“To Ed and Pat Thomas
of the Book Carnival,
who are such nice people
that sometimes I suspect
they’re not really human
but aliens from
another, better world”
ALONG THE NIGHT COAST
Where eerie figures caper
to some midnight music
that only they can hear.
—The Book of Counted Sorrows
Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.
Nearly every evening between ten and eleven o’clock, Janice put on her gray sweats with the reflective blue stripes across the back and chest, tucked her hair under a headband, laced up her New Balance shoes, and ran six miles. She was thirty-five but could have passed for twenty-five, and she attributed her glow of youth to her twenty-year-long commitment to running.
Sunday night, September 21, she left her house at ten o’clock and ran four blocks north to Ocean Avenue, the main street through Moonlight Cove, where she turned left and headed downhill toward the public beach. The shops were closed and dark. Aside from the faded-brass glow of the sodium-vapor streetlamps, the only lights were in some apartments above the stores, at Knight’s Bridge Tavern, and at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, which was open twenty-four hours a day. No cars were on the street, and not another person was in sight. Moonlight Cove always had been a quiet little town, shunning the tourist trade that other coastal communities so avidly pursued. Janice liked the slow, measured pace of life there, though sometimes lately the town seemed not merely sleepy but dead.
As she ran down the sloping main street, through pools of amber light, through layered night shadows cast by wind-sculpted cypresses and pines, she saw no movement other than her own and the sluggish, serpentine advance of the thin fog through the windless air. The only sounds were the soft slap-slap of her rubber-soled running shoes on the sidewalk and her labored breathing. From all available evidence, she might have been the last person on earth, engaged upon a solitary post-Armageddon marathon.
She disliked getting up at dawn to run before work, and in the summer it was more pleasant to put in her six miles when the heat of the day had passed, though neither an abhorrence of early hours nor the heat was the real reason for her nocternal preference; she ran on the same schedule in the winter. She exercised at that hour simply because she liked the night.
Even as a child, she had preferred night to day, had enjoyed sitting out in the yard after sunset, under the star-speckled sky, listening to frogs and crickets. Darkness soothed. It softened the sharp edges of the world, toned down the too-harsh colors. With the coming of twilight, the sky seemed to recede; the universe expanded. The night was bigger than the day, and in its realm, life seemed to have more possibilities.
Now she reached the Ocean Avenue loop at the foot of the hill, sprinted across the parking area and onto the beach. Above the thin fog, the sky held only scattered clouds, and the full moon’s silver-yellow radiance penetrated the mist, providing sufficient illumination for her to see where she was going. Some nights the fog was too thick and the sky too overcast to permit running on the shore. But now the white foam of the incoming breakers surged out of the black sea in ghostly phosphorescent ranks, and the wide crescent of sand gleamed palely between the lapping tide and the coastal hills, and the mist itself was softly aglow with reflections of the autumn moonlight.
As she ran across the beach to the firmer, damp sand at the water’s edge and turned south, intending to run a mile out to the point of the cove, Janice felt wonderfully alive.
“You’d probably love being a vampire, living between sunset and dawn,” he’d said, and she’d said, “I vant to suck your blood.” God, she had loved him. Initially she worried that the life of a Lutheran minister’s wife would be boring, but it never was, not for a moment. Three years after his death, she still missed him every day—and even more at night. He had been suddenly, as she was passing a pair of forty-foot, twisted cypresses that had grown in the middle of the beach, halfway between the hills and the waterline, Janice was sure that she was not alone in the night and fog. She saw no movement, and she was unaware of any sound other than her own footsteps, raspy breathing, and thudding heartbeat; only instinct told her that she had company.
She was not alarmed at first, for she thought another runner was sharing the beach. A few local fitness fanatics occasionally ran at night, not by choice, as was the case with her, but of necessity. Two or three times a month she encountered them along her route.
But when she stopped and turned and looked back the way she had come, she saw only a deserted expanse of moonlit sand, a curved ribbon of luminously foaming surf, and the dim but familiar shapes of rock formations and scattered trees that thrust up here and there along the strand. The only sound was the low rumble of the breakers.
Figuring that her instinct was unreliable and that she was alone, she headed south again, along the beach, quickly finding her rhythm. She went only fifty yards, however, before she saw movement from the corner of her eye, thirty feet to her left a swift shape, cloaked by night and mist, darting from behind a sandbound cypress to a weather-polished rock formation, where it slipped out of sight again.
Janice halted and, squinting toward the rock, wondered what she had glimpsed. It had seemed larger than a dog, perhaps as big as a man, but having seen it only peripherally, she had absorbed no details. The formation—twenty feet long, as low as four feet in some places and as high as ten feet in others—had been shaped by wind and rain until it resembled a mound of half-melted wax, more than large enough to conceal whatever she had seen.
“Someone there?” she asked.
She expected no answer and got none.
She was uneasy but not afraid. If she had seen something more than a trick of fog and moonlight, it surely had been an animal—and not a dog because a dog would have come straight to her and would not have been so secretive. As there were no natural predators along the coast worthy of her fear, she was curious rather than frightened.
Standing still, sheathed in a film of sweat, she began to feel the chill in the air. To maintain high body heat, she ran in place, watching the rocks, expecting to see an animal break from that cover and sprint either north or south along the beach.
Some people in the area kept horses, and the Fosters even ran a breeding and boarding facility near the sea about two and a half miles from there, beyond the northern flank of the cove. Perhaps one of their charges had gotten loose. The thing she’d seen from the corner of her eye had not been as big as a horse, though it might have been a pony. On the other hand, wouldn’t she have heard a pony’s thudding hoofbeats even in the soft sand? Of course, if it was one of the Fosters’ horses—or someone else’s—she ought to attempt to recover it or at least let them know where it could be found.
At last, when nothing moved, she ran to the rocks and circled them. Against the base of the formation and within the clefts in the stone were a few velvet-smooth shadows, but for the most part all was revealed in the milky, shimmering, lunar glow, and no animal was concealed there.
She never gave serious thought to the possibility that she had seen someone other than another runner or an animal, that she was in real danger. Aside from an occasional act of vandalism or burglary—which was always the work of one of a handful of disaffected teenagers—and traffic accidents, local police had little to occupy them. Crimes against person—rape, assault, murder—were rare in a town as small and tightly knit as Moonlight Cove; it was almost as if, in this
pocket of the coast, they were living in a different and more benign age from that in which the rest of California dwelt.
Rounding the formation and returning to the firmer sand near the roiling surf, Janice decided that she had been snookered by moonlight and mist, two adept deceivers. The movement had been imaginary; she was alone on the shore.
She noted that the fog was rapidly thickening, but she continued along the crescent beach toward the cove’s southern point. She was certain that she would get there and be able to return to the foot of Ocean Avenue before visibility declined too drastically.
A breeze sprang up from the sea and churned the incoming fog, which seemed to solidify from a gauzy vapor into a white sludge, as if it were milk being transformed into butter. By the time Janice reached the southern end of the dwindling strand, the breeze was stiffening and the surf was more agitated as well, casting up sheets of spray as each wave hit the piled rocks of the man-made breakwater that had been added to the natural point of the cove.
Someone stood on that twenty-foot-high wall of boulders, looking down at her. Janice glanced up just as a cloak of mist shifted and as moonlight silhouetted him.
Now fear seized her.
Though the stranger was directly in front of her, she could not see his face in the gloom. He seemed tall, well over six feet, though that could have been a trick of perspective.
Other than his outline, only his eyes were visible, and they were what ignited her fear. They were a softly radiant amber like the eyes of an animal revealed in headlight beams.
For a moment, peering directly up at him, she was transfixed by his gaze. Backlit by the moon, looming above her, standing tall and motionless upon ramparts of rock, with sea spray exploding to the right of him, he might have been a carved stone idol with luminous jewel eyes, erected by some demon-worshiping cult in a dark age long passed. Janice wanted to turn and run, but she could not move, was rooted to the sand, in the grip of that paralytic terror she had previously felt only in nightmares.
She wondered if she were awake. Perhaps her late-night run was indeed part of a nightmare, and perhaps she was actually asleep in bed, safe beneath warm blankets.
Then the man made a queer low growl, partly a snarl of anger but also a hiss, partly a hot and urgent cry of need but also cold, cold.
He dropped to all fours and began to descend the high breakwater, not as an ordinary man would climb down those Jumbled rocks but with catlike swiftness and grace. In seconds he would be upon her.
Janice broke her paralysis, turned back on her own tracks, and ran toward the entrance to the public beach—a full mile away. Houses with lighted windows stood atop the steep-walled bluff that overlooked the cove, and some of them had steps leading down to the beach, but she was not confident of finding those stairs in the darkness. She did not waste any energy on a scream, for she doubted anyone would hear her. Besides, if screaming slowed her down, even only slightly, she might be overtaken and silenced before anyone from town could respond to her cries.
Her twenty-year commitment to running had never been more important than it was now; the issue was no longer good health but, she sensed, her very survival. She tucked her arms close to her sides, lowered her head, and sprinted, going for speed rather than endurance, because she felt that she only needed to get to the lower block of Ocean Avenue to be safe. She did not believe the man—or whatever the hell he was—would continue to pursue her into that lamplit and populated street.
High-altitude, striated clouds rushed across a portion of the lunar face. The moonlight dimmed, brightened, dimmed, and brightened in an irregular rhythm, pulsing through the rapidly clotting fog in such a way as to create a host of phantoms that repeatedly startled her and appeared to be keeping pace with her on all sides. The eerie, palpitant light contributed to the dreamlike quality of the chase, and she was half convinced that she was really in bed, fast asleep, but she did not halt or look over her shoulder because, dream or not, the man with the amber eyes was still behind her.
She had covered half the strand between the point of the cove and Ocean Avenue, her confidence growing with each step, when she realized that two of the phantoms in the fog were not phantoms after all. One was about twenty feet to her right and ran erect like a man; the other was on her left, less than fifteen feet away, splashing through the edge of the foam-laced sea, loping on all fours, the size of a man but certainly not a man, for no man could be so fleet and graceful in the posture of a dog. She had only a general impression of their shape and size, and she could not see their faces or any details of them other than their oddly luminous eyes.
Somehow she knew that neither of these pursuers was the man whom she had seen on the breakwater. He was behind her, either running erect or loping on all fours. She was nearly encircled.
Janice made no attempt to imagine who or what they might be. Analysis of this weird experience would have to wait for later; now she simply accepted the existence of the impossible, for as the widow of a preacher and a deeply spiritual woman, she had the flexibility to bend with the unknown and unearthly when confronted by it.
Powered by the fear that had formerly paralyzed her, she picked up her pace. But so did her pursuers.
She heard a peculiar whimpering and only slowly realized that she was listening to her own tortured voice.
Evidently excited by her terror, the phantom forms around her began to keen. Their voices rose and fell, fluctuating between a shrill, protracted bleat and a guttural gnarl. Worst of all, punctuating those ululant cries were bursts of words, too, spoken raspily, urgently: ”Get the bitch, get the bitch, get the bitch…”
What in God’s name were they? Not men, surely, yet they could stand like men and speak like men, so what else could they be but men?
Janice felt her heart swelling in her breast, pounding hard.
“Get the bitch …”
The mysterious figures flanking her began to draw closer, and she tried to put on more speed to pull ahead of them, but they could not be shaken. They continued to narrow the gap. She could see them peripherally but did not dare look at them directly because she was afraid that the sight of them would be so shocking that she would be paralyzed again and, frozen by horror, would be brought down.
She was brought down anyway. Something leaped upon her from behind. She fell, a great weight pinning her, and all three creatures swarmed over her, touching her, plucking and tugging at her clothes.
Clouds slipped across most of the moon this time, and shadows fell in as if they were swatches of a black cloth sky.
Janice’s face was pressed hard into the damp sand, but her head was turned to one side, so her mouth was free, and she screamed at last, though it was not much of a scream because she was breathless. She thrashed, kicked, flailed with her hands, desperately trying to strike them, but hitting mostly air and sand She could see nothing now, for the moon was completely lost.
She heard fabric tearing. The man astride her tore off her Nike jacket, ripped it to pieces, gouging her flesh in the process. She felt the hot touch of a hand, which seemed rough but human.
His weight briefly lifted from her, and she wriggled forward, trying to get away, but they pounced and crushed her into the sand. This time she was at the surf line, her face in the water.
Alternately keening, panting like dogs, hissing and snarling, her attackers loosed frantic bursts of words as they grabbed at her:
“… get her, get her, get, get, get …”
“… want, want, want it, want it …”
“… now, now, quick, now, quick, quick, quick …”
They were pulling at her sweat pants, trying to strip her, but she wasn’t sure if they wanted to rape or devour her; perhaps neither; what they wanted was, in fact, beyond her comprehension. She just knew they were overcome by some tremendously powerful urge, for the chilly air was as thick with their need as with fog and darkness.
One of them pushed her face deeper into the w
et sand, and the water was all around her now, only inches deep but enough to drown her, and they wouldn’t let her breathe. She knew she was going to die, she was pinned now and helpless, going to die, and all because she liked to run at night.
On Monday, October 13, twenty-two days after the death of Janice Capshaw, Sam Booker drove his rental car from the San Francisco International Airport to Moonlight Cove. During the trip, he played a grim yet darkly amusing game with himself, making a mental list of reasons to go on living. Although he was on the road for more than an hour and a half, he could think of only four things Guinness Stout, really good Mexican food, Goldie Hawn, and fear of death.
That thick, dark, Irish brew never failed to please him and to provide a brief surcease from the sorrows of the world. Restaurants consistently serving first-rate Mexican food were more difficult to locate than Guinness; its solace was therefore more elusive. Sam had long been in love with Goldie Hawn—or the screen image she projected—because she was beautiful and cute, earthy and intelligent, and seemed to find life so much damn fun. His chances of meeting Goldie Hawn were about a million times worse than finding a great Mexican restaurant in a northern California coastal town like Moonlight Cove, so he was glad that she was not the only reason he had for living.
As he drew near his destination, tall pines and cypresses crowded Highway 1, forming a gray-green tunnel, casting long shadows in the late-afternoon light. The day was cloudless yet strangely forbidding; the sky was pale blue, bleak in spite of its crystalline clarity, unlike the tropical blue to which he was accustomed in Los Angeles. Though the temperature was in the fifties, hard sunshine, like glare bouncing off a field of ice, seemed to freeze the colors of the landscape and dull them with a haze of imitation frost.
Fear of death. That was the best reason on his list. Though he was just forty-two years old—five feet eleven, a hundred and seventy pounds, and currently healthy—Sam Booker had skated along the edge of death six times, had peered into the waters below, and had not found the plunge inviting.
A road sign appeared on the right side of the highway: OCEAN AVENUE, MOONLIGHT COVE, 2 MILES.
Sam was not afraid of the pain of dying, for that would pass in a flicker. Neither was he afraid of leaving his life unfinished; for several years he had harbored no goals or hopes or dreams, so there was nothing to finish, no purpose or meaning. But he was afraid of what lay beyond life.
Five years ago, more dead than alive on an operating-room table, he had undergone a near-death experience. While surgeons worked frantically to save him, he had risen out of his body and, from the ceiling, looked down on his carcass and the medical team surrounding it. Then suddenly he’d found himself rushing through a tunnel, toward dazzling light, toward the Other Side the entire near-death cliche that was a staple of sensationalistic supermarket tabloids. At the penultimate moment, the skillful physicians had pulled him back into the land of the living, but not before he had been afforded a glimpse of what lay beyond the mouth of that tunnel. What he’d seen had scared the crap out of him. Life, though often cruel, was preferable to confronting what he now suspected lay beyond it.
He reached the Ocean Avenue exit. At the bottom of the ramp, as Ocean Avenue turned west, under Pacific Coast Highway, another sign read MOONLIGHT COVE 1/2 MILE.
A few houses were tucked in the purple gloom among the trees on both sides of the two-lane blacktop; their windows glowed with soft yellow light even an hour before nightfall. Some were of that half-timbered, deep-eaved, Bavarian architecture that a few builders, in the 1940s and ‘50s, had mistakenly believed was in harmony with the northern California coast. Others were Monterey-style bungalows with white clapboard or shingle-covered walls, cedar-shingled roofs, and rich—if fairy-tale rococo—architectural details. Since Moonlight Cove had enjoyed much of its growth in the past ten years, a large number of houses were sleek, modern, many-windowed structures that looked like ships tossed up on some unimaginably high tide, stranded now on these hillsides above the sea.
When Sam followed Ocean Avenue into the six-block-long commercial district, a peculiar sense of wrongness immediately overcame him. Shops, restaurants, taverns, a market, two churches, the town library, a movie theater, and other unremarkable establishments lined the main drag, which sloped down toward the ocean, but to Sam’s eyes there was an indefinable though powerful strangeness about the community that gave him a chill.
He could not identify the reasons for his instant negative reaction to the place, though perhaps it was related to the somber interplay of light and shadow. At this dying end of the autumn day, in the cheerless sunlight, the gray stone Catholic church looked like an alien edifice of steel, erected for no human purpose. A white stucco liquor store gleamed as if built from time-bleached bones. Many shop windows were cataracted with ice-white reflections of the sun as it sought the horizon, as if painted to conceal the activities of those who worked beyond them. The shadows cast by the buildings, by the pines and cypress, were stark, spiky, razor-edged.
Sam braked at a stoplight at the third intersection, halfway through the commercial district. With no traffic behind him, he paused to study the people on the sidewalks. Not many were in sight, eight or ten, and they also struck him as wrong, though his reasons for thinking ill of them were less definable than those that fanned his impression of the town itself. They walked briskly, purposefully, heads up, with a peculiar air of urgency that seemed unsuited to a lazy, seaside community of only three thousand souls.
He sighed and continued down Ocean Avenue, telling himself that his imagination was running wild. Moonlight Cove and the people in it probably would not have seemed the least unusual if he had just been passing by on a long trip and turned off the coast highway only to have dinner at a local restaurant. Instead, he had arrived with the knowledge that something was rotten there, so of course he saw ominous signs in a perfectly innocent scene.
At least that was what he told himself. But he knew better.
He had come to Moonlight Cove because people had died there, because the official explanations for their deaths were suspicious, and he had a hunch that the truth, once uncovered, would be unusually disturbing. Over the years he had learned to trust his hunches; that trust had kept him alive.
He parked the rented Ford in front of a gift shop.
To the west, at the far end of a slate-gray sea, the anemic sun sank through a sky that was slowly turning muddy red. Serpentine tendrils of fog began to rise off the choppy water.