A is for Alibi Page 84

There was no sign of the Powers house around the bend. No sign of either dog. I had known they couldn't follow this far even if they'd tried, but I wasn't sure about Charlie. I didn't know if he'd come down the wooden stairs and trail me along the beach or simply wait. I glanced back with dread, but the hill projected, obscuring even the light. All he had to do was get back in his car. If he took a parallel path to mine, he could intercept me easily on the other end. Eventually we'd both end up at Ludlow Beach, but I couldn't turn back. Harley's Beach was worse, too far from streetlights and residential help. I began to run in earnest, uncertain how far I had to go yet. My wet clothes stuck to me, clammy and cold, but my prime concern was the gun. I'd already dropped it once and I knew sea water had curled up toward it as I crossed the rocks. I didn't think it had gotten wet but I wasn't sure. I could see somewhat better now, but the beach was littered with rocks and kelp. I prayed I wouldn't twist an ankle. If I couldn't run, then Charlie could track me at his own pace and I'd have no way out. I glanced back: no sign of him, sound masked by the breaking surf. I didn't think he was there. Once I got to

Ludlow Beach, there were bound to be other people, passing motorists. As long as I was running, the fear seemed contained, adrenaline driving out every sensation except the urge to flee. The wind was down, but it was cold and I was wet to the bone.

The beach narrowed again and I found myself running in shallow water, slogging my way through the churning surf. I tried to get my bearings but I'd never been up this far. I caught sight of a wooden stairway zigzagging up the cliff to my left, the wind-bleached railing showing white against the dark tangle of vegetation clinging to the cliff. I followed the line up with my eyes. I guessed that it was Sea Shore Park, which ran along the bluff. Parking lot. Houses across the road. I grabbed the rail and started up, knees aching as I climbed, chest heaving. I reached the top and peered over the rim, heart stopping again.

Charlie's 450 SL was parked above, headlights raking the fence. I ducked back and started down the stairs again, a mewing sound in my throat that I couldn't control. My breathing was ragged, my chest afire. I hit the sand again and ran on, accelerating my pace. The sand was sluggish now, too soft, and I cut to my right, searching out the wet sand that was packed hard. At least I was getting warmer now, wet clothes chafing, water dripping from strands of hair matted with salt. My left knee was stinging and I could feel something warm ooze through my pant leg. The beach was interrupted not by rocks this time but by the sheer fear of the cliff, jutting out like a pie-shaped wedge into the black of the sea. I waded out into the waves, undercurrent tugging at me as I rounded the bend. Ludlow Beach was visible just ahead. I nearly wept with relief. Painfully, I began to run again, trying for a pace I could live with. I could make out lights now, dark patches of palm against gray sky. I slowed to a jog, trying to catch my breath. I stopped finally, bending from the waist, my mouth dry, sweat or salt water streaking down my face. My cheeks were hot and my eyes stung. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand and moved on, walking this time, fear creeping up again until my heart was battering my ribs.

This stretch of beach was gentle and clean, looking pale gray, widening to the left where the high cliff finally dwindled away into sloping hillside, slipping down to the flat of the sand. Beyond, I could see the long stretch of parking lot and beyond that, the street, well lighted, empty, and inviting. The beach park closed at 8:00 and I thought the parking lot would probably be chained and locked. Still the sight of Charlie's pale blue 450 SL was a jolt—that single vehicle in the whole expanse of empty asphalt. His car lights were on, slanting forward into the palms. There was no way I could cut across the sand to the street without his seeing me. The darkness, which had seemed to lift before, now felt like a veil. I couldn't see clearly. I couldn't pick out anything in that smoky wash of darkness. The streetlights at that distance seemed pointless and whimsical and cruel, illuminating nothing, marking a path to safety that I couldn't reach. And where was he? Sitting in his car, his eyes scanning the park, waiting for me to crash through to him? Or out among the palms much closer to the beach?

I moved to the right again, wading out into the ocean. The icy water was making my blood congeal but I crept on, waves splashing against my knees. Out here, I would be harder to spot and if I couldn't see him, at least he couldn't see me. When I was out far enough, I sank down, half walking, half drifting through the undulating depths beyond the breakers. It cost me everything to keep the gun up. I was obsessed with that, arm aching, fingers numb. My hair floated around my face like wet gauze. I watched the beach, seeing little, searching for Charlie. Car lights still on. Nothing. No one. I had moved perhaps two hundred yards past the far-left extreme of the parking lot, almost even now with the concession stand: a small oasis of palms and picnic tables, trash cans, public telephones. I put my feet down, easing into a standing position, still angling to the right. He could be anywhere, standing in any shadow. I waded toward the shallows, waves curling at knee height, washing forward then across my shoes. Finally I was on wet sand again, moving quickly toward the lot, straining through the darkness for sight of him. He couldn't be looking everyplace at once. I crouched, shifting my gaze to the left. Now that I was forced into immobility, the fear took up where it had left me, ice spreading across my lungs, pulse beating in my throat. I slipped out of my wet jeans and shoes lightly, quietly.

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