Midnight Read online
“To Ed and Pat Thomas
of the Book Carnival,
who are such nice people
that sometimes I suspect
they’re not really human
but aliens from
another, better world”
ALONG THE NIGHT COAST
Where eerie figures caper
to some midnight music
that only they can hear.
—The Book of Counted Sorrows
Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.
Nearly every evening between ten and eleven o’clock, Janice put on her gray sweats with the reflective blue stripes across the back and chest, tucked her hair under a headband, laced up her New Balance shoes, and ran six miles. She was thirty-five but could have passed for twenty-five, and she attributed her glow of youth to her twenty-year-long commitment to running.
Sunday night, September 21, she left her house at ten o’clock and ran four blocks north to Ocean Avenue, the main street through Moonlight Cove, where she turned left and headed downhill toward the public beach. The shops were closed and dark. Aside from the faded-brass glow of the sodium-vapor streetlamps, the only lights were in some apartments above the stores, at Knight’s Bridge Tavern, and at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, which was open twenty-four hours a day. No cars were on the street, and not another person was in sight. Moonlight Cove always had been a quiet little town, shunning the tourist trade that other coastal communities so avidly pursued. Janice liked the slow, measured pace of life there, though sometimes lately the town seemed not merely sleepy but dead.
As she ran down the sloping main street, through pools of amber light, through layered night shadows cast by wind-sculpted cypresses and pines, she saw no movement other than her own and the sluggish, serpentine advance of the thin fog through the windless air. The only sounds were the soft slap-slap of her rubber-soled running shoes on the sidewalk and her labored breathing. From all available evidence, she might have been the last person on earth, engaged upon a solitary post-Armageddon marathon.
She disliked getting up at dawn to run before work, and in the summer it was more pleasant to put in her six miles when the heat of the day had passed, though neither an abhorrence of early hours nor the heat was the real reason for her nocternal preference; she ran on the same schedule in the winter. She exercised at that hour simply because she liked the night.
Even as a child, she had preferred night to day, had enjoyed sitting out in the yard after sunset, under the star-speckled sky, listening to frogs and crickets. Darkness soothed. It softened the sharp edges of the world, toned down the too-harsh colors. With the coming of twilight, the sky seemed to recede; the universe expanded. The night was bigger than the day, and in its realm, life seemed to have more possibilities.
Now she reached the Ocean Avenue loop at the foot of the hill, sprinted across the parking area and onto the beach. Above the thin fog, the sky held only scattered clouds, and the full moon’s silver-yellow radiance penetrated the mist, providing sufficient illumination for her to see where she was going. Some nights the fog was too thick and the sky too overcast to permit running on the shore. But now the white foam of the incoming breakers surged out of the black sea in ghostly phosphorescent ranks, and the wide crescent of sand gleamed palely between the lapping tide and the coastal hills, and the mist itself was softly aglow with reflections of the autumn moonlight.
As she ran across the beach to the firmer, damp sand at the water’s edge and turned south, intending to run a mile out to the point of the cove, Janice felt wonderfully alive.
Richard—her late husband, who had succumbed to cancer three years ago—had said that her circadian rhythms were so post-midnight focused that she was more than just a night person.
“You’d probably love being a vampire, living between sunset and dawn,” he’d said, and she’d said, “I vant to suck your blood.” God, she had loved him. Initially she worried that the life of a Lutheran minister’s wife would be boring, but it never was, not for a moment. Three years after his death, she still missed him every day—and even more at night. He had been suddenly, as she was passing a pair of forty-foot, twisted cypresses that had grown in the middle of the beach, halfway between the hills and the waterline, Janice was sure that she was not alone in the night and fog. She saw no movement, and she was unaware of any sound other than her own footsteps, raspy breathing, and thudding heartbeat; only instinct told her that she had company.
She was not alarmed at first, for she thought another runner was sharing the beach. A few local fitness fanatics occasionally ran at night, not by choice, as was the case with her, but of necessity. Two or three times a month she encountered them along her route.
But when she stopped and turned and looked back the way she had come, she saw only a deserted expanse of moonlit sand, a curved ribbon of luminously foaming surf, and the dim but familiar shapes of rock formations and scattered trees that thrust up here and there along the strand. The only sound was the low rumble of the breakers.
Figuring that her instinct was unreliable and that she was alone, she headed south again, along the beach, quickly finding her rhythm. She went only fifty yards, however, before she saw movement from the corner of her eye, thirty feet to her left a swift shape, cloaked by night and mist, darting from behind a sandbound cypress to a weather-polished rock formation, where it slipped out of sight again.
Janice halted and, squinting toward the rock, wondered what she had glimpsed. It had seemed larger than a dog, perhaps as big as a man, but having seen it only peripherally, she had absorbed no details. The formation—twenty feet long, as low as four feet in some places and as high as ten feet in others—had been shaped by wind and rain until it resembled a mound of half-melted wax, more than large enough to conceal whatever she had seen.
“Someone there?” she asked.
She expected no answer and got none.
She was uneasy but not afraid. If she had seen something more than a trick of fog and moonlight, it surely had been an animal—and not a dog because a dog would have come straight to her and would not have been so secretive. As there were no natural predators along the coast worthy of her fear, she was curious rather than frightened.
Standing still, sheathed in a film of sweat, she began to feel the chill in the air. To maintain high body heat, she ran in place, watching the rocks, expecting to see an animal break from that cover and sprint either north or south along the beach.
Some people in the area kept horses, and the Fosters even ran a breeding and boarding facility near the sea about two and a half miles from there, beyond the northern flank of the cove. Perhaps one of their charges had gotten loose. The thing she’d seen from the corner of her eye had not been as big as a horse, though it might have been a pony. On the other hand, wouldn’t she have heard a pony’s thudding hoofbeats even in the soft sand? Of course, if it was one of the Fosters’ horses—or someone else’s—she ought to attempt to recover it or at least let them know where it could be found.
At last, when nothing moved, she ran to the rocks and circled them. Against the base of the formation and within the clefts in the stone were a few velvet-smooth shadows, but for the most part all was revealed in the milky, shimmering, lunar glow, and no animal was concealed there.
She never gave serious thought to the possibility that she had seen someone other than another runner or an animal, that she was in real danger. Aside from an occasional act of vandalism or burglary—which was always the work of one of a handful of disaffected teenagers—and traffic accidents, local police had little to occupy them. Crimes against person—rape, assault, murder—were rare in a town as small and tightly knit as Moonlight Cove; it was almost as if, i