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Authors: Eric Wilson

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BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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“Attaboy, Cutter.” He patted the dog. “Now stay back. We’ve got work to do.”

From the back stairs of the house, sleepy-eyed guardsmen tramped into position and saluted. Bartlow’s driver yanked back the cellar doors, pointed to the truck’s cargo. “Well, get moving. Captain hasn’t got all night to wait on your lazy backsides.”

The men shuffled to the tailgate, then halted as one unit. A woman had materialized between rows of crated munitions, facing them with unblinking eyes. She was young and enchanting, her shape—to their disappointment—hidden by the captain’s wool greatcoat.

“I can let myself down,” she said. And none seemed to doubt her.

Captain Bartlow chuckled. “Kelso, show the lady to the drawing room.
Those’ll be her quarters for the night.” Once she was gone, he added, “And hers alone. I know what you’re thinking, you filthy sea dogs. Now hop to it.”

During the unloading, Bartlow fretted over the lightkeeper’s return. With his son in tow, the hardy old keeper had puttered to the lighthouse on the neighboring cape for routine maintenance of the Fresnel lens. Nearly midnight now. Father and son would be back in five minutes, ten tops. Though the keeper had endured the Coast Guard’s intrusions, his presence jeopardized the secrecy they desired tonight.

From the truck, a cry of pain cut the air. Two men set down a crate while a third eased a formidable sliver from his palm.

Bartlow, detecting movement from the doghouse, turned to see Cutter strutting forward. “Stay back, boy. Back.”

Cutter’s ears cocked toward the command, but his low-slung hindquarters caught a fourth man behind the knees. With hands full, the guardsman was unable to halt his backward motion, and he sprawled on the ground.

Ka-chika-chink …

A silver canister spilled from his grasp onto the lawn. The dog prodded it.

“Careful!” Bartlow barked at his subordinate. “That’s nothing to toy with. On your feet, man. Pick it up.”

Before the man could comply, Cutter went on alert: eyes fixed, hairs bristling, a growl escaping through bared teeth. He tried biting the canister, then clawed at it, nails clicking against the metal. He ignored Bartlow’s whistle and gave chase as the canister began rolling along the slope. The object hissed through the grass, trailing tendrils of vapor that stained the night air green.

“Cutter, get back here!” The captain joined the pursuit. If they lost this thing, it’d be his hide.

With a mind of its own, the canister headed for a gap in the white picket fence. The thing was alive. It clattered against wood slats, spun through the gap, then hop-skipped into brush that shielded the last yards to the cliff. Vapor coiled around leaves and twigs. On the Doberman’s heels, Bartlow hurdled the fence and briars, grabbed at low branches to brake his headlong dash.

Only to watch the object plummet over the precipice. Spinning. Gone.

Far below, the waves of Devil’s Elbow clutched at it and tucked it from view.

The captain swore into the night, then coughed to dislodge phlegm from
his chest. He ignored a knot of heat around his ribs. He knew he must report this screwup, but who would believe him? His competence would be questioned, his years of service compromised by one surreal moment.

Hot needles poked at his throat. His vision blurred.

“Lose something?”

With a deep breath, Captain Bartlow turned to see lightkeeper and son standing in a gas lantern’s preternatural glow. “Uh, yes,” he answered, spurned to honesty by the keeper’s probing eyes. “Nothing that can’t be replaced though.”

“Looked like Jesse Owens the way you sprinted toward that ledge.”

“Worried about … an item of mine. And the dog. Didn’t want him going over.”

“Looks safe to me, little riled perhaps,” said the keeper, as the boy stroked Cutter’s head. “You want any help searching, you just holler. I know this cove like the back of my hand.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“No, really. Be my pleasure to help you boys out.”

“Heard you the first time. Thanks, but no. Go on about your business.”

In the lantern’s gleam, the keeper’s face was indecipherable.

“Go on!” Bartlow shoved the words over a dry, distended tongue.

“I’ll be completing my rounds, sir.” The keeper patted his son’s back with one hand, swung the lantern with the other. Across the grass and up the stairs they went.

Bartlow drew in cold air. Another ragged cough. A spike of pain through his abdomen. Despite fog clinging to the house, the half-dozen spokes of Heceta Head’s light hewed the gloom and alerted him to a shape at the window: the lady from the truck. Had she witnessed the fiasco leading to the canister’s loss?

Even as curtains floated back down, he saw the calculating curve of her mouth and knew he had erred by involving himself in these matters.

Too late to backtrack now. The shipment had reached American shores.

A violent retching almost drove the captain to his knees. His lungs wheezed. A tinge of green passed over his eyes, and as blindness became complete, he cried out for assistance. He stumbled. The waves alone answered, rushing to meet him as he took one false step over the cliff’s gnarled brow.

P
ART
O
NE

No need to brood
on what tomorrow may bring.…
Tomorrow will be certain to bring worse than today.…
The board is set.

The Return of the King
by J. R. R. Tolkien

I pray that your hearts
will be flooded with light … 
that you will begin to understand.

Ephesians 1:18–19

1
Choose Your Poison

Willamette Valley, October 2003

Josee discovered the canister while seeking firewood in the thicket. A chance encounter, nothing more. The odds of finding it here beneath a sword fern were slim, she knew that, but long ago she had retreated from belief in a grand design. She’d been down that slope before.

In her hands, the object pleaded for purpose. For significance.

She shook her head. Nope. A random occurrence—that’s all this was.

Prompted by sporadic raindrops on leaves overhead, Josee Walker built her campfire, blowing at kindling and newsprint until flames rose with halfhearted applause. Satisfied, she returned to her discovery. Weighed the canister in her hands, noted water spots and rust stains. Scratch marks, too. She polished it with the sleeve of her sweatshirt and found her face reflected in the metal surface.

That’s me?
After two days without a mirror, the sight was disturbing.
Don’t even look like myself. I look so … wasted. Out of it
.

Josee rotated the object and found a skull-and-crossbones symbol. Stenciled in black, it made her shudder as she rolled the canister into her bedroll.

Rocks shifted nearby.

“Hey.” She raised her voice above the patter of rain. “That you, Scoot?”

“Who else? I scare you?”

“Not even. Just making sure.”

Josee’s friend wheeled his bike down the railway embankment. His dread-knotted hair hung like soggy pretzels from his hood and funneled water down the front of his poncho. Moisture clung to his thin beard.

“Quick, hon,” said Josee, “get in here.”

“Think I’m frozen to the bone.”

“I started a campfire for us using the classifieds. How’s that for irony, considering we have no place to stay?” As Scooter dropped his daypack onto the ground, Josee heard his chattering teeth. “Scoot, you poor thing.”

“You don’t have to mother me. And what, this place isn’t good enough?”

“Oh, cork it.” She kissed him on the cheek. “What’d you get us?”

“Dinner. Found some bread and fish fillets at the old Safeway in Corvallis.”

She studied the expiration dates. “Hmm, should be okay. Only a day late, looks like.” The fillets were actually fish sticks that she knew he’d collected from the Dumpster by the store.

“They’re fine,” Scooter said. “Let’s eat.”

She pushed back a tuft of hair. “Better watch it, mister. Might find yourself traveling alone.”

“Think so?”

“Know so. And you know you can’t live without me. You adore me.” She teased him with turquoise eyes. He couldn’t resist them, she was certain of that. Part of her survival gear. Multifunctional. With a twinkle of these eyes she often masked her real thoughts from others; her feelings, too.

Right now I feel far away—that’s what I feel. Detached
.

“You ask me,” Scooter was muttering, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

“You mean the food? Beggars, artists—we’re all in the same boat. Yep, have to take what we can get.”

“Money’s a security blanket. That’s all it is, Josee. People goin’ through the motions for another paycheck, selling their souls for a slice of suburban heaven—”

“Or suburban hell.” She watched the sputtering fire.

“Load of crock. You and I know better.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Babe, you okay?”

Josee peeked from beneath her pierced eyebrow and black hair, started to answer, then with a flick of her wrist waved him off while fanning at eye-burning smoke and memories. Her past was a vandalized scrapbook: pages
torn, photos scratched, facts rubbed out. The book’s coverage of her childhood was a mess.

Yeah, there were a few unsullied years, beginning with her adoption at age nine. Before the darker days of teenage angst, of reproachful encounters.

Events she preferred not to speak about.

Give them credit, her adoptive parents had tried to provide an atmosphere of acceptance in which she could open up, but she felt nothing. It was useless. They would never understand, and she refused to risk further rejection. Already she had developed an effective coping mechanism: Josee Walker trusted no one but herself. After making life miserable for everyone in the house—and feeling guilty for it—she had taken advantage of her newly earned driver’s license and moved into a friend’s converted garage. Never bothered to look back. The past was the past, she told herself. Best to let it go.

That was six years ago.

“What’re you thinking?” Scooter prodded.

“That it’d be nice to stop thinking.”

“Tomorrow you get to meet your birth mother. That’s a good thing, right?”

Josee grimaced. “I hope she’s ready for it.”

“For what?”

“For me. She might expect her daughter to be, I don’t know, more … frilly.”

Scooter’s grin sparked amid his facial hair. “You sent her a picture, didn’t you? Don’t worry, she’ll like you just the way you are. If not? Her loss.” He dug into his poncho. “Here, Josee, little somethin’ I picked up. Nothing big.”

She accepted a case of charcoals and pencils. “Where’d you get this, or do I want to know?”

“Worked out a deal. Hated to see you scratching away with that stubby pencil of yours.”

She paused and listened to the rain. “Where’s your Discman?”

His hands pushed into his pockets, jacking up his shoulders.

Josee pawed through his pack. “You hocked it to pay for this?”

“Listen, we gonna eat or what?”

She opened the art case, found that fingering the colorful implements
recharged her imagination. Too wet out to do any sketches, but later she’d get a chance. “Thanks,” she said, nudging him. Her throat tightened. She clicked the case shut and busied herself with her bedroll until confident her voice was steady. “Something I wanted to show you, too,” she said. “Look what I found while gathering wood.” She hefted the canister. “Sort of spooky, don’t you think?”

BOOK: Dark to Mortal Eyes
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