by R.E. Donald
Joggers has been previously published and features one of the main characters from R.E. Donald’s Highway Mysteries. Just a note, this one is rated PG 13 for a fair amount of strong language.
Five fifty-four a.m. Lying on her stomach, feeling a weight in the hollow behind her knees, Elspeth Watson pulled the sheet over her head and burrowed under the spongy pillow. Her first vacation in six years and her goddamn internal alarm clock wouldn’t let her sleep past six a.m. Against her will, she began to count the dull booms of the surf.
Enough. If she had to lay still one more minute she would scream. She scissored her legs, once, twice, heard a snuffle and a yelp, and the weight behind her knees thrashed a few seconds, then bounced up her back and thrust a growling snout under her chin.
“Pete! Get off me!” She growled back. “Pete!”
The dog barked. A lightweight, elfin sound.
He barked again.
“Goddamn it, Pete! Shut up! You want to get us busted?”
El swung her feet to the floor, rested her hands on her thighs, then hoisted herself off the bed and padded to the window, the dog dancing around her feet. She lifted back the curtain, raising a faint scent of stale smoke and mildew. The breakers glowed in the wash of mist and pre-dawn light, the beach yawning beneath their foam, colorless, except for a few dark filaments of kelp. Barely visible, a green light winked where the grays of the horizon met. Not bad. She might as well spend another night here. That would leave only five more days to kill.
Movement on the beach, a jogger. He was scrawny and tall, joints like knots in rope. He wore thick glasses, grimaced as if each step would be his last. “Nerd,” said El, letting the curtain drop.
The shower was feeble, a tepid drizzle that once again made her curse the decision to leave home. “I don’t want to be here,” she muttered to Peterbilt as she tried to towel the clammy feeling off her skin. “Why the hell do people pay good money to be tormented and bored?” She grunted at the tiny coffee maker on the bathroom counter. She’d used both coffee bags last night. El pulled on her sweats, the dog prancing beside the door.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s hit the beach.”
El retrieved a can of Coke from her truck first, held the can away from her to pop the top, let the brown fizz drip on the fog damp asphalt. Caffeine and sugar, one way or another. Until they’d cleared the motel, she kept Peterbilt on the leash. He bobbed against the end of it like a horizontal helium balloon, pitting his seventeen pounds against her two fifty plus. You had to give him credit, he never stopped trying.
So this is Monterey Beach. Off the leash now, Pete chased the receding foam of the surf, leaped barking soprano at a low-flying gull, dashed in mad circles around a tangle of kelp. He stopped and sniffed, shot a quick glance up at El, then mashed something into the sand with the side of his head, began screwing his whole body into it. El jogged up and grabbed him by the collar, yanked him away. “Goddamnit, Pete!”
A dead flounder, half rotted away. “So this is Monterey Beach.” This time she said it aloud, wondering where she could buy tomato juice, if she needed it.
The dog scooted off again and disappeared behind a rock higher up the beach. El whistled, and his black form appeared for a quick look, and then darted back behind the rock. El trudged toward it through the sand, her breath heavier. Her stomach rumbled. Breakfast would be good.
The dog squealed and shot out from behind the rock, followed by a grimy sneaker and a string of curses. El whistled again, but the dog stood its ground, barking. It spun out of the way of a rock, turned and barked again. “Pete! Come here!” A figure rose up, a man, leaning heavily on the rock. He wore a black toque with what used to be yellow trim. A gray raincoat that looked almost new hung down past his knees, the rest of his clothing stuck to him like scabs, brown and thick. Pete charged back towards him and the man kicked, hard, his holey sneaker sending the dog spinning with another yelp, another curse. “Pete!”
“Fuckin’ rat! Keep your fuckin’ rat outa my face, or I’ll fuckin’ fry it up for lunch!”
El could see now, the man had been sleeping on the beach. A sheet of cardboard and a jumble of newspaper lay beside the rock, held in place by two green garbage bags, their contents bulging through ragged holes. “Sorry to wake you,” said El. “Don’t mind Pete.” Juggling her Coke, she scooped up the dog. He struggled against her hold, barking and snarling.
“Fuck you!” The man pitched another rock.
El ducked left, and it hit her right shoulder. She dropped the Coke. “Hey! You asshole! Cool it!” Pete snarled and snapped in the man’s direction, fighting to get loose. El winced at the smell of rotten fish.
“Get the fuck outa here, bitch! I see you here again, I’ll slit your fuckin’ throat.” The man stood in a crouch, eyeballs popping out and yellow teeth bared in a face dark from sun and dirt.
Is he talking to me or to my dog? El wondered. She rubbed her shoulder, squeezing the struggling dog against her chest, rubbed to stall for time, for a few seconds to decide whether to fight back. She could feel her face burning, she wanted so bad to hurt him. He wasn’t so big that she couldn’t have stomped him into the sand, or ground his face into the rock, but he might have the strength of a crazy man. And this was California. You never knew when somebody might have a knife, maybe a gun.
“Okay, okay, asshole. Go back to sleep.” She began to back away. “Better yet, go get a job.” Peterbilt was trembling, growling deep in his throat. She scratched his ears. “Easy, little guy.” The man had started to relax, gone down on one knee, before she dared to turn her back to him, still clutching Pete and his perfume of rotten flounder against her chest. Her stomach rumbled again.
She found a restaurant where she could watch the dog through the window while she ate. Pete and her windbreaker were tied to a bicycle rack. She ordered bacon and eggs and hash browns, with toast and a side of sausage. El fought the urge to phone her office. The boys in the warehouse had bet she’d call, and she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of being right, but damned if she’d ever let them goad her into taking another goddamn vacation.
She saved a sausage for Pete, and ordered an extra coffee to go. No reason to go back to the motel, so she continued walking south, past Fisherman’s Wharf, up Cannery Roy, until the fog lifted and the day turned warm.
There were more tourists out now, and she felt safe walking back along the beach, letting the dog chase gulls again. The bag man was gone.
In the late afternoon, she left Pete snoozing on the big bed after his bath and drove her pickup down to Fisherman’s Wharf for an early dinner. She was seated outside on a small deck, next to a couple from Minneapolis. She overheard them tell the waiter it was their anniversary, and order a bottle of champagne and a bucket of clams. Her meal was good, seafood pasta with garlic. She nursed a second glass of wine, listening to the sea lions bark and watching shifting congregations of pelicans and gulls. She’d leave early tomorrow, she decided, drive down to Big Sur, and take some pictures she could show the boys in the warehouse.
El caught the woman from Minneapolis looking at her, a pity-the-poor-lonely-fat-woman look that she’d seen many times before, and it always set her teeth on edge. She drained her glass of wine and stood up, peering down over the rail at a seagull commotion on the water below. “Jesus!” she cried. “Look at that!”
The woman from Minneapolis screamed.
A friendly cop with hairy forearms told El to wait so they could get her statement. She watched them haul the body from the water, a white middle-aged male, dressed in an electric blue nylon outfit, jacket and pants. He might have been a jogger, but his feet were bare. His pale dead toes seemed indecent, as if he were naked all over. Even from the wharf, she could see the obscene gash across his throat. El asked for a cup of coffee.
“You here on vacation?” the friendly cop said as he handed her a takeout coffee from the restaurant.
El snorted and turned away.
She couldn’t tell them much, only that she’d been the first to see the dead man and that he’d floated out from under the wharf, draped in a garland of kelp, with his nylon windbreaker ballooning around his neck like a life vest.
“Who is he?” she asked. “A tourist?”
“Doubt it,” said the cop. “Tourists are safe here.” He handed her a business card before he sent her back to the motel.
“Let’s get out of here quick before anything else happens,” she said to Pete the next morning as she snapped her suitcase shut and yanked it off the bed, but Pete needed to pee. “Okay,” she told him, “but let’s walk north this time.”
The fog was thicker this morning, rocks and tufts of beach grasses materializing out of the white soup only yards away. Pete tugged against his leash, his paws throwing up clumps of sand, until El relented and unclipped it from his collar. “Stay close,” she told him. “No rolling in crap or rousting out crazies.” But the dog’s black shape blurred and then disappeared. She looked back, but the motel was gone, too, and her only means of orientation was the dirge of the surf. She shuddered, zipped up her jacket and hugged her elbows.
“Pete!” she called. “Come!” She strained her eyes against the fog and her ears against the rhythmic thunder. Nothing. He should have done his business by now. “Pete! COME!”
El heard the barking first, then a man’s voice. El’s sweat turned cold and her heart began to pound, a syncopation of the surf. “Pete!” She started walking in the direction the sound had come from. “PETE!”
Suddenly a dark shape streaked past her, ran a circle around her legs. She lunged for him, grabbed his tail and pulled until he squealed. “Come here.” She hauled him up and held him against her chest, headed at a brisk walk towards the motel. She hoped. She could see nothing but sand and fog. Footfalls, already close by the time she heard them above the surf, thudded against the sand behind her. She began to run. Damn this sand! Damn this fog! A clump of beach grass materialized in front of her and she swerved, lost her footing on the sand, and went down. Pete fell clear, scampered back to stick his nose in her face just as the footfalls thudded to a stop behind her head.
“Are you okay?”
El raised herself on one elbow and twisted her head around to face the voice. It was the nerd, his white tee shirt soaked with sweat, navy blue shorts hanging like curtains around his thighs. Size thirteen Nikes.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said. He jogged on the spot as she got to her feet and brushed the sand off her sweatpants, Pete prancing around them both. The man towered over her, maybe six five or six.
“You sure?” He pushed his glasses up on his nose, baring his teeth as if it hurt.
She nodded, grunted. “Tripped over my dog, I guess.” She hauled Pete up again.
“Cute little fella.” The man reached over and tousled Pete’s head. “A Pomeranian?”
“More or less,” she said with a shrug, stepping back. “Thanks for stopping, eh?”
“You Canadian?” he asked, still jogging on the spot.
“Yeah,” she said, clipping the leash back on Pete’s collar. A clumsy female tourist, alone in the fog at six thirty the morning after a murder with a massive, sweaty jogger.
“You here on vacation, too?”
“No.” She tugged her jacket down over her belly. “I’m not on goddamn vacation.” She dropped the dog. “Let’s go, Pete.” Don’t antagonize the guy. “Thanks again, eh? Bye.”
She heard him say “Bye” to her back as she limped away. A moment later she recognized the motel’s roof rising above the fog and picked up her pace.
Suitcase under one arm and the dog in the other, El tried to maneuver a hand into her pocket to find her keys as she walked around the truck to the passenger door. She was about to open the door when a splash of white in the pickup’s box caught her eye and she glanced inside. White jogging shoes. Snuggled up against the back wall of the cab behind his garbage bags was the bag man, his black and yellow toque pulled down over his ears, his body covered with layers of newspaper. She dropped her keys.
One angry eye opened, then the other. He blinked twice, then his arms and legs exploded, throwing damp sheets of newspaper in the air, groping for something underneath one of the garbage bags, cursing and groping again.
El dropped her suitcase and ran, the dog wriggling out from under her arm, the leash around her wrist.
“Fuckin’ bitch!” the man yelled, vaulting over the side of the box. “I’ll cut you! I’ll fuckin’ cut you. Fuckin’ bitch!”
The man and his knife were between her and the motel, so El ran towards the beach pulling the dog behind her. Pete was barking like a machine gun, his nails scrabbling against the asphalt. A clumsy, overweight female tourist running towards a fog shrouded, deserted beach, followed by a crazy bag man waving a knife and screaming and wearing jogging shoes. Oh, God! Clean, white jogging shoes!
She reached the sand. “Run, Pete!” she tried to yell, but could only gasp. The dog ran with her now, and they ran as best they could through the sand, toward the sound of the surf. She watched the ground beneath her, loose sand became packed sand, damp sand became wet sand. She saw the tracks of size thirteen Nikes. Her feet splashed through an inch of water, white foam rushed to meet her, cold water swirled around her ankles, tugged at the sand beneath her soles, water to her knees slowed her and she fought to stay on her feet, plucked a struggling Pete from the pulling surf. She turned, unsure of whether to plunge into the next wave or to face her attacker.
Through the fog she saw him, standing just out of reach of the foam, yelling still, fuckin’ this and fuckin’ that, looping the knife above his head as if he were twirling a lasso. Then a white shape behind him, the giant nerd with his size thirteens, grabbing the waving hand and making it drop the knife, twisting an arm behind his back until the crazy bag man fell to his knees, cursing.
“Are you okay?’ the giant called out.
El waded out of the surf, Pete soaked and shivering in her arms. “Yes,” she said, breathing heavily as she unclipped the dog leash. “Yes, thank you. I’m okay.” She helped the giant tie the bag man’s hands behind his back with the leash, then they lowered him stomach first onto the sand. The bag man growled and swore. El placed her right foot on the bag man’s back as he tried to pull his legs under him and get to his knees. He swore again, but gave up trying to move. El grinned at the giant and picked a piece of kelp from Pete’s tail.
The giant nerd pulled out his cell phone, and El handed him the business card the cop at the wharf had given her. “Tell the cop about his shoes,” she said, nodding at the clean white joggers. The nerd nodded and made the call.
El hugged Pete closer, and he tickled her chin with his quick tongue. “After we’re through with the cops, I’d sure like to buy you breakfast,” she told the nerd.
“You sure? I mean, you’re not working today?” he asked. His glasses had slipped to the bulb of his nose. From his expression, she couldn’t tell if he was smiling or in pain.
“Hell, no,” she said. She planted a kiss on the top of Pete’s head. The bag man started to swear again, so she had to raise her voice.
“Me and Pete are on vacation.”
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