight ahead, he would have locked eyes with Dryden, no more than eighteen inches away. Dryden dared not even turn his head upward again; the slightest movement could give him up. He hoped the shuddering of his muscles didn’t show as intensely as it felt.
Of Clay’s features, Dryden could see almost nothing. The man was barely a silhouette against the black ocean and sky. Only the backscatter glow from the flashlight beam offered any detail: medium-length hair, dark clothing, a weapon hanging at his side by a shoulder strap. A submachine gun—something like an MP-5 with a heavy sound suppressor.
Above, on the boardwalk, the leader said, “This is out of hand already. Go back to the van, set up coverage of police channels in a twenty-mile radius. Call Chernin, get him working on personal cell phones of officers and whatever federal agents are based in the area. Gold-pan the audio for keywords like girl and lost. Try psych ward while you’re at it.”
“You think if she talks to anybody,” Clay said, “they’ll think she walked out of a mental hospital?”
Dryden suddenly felt his fingertips slipping from their hold on the fog-dampened wood. No amount of exertion could stop it; he was going to lose his grip in a matter of seconds.
“Solid chance of it,” the leader said.
Dryden’s fingertips held by a quarter inch. He felt that margin shrink by half in the span of a breath.
“And if we lose the trail anyway?” Clay asked.
For a second the leader didn’t answer. Then he said, “Either she gets buried in the gravel pits, or we do.”
Dryden tensed for the fall, trying to imagine any way he could get on his feet and escape with the girl.
At that instant he felt her move. Without a sound, she took her arms from around his chest, reached past his head to the beam, and clamped her hands as tightly as she could over his fingertips. The minor force she could apply was enough to make the difference; his grip held.
Above the clamor of thoughts demanding Dryden’s attention, one briefly took precedence: How the hell had she known?
A second later Clay pocketed his flashlight, climbed onto the boardwalk, and ran off in the direction the group had come from. Dryden waited for the leader to move off as well, but for a moment he only stood there, his breath audible in the darkness. Then he turned and thudded away to the north, following the searchers. When his footsteps had grown faint, Dryden at last slipped his feet from the beam and swung down. Blood surged into his muscles like ice water. The girl got her balance on the rocks and leaned past him to look up the beach. Dryden looked, too: The searchers were a hundred yards away.
The girl sniffled. Dryden realized she was crying.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Her voice cracked on the first word. “I’m sorry you had to do that for me.”
Dryden had a thousand questions. They could all wait a few minutes.
He turned and scanned inland for the best route away from here. There was a comforting span of darkness between the boardwalk and the harbor road. A block north along its length, the back streets of El Sedero branched deeper inland, into the cover of night. He and the girl could take the long way around and circle back to his house, half a mile north on the beach.
Taking a last look to make sure the searchers were still moving away, Dryden guided the girl under the boardwalk and into the long grass beyond.
Copyright © 2014 by Patrick Lee