They appear to be seven houses, one larger than the other six, but all of generous size. In two of the structures, a few windows glow with lamplight, but five houses are dark.
If the extended Harmony family, including sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, staff the enterprises just off the coast highway, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they will live nearby. This must be their private little enclave of homes, a picturesque and privileged place to live, though somewhat remote.
Although this is a mild January, snakes are most likely not as active in these meadows as they will be in warmer seasons, and especially not in the coolness of the night. I particularly dislike snakes. I was once locked overnight in a serpentarium where many specimens had been released from their glass viewing enclosures. If they had offered me apples from the tree of knowledge, I might have hoped to cope with that, but they wanted only to inject me with their venom, denying me the chance to undo the world’s disastrous history.
I wade down through the sloping meadows, grass to my knees, until I come, unbitten by lurking serpents and unscathed by plummeting drones, to the blacktop lane, which I follow toward the houses.
They are charming Victorian homes graced with generous porches and decorative millwork—some call it gingerbread—exuberantly applied. In the moonlight, they all appear to be in the Gothic Revival style: asymmetrical, irregular massings with steeply pitched roofs that include dormer windows, other windows surmounted by Gothic arches, and elaborately trimmed gables.
Six houses stand side by side on big lots, and the seventh—which is also the largest—presides over the others from a hilltop, thirty feet above them and a hundred feet behind. Lights are on in a second-floor room of the dominant residence, and also in several rooms on the ground floor in the last of the six front-row dwellings.
At first I feel pulled toward that last house on the lane. As I reach it, however, I find myself continuing past the end of the pavement and down a slope, along a rutted dirt track on which broken seashells crunch and rattle underfoot.
The beach is shallow, bordered by a ten-foot bank overgrown with brush, perhaps wild Olearia. About three feet high, the waves crest late, collapsing abruptly with a low rumble, as if slumbering dragons are grumbling in their sleep.
Thirty feet to the north, movement catches my eye. Alert to my arrival, someone drops to a crouch on the sand.
Reaching under my sweatshirt, I draw the pistol from the small of my back.
I raise my voice to outspeak the sea. “Who’s there?”
The figure springs up and sprints to the overgrown embankment. It’s slight, about four and a half feet tall, a child, most likely a girl. A flag of long pale hair flutters briefly in the moonlight, and then she disappears against the dark backdrop of brush.
Intuition tells me that if she is not the one I have set out to find, she is nevertheless key to discovering the truth of things in Harmony Corner.
I angle toward the embankment as I hurry north. Earlier, the purling waves must have reached within a foot of the brush, because now that high tide has passed, the narrow strip between the surf line and the enshrouded slope is still damp and firmly compacted.
After I have gone perhaps a hundred feet without catching sight of my quarry, I realize that I have passed her by. I turn back and make my way south, studying the dark hillside for some path by which she might have ascended through the vegetation.
Instead of a trail, I discover the dark mouth of a culvert that I hadn’t noticed in my rush to pursue the girl. It’s immense, perhaps six feet in diameter, set in the embankment and overhung in part by vines.
Backlit as I am by the westering moon, I assume that she can see me. “I don’t mean you any harm,” I assure her.
When she doesn’t answer, I push through the straggled vines and take two steps into the enormous concrete drainpipe. I now must be a somewhat less defined silhouette to her, but she remains invisible to me. She might be within arm’s reach or a hundred feet away.
I hold my breath and listen for her breathing, but the rumbling pulse of the sea becomes an encircling susurration in the pipe, sliding around and around the curved walls. I can’t hear anything as subtle as a child’s respiration—or her stealthy footsteps if she is approaching me through the blind-black tunnel.
Considering that she is a young girl and that I am a grown man unknown to her, she will surely retreat farther into the pipe as I advance, rather than attempt to bowl me off my feet and escape—unless she is feral or dangerously psychotic, or both.
Years of violent encounters and supernatural experiences have ripened the fruits on the tree of my imagination past the point of wholesomeness. A few steps farther into the pipe, I am halted by a mental image of a blond girl: eyes glittering feverishly, lips peeled in a snarl, perfect matched-pearl teeth, between several of which are stuck shreds of bloody meat, the flesh of something she has eaten raw. She’s got a huge two-tined fork in one hand and a wicked carving knife in the other, eager to slice my abdomen as if it were a turkey.
This is not a psychic vision, merely a boogeygirl sparked into existence by the rubbing together of my frayed nerves. As ridiculous as this fear might be, it nevertheless reminds me that I would be foolish, pistol or not, to proceed farther in such absolute darkness.
“I’m sorry if I’ve frightened you.”
She abides in silence.
Reason having dismissed my imagined psychopathic child, I speak to the real one. “I know something is very wrong in Harmony Corner.”
The revelation of my knowledge fails to charm the girl into conversation.
“I’ve come to help.”
The claim of noble intent I’ve just made embarrasses me, because it seems boastful, as if I believe that the people of Harmony Corner have been waiting for none but me and, now that I am here, can rest assured that I will set right all wrongs and bring justice to the unjust.
My sixth sense is peculiar but humble. I am no superhero. In fact, I screw up sometimes, and people die when I want desperately to save them. Indeed, my primary strange talent, the ability to see the spirits of the lingering dead, has not come into play here, and I am left with only uncannily sharp intuition, psychic magnetism, a ghost dog that keeps wandering off somewhere, and an appreciation for the role that absurdity plays in our lives. If Superman lost his ability to fly, his strength, his X-ray vision, his imperviousness to blades and bullets, and was left only with his costume and his confidence, he would be of more help to the Harmony family than I am likely to be.
“I’m leaving now,” I inform the darkness, my voice echoing hollowly along the curves of concrete. “I hope you’re not afraid of me. I’m not afraid of you. I only want to be your friend.”
I am beginning to wonder if I might be alone. Perhaps the figure I’d seen had found a way through the brush and up the embankment, in which case the timid girl to whom I now spoke was as imaginary as the homicidal one with the carving knife.
As I have learned before, it is possible to feel as foolish when alone as when one’s lapse in judgment or behavior is witnessed by an astonished crowd.
To avoid feeling even sillier, I decide not to exit the pipe backward, but instead to turn and walk out with no concern about who might be at my back. With the first step, my imagination conjures a knife arcing through the darkness, and by my third step, I expect the point of the weapon to stab past my left shoulder blade and into my heart.
I exit the drainpipe without being wounded, turn left on the beach, and walk away with the increasing conviction that, whatever kind of movie I’m in, it’s not a slasher film. When I reach the rutted track littered with broken shells, I look back, but the girl—if it had been a girl—is nowhere to be seen.
Returning to the blacktop lane and the last of the seven houses, where lamplight brightens a couple of ground-floor rooms, I decide to reconnoiter window-to-window. As I climb the front steps with catlike stealth and mouselike caution, a woman says, “What do you want?”
/> Pistol still in hand, I hold it down at my side, counting on the gloom to conceal it. At the top of the steps, I see what seem to be four wicker chairs with cushions, all in a row on the porch. The woman sits in the third of them, barely revealed by the glow that emanates from the curtained window behind her. I smell the coffee then, and I can see her just well enough to discern that she holds a mug in both hands.
“I want to help,” I tell her.
“All of you.”
“What makes you think we need help?”
“Donny’s scarred face. Holly’s amputated fingers.”
She drinks her coffee.
“And a thing that almost happened to me as I drank a beer and watched TV.”
Still she does not reply.
The rhythmic rumble of the surf is hushed from here.
Finally she says, “We’ve been warned about you.”