A is for Alibi Page 83

I walked back up the drive to my car and sat, a favorite occupation of mine. It was getting dark. I glanced at my watch. It was 6:45 and that startled me. I desperately longed for a glass of wine and I decided to drive on out to Nikki's. She had said she'd be home. I turned the car around, making an illegal U, and drove back down Missile to the freeway, heading north. I got off at La Cuesta, heading toward the beach by way of Horton Ravine, a large sprawling expanse of land that is known as "a luxury residential development." Horton Ravine once belonged to one family, but it is now divided into million dollar parcels to accommodate the housing of the nouveau riche. In Santa Teresa, Montebello is considered "old" money, Horton Ravine the "new—but nobody really takes the distinction seriously Rich is rich and we all know what that means. The roads through Horton Ravine are narrow and winding, overhung with trees, and the only difference I could see was that here, some houses are visible from the road whereas in Montebello, they are not. I came out at Ocean Way and swung left, the road running parallel now to the bluffs, with a number of elegant properties tucked into the selvage of land that lay between the road and the cliffs.

I passed John Powers's house, almost missing the place since I'd come at it before from the other direction. I caught a quick glimpse of the roof, which was almost level with the road I had a sudden thought and I slammed on the brakes, pulling over to the side. I sat for a moment, heart thudding with excitement. I turned the key off and stuck my little automatic in my jeans, taking the flashlight out of the glove compartment. I flicked it on. The light was good. There were very few streetlamps along this stretch and those I could see were ornamental, as dim and misty-looking as a lithograph, casting ineffectual circles of light that scarcely penetrated the dark. I got out of the car and locked it.

There were no sidewalks, just tangles of ivy along the road. The houses were widely spaced with wooded lots in between, ratcheting now with crickets and other night-singing insects. I walked back along the road to the Powers place. There were no houses at all across from it. No cars in either direction. I paused. There were no lights visible in the house. I headed down the driveway, shining the light in front of me. I wondered if Powers was still out of town, and if so where the dogs were. If Charlie was going to be up in Santa Maria for two days he wouldn't have left them unattended.

The night was still, the ocean pounding, a recurrent thunder like a storm about to break. There was only a faint crust of moon against the hazy night sky. It was chilly, too, the air smelling lush and damp. The flashlight cut a. narrow trail down the drive, illuminating in a sudden band of white the gateway across the carport. Beyond it was John Powers's car, face-in, and even from where I stood I could see that it was black. I wasn't surprised. The white picket fencing that comprised the gate was padlocked but I eased around to the left of the carport toward the front of the house. I shone the light on the car. It was a Lincoln. I couldn't tell what year but the car wasn't old. I checked the fender on the left-hand side and it was fine. I could feel my heart beginning to thump dully with dread. The right-hand fender was crumpled, the headlight broken out, metal rim crimped and pulled away, bumper indented slightly. I tried not to think of Gwen's body at the moment of impact. I could guess what it must have been like.

I heard an abrupt squealing of brakes on the road above, the high whine of a car backing up at high speed. There was a sudden wash of bright light as a car pulled into the drive. I ducked automatically, flicking out the flashlight. If it was Charlie, I was dead. I caught a glimpse of blue. Oh shit. He'd called Ruth. He was back. He knew. The Mercedes's headlights were directed straight into the carport, with only Powers's vehicle shielding me from complete exposure. I heard the car door slam and I ran.

I flew across the yard, fairly skimming the rough cut grass. Behind me, almost soundlessly, came the low scuffling of the dogs in long loping strides. I started down the narrow wooden steps to the beach, my vision inky after the harsh glare of the headlights. I missed a step and half slid my way down to the next, groping blindly. Above me, only yards away, the black dog grumbled and started down, panting, toenails scrambling on the steps. I glanced up and back. The black one was just above my head. Without even thinking about it, I reached back and grabbed at one of his long bony forelegs, yanking abruptly. The dog let out a yelp of surprise and I shoved it forward, half flinging it down the steep rocky embankment. The other dog was whining, a ninety-five-pound sissy, picking its way down the stairs with trepidation. I nearly lost my balance but I righted myself, loosened soil tumbling down into the darkness in front of me. I could hear the black dog lunging at the cliffside but he couldn't seem to get a purchase, prowling back and forth restlessly. I was nearly lying on my side as I slid down the last few feet, tumbling onto the soft sand. The gun popped out of my hand and I scrambled frantically until my fingers closed over the butt again. The flashlight was long gone. I didn't even remember when I'd lost my hold on it. The black dog was loping toward me again. I waited until he was almost on me and then I lifted a foot, kicking viciously, bringing the gun down on his head. He yelped. He'd clearly never been trained to attack. My advantage was that I knew he was a danger to me and he was just beginning to figure out how treacherous I was. He backed off, barking. I made a quick choice. North along the beach, the steep cliffs continued for miles, interrupted only by Harley's Beach, which was too isolated for sanctuary. North, the dog was blocking my path. The beach to my right would eventually straggle past the town and it couldn't be more than a couple of miles. I began to move backward, away from the dog. He stood there, head down, barking vigorously. The waves were already washing up over my shoes and I began to lift my feet, trudging backward through the surf. I turned, holding the gun up, beginning to wade. The dog paced back and forth, barking only occasionally now. The next big surge of waves crashed against my knees, drenching me to the waist. I gasped from the shock of cold, glancing back with a burble of fear as I caught sight of Charlie at the top of the cliff. The outside lights were on now, his big body sculptured in shadow, his face blank. He was staring straight down at me. I propelled myself forward, nearly flinging myself through the waist-high water, edging toward the rocks at the extreme southern limits of the beach. I reached the rocks, slippery and sharp, a mass of granite that had broken loose from the cliff and tumbled into the sea. I scrambled across, hampered by my soggy jeans, which clung to my legs, by my shoes weighted down with water, hampered by the gun, which I didn't dare relinquish. Jagged barnacles and slime alternated under me. I slipped once and something bit into my left knee, right through my jeans. I pushed on, reaching hard packed sand again, the beach widening slightly.

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