Talk to Me

by Henry Simpson

“Talk to me,” Bell whispered to the empty room. She slouched, half asleep in her chair, listening to the faint sound of the surf, watching the yellowish flickering in the fireplace. At last, alone in the darkness, she slept.

Later, something awakened her, some sound.

She knew time had passed because now orange embers glowed in the fireplace and the room was cold. The clock ticked mechanically away, indifferent to her. She shivered, pulled her sweater more tightly around herself. She felt threatened, alone in this room. A murderer was running loose on the island and probably knew by now that his stalkers were here. Duncan was in the house just up the road.

Again she heard the sound, and now recognized it as a jeep out on the coastal road. She held her watch up and tried to read the time but it was not light enough. She went to the window.

Headlights were approaching on the road, east to west, lighting the curtains as the jeep passed by. She stood and stamped her feet, shook her limbs, took a few steps, walked circles, all the time shivering.

Her head was clearing.

What was it, bothering her?

Something was wrong.

Those two vehicles, come so closely in succession, passing this lonely house late at night, heading toward the lightless, lifeless village, its workday over.

Run, get some oxygen to the brain.

She looked again out the window.

Blackness, moonlight illuminating a vacant pasture with its fence posts lined up, parading along its edge.

Run, make the mind go blank and when you finish running the world will start to make sense again.

Five miles will do the trick.

Was it safe?

No, yes, no.

Don’t think, do.

She opened the door to test the temperature and weather: breezy west wind, cold, with a glancing fine mist. The long line of tall eucalyptus trees that served as windbreaks chattered.

Shut the door.

In her bedroom, lights on, disrobe, empty the exercise bag on the bed.

Now select and don the gear: jogging suit, sneakers, pulse and blood pressure monitors, pepper spray with belt clip, black ski mask, a soft woolen cap with LED headlamp, deerskin gloves.

Strap a twenty-five semi-auto pistol inside a pants pocket with a Velcro-lined holster.

She stepped onto the porch, turned and locked the door, caught a sudden gust of wind, shivered, her cold fit soon passing. She looked in both directions along the road and in the pastures and nothing was in sight, only overhead the moon, shining eerily through as thin clouds slid by in slow motion.

She stretched, jogged in place, and then bounded off the porch and crossed the road to the pasture fence, turned left toward the village, and jogged cautiously, her eyes accommodating to the night. The moon shone brightly on the landscape.

A strange, piercing shriek came from far across the pasture, something small and wild attacking—ice in the spine—but she kept jogging steadily.

Ahead on walls, lights moving, flashlights shining along a whitewashed warehouse siding beside the wharf.

Slow now to a walk, drawing closer. From a hundred or so feet away she heard their voices, two men speaking Spanish softly, now the voices growing weaker as the men walked onto the wharf. A brief silence, and then came other sounds—softly idling marine engines, the bass thump of hull contact against something solid.

She walked further, tracing the men’s footsteps, and stopped, recognizing movement in the dark twenty feet away.

She dropped down to lower her profile, ducked behind a jeep, felt along its back end, brushed against something hot, a tailpipe. The jeep must be one of the two that passed the house earlier. She crept around it, crouched down between it and the warehouse, and waited.

Silence, intermittent idling, the burbling sound of exhaust vented to sea, and then voices, the voices growing louder, closer, and then footsteps on gravel, approaching.

At once it was as if they were right beside her, as one of them lifted the jeep’s tailgate, grunted, and pulled something out, seemed to struggle with it, and the other one came to his aid and, together, they heaved it onto a dolly. They took another box from the jeep, added it to the first, and then left, walking together along the wharf, talking softly, laughing.

She waited until they were out of sight, and made a run for it across the road, stopped, squatted down, and looked back. The running lights were on now and she observed a low-slung cigarette boat about thirty feet long with open cockpit and extended nose. Two men were transferring boxes from jeeps to boat and the boat crew was storing them in the cargo hold.

The men on shore spoke parting words to the boat crew and shoved the boat off the wharf. The engine beat louder as the boat pulled smoothly forward, and then circled around and headed out to sea.

Bell watched briefly, and then ran back up the road, ducked behind a building, and waited. Soon a jeep engine started, and then another, headlights illuminated the warehouse, nearby buildings, and road, and the jeeps headed into the village toward the motor pool.

Bell jogged back up the coastal road toward the guesthouse.

By the time she reached the guesthouse her heart was going full tilt and the only thing she had in mind to do was mount the steps, go inside, lock the door behind, and hide in some dark and preferably warm place.

Instead, as if guided by instinct, she ran past the guesthouse and continued up the road, into the cold west wind, entering a long tunnel of towering eucalyptus left and right.

She settled into calm and steady rhythm, her mind clearer now than before, her terror overcome by the practical act of running.

She had run about a mile when she heard a horse galloping in the pasture, approaching from behind, growing louder, and then parallel with her, a man astride and hunched forward slightly, a skilled rider, a vaquero, sure of his purchase, who swiftly passed and faded into the blackness ahead. Now and then she sighted a glint of something metallic bound with that image, moving. Spurs, stirrups, some tack piece?

She jogged on, mechanically, her only conscious thought to empty her mind of thoughts, sensations, but the murmuring surf was inescapable, and the steady fine beat of her footfalls, the cold wind, the moonlit blue-black sky with its few high clouds.

“Hola,” came the sound of a man’s voice out of the darkness, soft Mexican timbre, calm, unthreatening, yet with an edge. A horse bellowed, skittered, and then stood steady, panting hard.

Fear washed over her.

She stopped, her feet out of habit still churning in place.

He was close, by the sound of his voice, easy to spot, down the road, astride his big horse, poised beside the cattle fence, watching her from his perch. She focused on the form but the light was too poor to make out details—only the silhouette of a large man outfitted like the other vaqueros on the island.

“Hola,” she replied.

“You lost, lady?”

“No.”

“Then what you doin’ here? You’re not from here.”

She felt in her pocket for the twenty-five, its reassurance. “I’m Special Agent Bell,” she said. “Department of Fish and Game.”

“You a cop?”

“You got that right. Who’re you?”

“I work on the ranch.”

“What’s your name?”

“Farrier.” After a moment, he added, “Well, I guess you’re okay.”

“I’m fine.”

“The man sat up straight and his horse coiled, ready to go. “Hey, now, this is not a good place to be at night, especially a nice lady like you, alone. Best thing for you, go back where you come from. Adios.”

Without making a sound, he gave his horse his heels and was gone.

Time to retreat.

Back to the cozy little guesthouse, brew a cup of green tea, relax, and then crawl into bed and sleep.

Sleep, dream, oblivion.

Was it?

What was she doing?

Challenging something?

Her fear?

Was it just to play at the edges of such foolishness?

She was a mother, with a six-year-old son. What right had she to risk her life on a personal adventure?

She was perspiring, terrified by everything around her.

She laughed.

How could it get worse?

The darkness, the wildlife cries, the stranger come from nowhere, half threatening her, the unknown landscape that lay around her, inviting her.

She shook her head, laughed again.

Then switched off the headlamp, stretched, jogged a few paces in place, and then set off down the road, moving further with each step away from the village, the guesthouse, the safety she knew on this strange island.

Again she was in the rhythm of the run, her mind clear, at one with the night.

She came to a wide metal gate that opened onto a road that led through the pasture to what appeared a break in the skirt of Santa Rosa Peak. A metal sign on the gate said ‘NO TRESPASSING.’ She hesitated, and then climbed over the gate and jogged along the road.

How far to the top of Santa Rosa Peak?

On a night when she had started late and woozy and taken mindless risks, why not finish all by running to the summit?

The road was surprisingly good for one that crossed a cattle pasture. It was straight, two lanes wide, and had been paved at some time in the past, probably by the Air Force, to access its base atop Santa Rosa. On the other side of the pasture she reached another gate and climbed over it.

She was jogging on a gentle incline, and when she looked back she could see the phosphorescence of the waves breaking on the beach and, beyond, scattered lights from the California coast. Trees closed in around the road as she entered a pine forest, and it became darker still and, without the headlamp to guide her she would have been lost completely in the blackness, no moon or starlight to illuminate the way. If this was not a good time to turn around and find her way to safer, more navigable ground, none was, and yet she persisted, driving forward, slowly gaining ground and altitude as she went. Occasionally the trees would part as the road widened on the landscape’s natural contours, and a hint of moonlight would shine through, but then the portal narrowed again and the darkness engulfed her. She ran a gentle curve and heard the sound of flowing water below and on her right saw stream and in the distance a light, yellowish in color, too dim for incandescent, bright enough perhaps for a candle or lantern.

She slowed to a swift walk, paused, listened. The next thing she felt was the ground shaking slightly, and then heard the snorting of some large animals, and soon the footfalls of many, coming down the road, a veritable wall of bison, moving in unison, crowding the road, coming toward her, ignoring her as they approached, ungainly beasts with looming backs, heads held low, and short, curved horns. They were on a road trip, all coming her way, but uninterested in her. She ran left, off the road, up an embankment far enough from the road to avoid being trampled. What if they did as a mass change their collective mind and charge her? Did they have minds or were they as dim-witted as they seemed? She laughed. If they did charge, in the morning someone would find her crushed body as nearby bison gently, innocently conducted their bison business.

She waited as the herd continued its trek down the road and, finally, after a few stragglers had passed, she was left alone on the side of the hill, listening to the flowing water and looking up the road at the yellow light, wondering what it was and who was out here this late at night. She slid down the hill to the road and walked cautiously toward the light and eventually saw its source. It came from a lantern hanging from an oak tree, and behind it was a tiny clapboard house like those in the village. It had dimly illuminated windows on each side and a door in the center and at its front was a fire pit where a man was piling logs to build a bonfire. Two men emerged from the house and from their uncertain walk and shouting they appeared drunk.

She walked on, staying on the far side of the road, the darkest. Two of the men were haranguing the third, speaking in Spanish, shouting insults or making accusations, as they passed a bottle back and forth, drinking from it while denying it to the man they were taunting. The pit fire grew larger, and one of the two pushed the third in the chest, and then the other did the same, and it continued like that, back and forth, until a final violent thrust sent the third man to the ground and instead of rising he held up his hands as if to protest and protect himself. The other two continued berating him.

The night became still.

A dog barked once.

A horse whinnied.

Hoofbeats approached along the road from below.

Bell ran up the hill to the shelter of the woods.

The horse, a man astride, soon appeared below her and headed through the arroyo toward the house. The three men gathered around him as he dismounted, tied his horse to a tree, and gently stroked its muzzle and mane.

Suddenly, the two men who had been abusing the third circled around him and took hold of him, one by his hair, the other by an arm twisted behind his back.

The horseman leaned close to the restrained man, talking in a calm, steady voice.

The man cried out, pitifully, in a plaintive, apologetic tone, as if he were a boy being punished by his father for some offense.

Was he begging for his life?

The horseman held out his hand and the man fell to his knees, leaned forward, kissed the hand. The horseman gave a sign to the other two, and they lifted the man to his feet. One grabbed his left hand, and held it out, fingers pointed up, the man cried out, stopped struggling, looked straight into the horseman’s eyes, and the horseman displayed something of flashing metal, shoved it beneath the man’s face, and abruptly severed a finger from the man’s left hand.

The holding men released their captive.

He held up his hand, blood trickling down his hand and arm, and walked to the fire pit to see it in the light.

Now the others came to him. One bandaged his hand with tape. Another passed him the bottle. He upended it, shook his head, and returned it. They passed the bottle and all drank from it except the horseman, who remained a few feet away from the others, watching them share it, talk to one another, and get increasingly drunk.

The horseman remounted, said something to the men, gave the horse his heels, and departed, heading back down the road the way he had come. The three men he left behind went drunkenly inside the little house.

Bell came cautiously out from her hiding place onto the road, started down the hill, and then, in a change of heart, turned around and continued up the road to the summit. She walked quickly, watching the house from the side of her eye lest someone see her. When she was well beyond the house, she resumed her run.

After jogging for close to a mile, she felt a penetratingly cold wind sweep down the road as the forest thinned and she neared the peak. The road ended on a plateau. Directly ahead stood several two-story buildings and a large hanger-like Quonset. The wind sung as it swept through three tall radar towers and their guy-wires.

Light was visible in a window of a box-like single-story building, its windows spaced evenly along a wall, with a double door entrance at one end. It resembled a mess hall. Shivering, she ran to the entrance and huddled against a wall to shield herself from the wind. A power generator droned in back.

She crept along the door and stopped, peering through the glass. A light shone deep inside the building. She pulled the door latch and the heavy door opened slightly. Inside, a radio faintly played a soulful tenor singing in Spanish accompanied by a spicy accordion.

She slipped inside and almost tripped over a bucket and mop parked by the door. The air reeked of Lysol. She looked around and found herself in a large dining room with built-in counters. Chairs and tables stacked against one wall were covered with plastic sheeting. The music seemed to be coming up a lighted stairwell at the far end of the room.

She crossed the room and looked down the stairway.

What’s down there?

She descended the stairs slowly, listening. Halfway down she heard footsteps below, the sound of a door opening, and then more footsteps. She froze in place, her heart racing. She watched a shadow move on the wall below as someone blocked the light, and then moved on.

It might be a good idea to leave; the prudent thing to do.

But, curiosity.

As she descended the stairs, the smell of Lysol faded and the pungent odor of laboratory chemicals filled her nostrils. For a moment, she was back in high school, heading for chem lab.

She alighted from the bottom step and found herself in a corridor with doors on one side and a large workspace on the other. The overhead lights were dim, humming fluorescents and only half of them were lit. A radio was playing staticky Tejano music through an open door at the end of the corridor.

She proceeded and, halfway down the corridor, heard footsteps behind the door.

She opened a side door and ducked into a big room. It was spotlessly clean, with shiny gray linoleum floors and bright ceiling lights. She listened for voices or the sound of human movement and heard nothing. She shut the door softly behind.

The walls were lined with shelves of glassware, chemicals, lab equipment, fire extinguishers, and breathing masks. Exhaust blowers leading to metal chimneys hung from the ceiling.

She blinked.

Time to call Ed, tell him what she had found. Unfortunately, her walkie-talkie was on a dresser in the guesthouse.

It would be swell to take some pictures, but the camera was in the evidence case.

She lacked even a goddamn notebook to write and sketch in.

All she did have were eyes and ears, and a little time.

As she considered whether to blame bad luck or bad judgment for her plight, the door she had entered through popped open.

A small man in a blue laboratory coat walked into the room. He looked around through thick spectacles as if searching for something. Weirdly, he resembled Trotsky but with a Che beret on top.

His eyes narrowed as they settled on her. He spoke to her softly in Spanish.

“I do not understand,” she said. “Do you speak English?”

“Take off your mask so I see you,” he said.

“No. It’s cold.”

“Who are you?” He took a step forward.

“I—I’m from the Marine Research Station. Got lost. What is this place?”

“You lost?”

She nodded. “Yes. Si. Lost.”

The man came closer, and then stopped, staring at her. He was about ten feet away. “I don’ think so. I don’ think you lost. What you doing here?”

“I was out jogging. I got lost. It was cold. I saw the light. I came inside to get warm.”

He shook his head. “I got to check up on you, chica. You wait, I call my boss. We go in the office now. You wait in there. I give you coffee. I call. If my boss say everything okay, you go home.”

He came up to her and gripped her arm.

She shook it off, stepped back, and felt her body stiffen with a shot of adrenaline.

He looked at his hand, suspended in the air, and scowled. He raised it again and reached out toward her. Before he could touch her she sunk three stiff fingers of her left hand into his gut, doubling him over and stealing his breath.

He bent at the waist, tried to catch his breath, and coughed.

They stood eye to eye for one brief moment.

She thought she had won the match until he leaped forward and shoved her backward, down to the floor.

She slid on her back under a worktable, shuffling to the other side. Once there, she scrambled to her feet and looked for him.

She saw him coming toward her at the other end of the worktable, swinging a pipe wrench from side to side.

She backed away as he advanced, picking up glassware from the table and throwing it at him, but he kept coming, until a beaker broke on his forehead, drew blood, and seemed to stun him enough to drop his wrench.

He stopped, wiped his brow, and gazed at his hand. He seemed shocked at the sight of blood.

“Don’ fight, chica. Somebody get hurt. I gotta talk to boss. If not, I get in big trouble.”

“Okay,” she said. “Go talk to him. I’ll wait here.”

“Better, you come with me.”

He took a step closer.

She did not move.

He approached to almost within arm’s reach of her.

She expected him to make his move, but he hesitated and shook his head. A moment later he looked behind, saw the wrench on the floor, and retreated.

He reached down, picked it up, and came at her with it raised above his shoulder.

She stepped sideways and punched him hard on the tip of his chin. His eyes were dead as he went down, the wrench clanging on the floor, and sending an alarm to anyone within earshot.

She reached for her pistol but it was tangled in its holster. She finally pulled it loose and ran to the corridor.

She stuck her head partway out; no one in sight.

She sprinted up the stairs, two at a time.

Stopped, listened; silence.

Crossed the dining room, headed for the door, tumbled as she tripped on the bucket and mop. Recovered, got to her feet; felt a pain in her right knee.

Shoved the door open, and stepped into the moonlit night and frigid air.

She jogged back down the road and in a timeless semi-dream state found her way to the coastal road.

By the time she entered the guesthouse, she felt ragged, exhausted, barely able to move. Minutes later the clock over the fireplace chimed three o’clock. She shivered as she stood there, near collapse.

Where was her bedroom?

Her mind seemed empty.

She did not care; nor did it matter.

She opened a door.

Went through the door.

She heard breathing—or was she hallucinating from exhaustion?

What the hell!

She shed her clothes, dropped them to the floor.

She climbed into the bed, shivering. It was warm, pleasant, with the scent of a man.

She lay there for a while, thinking; dreamt of small, spectacled man, now injured, who looked more like a schoolteacher than a criminal.

Awoke wondering: had all that, before, happened?

Perhaps it had been a dream.

No, real . . .

Would she be found out?

Was the ski mask protection?

Would someone now come seeking vengeance?

“Talk to me,” she said to the sleeping mass beside her.

He made a noise, stirring.

His hand reached out and touched her, stroked her thigh. “Christ,” he said. “You’re freezing.”

“Warm me up.” She touched him, moved close to him, placed her arm on his chest.

“Oh oh,” he said.

“I’m cold.”

She felt his hand caressing her shoulder, moving down her arm, touching the back of her hand.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Um,” she said.

A long silence.

“Here,” Lane said, “come closer, uh, that’s better.”

“Yes,” she said.

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