A hunter's moon hung over the ocean as Delaney's cab pulled up outside the beach house in Monterrey. He paid the driver and waited till he had departed before turning towards the house. At the side of the building the remains of the office extension were silhouetted starkly against the moonlight. Parts of the walls had been left standing, charred but essentially sound. The sloping roof had gone but there were some struts and beams still in place, looming like eerie toothpicks. After the fire he had stored everything from the wreckage that looked as if it might be significant in his old pick up truck and parked it a mile up the road in a free public parking lot.
It was too dark to see clearly as Delaney shuffled his way around the remains of the rubble but the ground was black with soot. The side wall of the house adjoining the office was blackened in parts but the door that led from Maria's den to the main living room was intact.
Emptiness rushed towards him as he stood there looking out over the ocean. It suddenly hit home with a vengeance. He was alone again. Maria would never come back. This was the biggest test of his life. He had convinced himself that human beings somehow transmogrified into some kind of spiritual life or form, for want of a better description, on the basis that their essence or energy could not be destroyed but could be re-formed into some kind of existence we are largely unable to contact.
So Maria was not dead.
She had passed into another dimension where her identity as Maria Montalban was eradicated and whatever nugget or kernel of wisdom her life had bequeathed her was part of her electrical energy wavelength and was carried with it. In some way she could perhaps be recycled, reborn or reshaped. More than this he could not fathom.
Or maybe it was all just psychobabble.
He would cope. He knew that. But the house towered over him like a mausoleum. Maria's presence permeated the very atmosphere, penetrating the fabric of the building. He needed a drink. He went to the front door, unlocked it and stepped inside. He remembered that the answering machine had been a casualty of the fire so there would be no way he could listen to any messages. He was grateful for that. The house was exactly as he had left it except for the usual pile of junk mail. He gathered it up from the mat and dumped it on a side table.
The timber and stone clad house had been constructed with high-grade building materials including fire resistant interior panels and foam insulation. This proved to be a wise investment as things turned out. Maria had a small office adjoining the main house with a door through to the main living area. This was her inner sanctum and Delaney had respected her privacy. Now it was a scarred and charred wreck.
The house was simply furnished with big windows, a small decking area overlooking the beach and double garage. It was decorated in soft shades of apple and cream. The rooms were large and roomy. Maria had an eye for interesting statuary and bric-a-brac while Delaney had enjoyed finding prints and paintings at local markets.
The main living space stretched up to a vaulted ceiling criss-crossed with heavyweight redwood beams and the walls were panelled in Eastern white pine. It was spacious and simply furnished.
Around the side of the house was a sand and scrubby grass area of garden, which led at the rear to shelved steps down through the dunes to the beach. The nearest neighbours were a hundred yards away either side so the Delaneys enjoyed some privacy and were shielded from view by dunes and scrub. An arsonist could have approached largely unseen.
When Delaney had written his story for Bob Messenger he had pictured every detail of the house in his mind, visualising how an intruder could have gained access. There were no electronic alarms. They had felt quite secure in their home but Delaney knew that by keeping a careful eye on anyone passing by, the fire raiser could have blended in carrying a surfboard and a backpack, gone in through the side door, which was the one blind spot from the road and the beach and was probably forced open. In a matter of minutes he could have smashed the computer, tipped papers and files in the center of the room, ripped the plugs off a couple of electrical sockets and started a number of small fires around the exposed live wires. He could then make his escape leaving the door open.
The surfer could then have climbed a sand dune and headed down to the beach. It's how Delaney would have done it. What the arsonist couldn't have known is how close Delaney had been to the house. It was galling and fortunate that he was only a couple of hundred yards away at the time and probably saw the arsonist as he and his neighbours ran back towards the blaze. His close proximity prevented the main house from catching fire but the flames spread so quickly that Maria's office was pretty much destroyed. Delaney had sprinted for the fire extinguisher in the garage while his neighbours hurled buckets of sand in an attempt to smother the fire.
He switched on some lights, poured himself a stiff Southern Comfort and went outside onto the decking where he sipped his drink looking at the beach and at the twinkling lights of Monterey harbor. With the help of a couple of more shots, he allowed him himself the luxury and the pain of weeping.
He was up at dawn next morning. He ran two miles along the beach and back, changed into his workout suit and went through a series of Chi Kung and Nei Kung exercises followed by a hard session combining Tai Chi, karate kicks and punches, some kickboxing and power routines using his old, solid punch bag around the side of the house. He finished off with a plunge into the ocean. Then he dried himself off.
He knew why he was working out so hard and pushing his body to extremes. He had a mountain of pain to release and this was the only way he knew how.
When he finished, he showered, changed and then sat with a straight back on his wooden deck facing the ocean and began to silence his mind, allowing his mantra to take over, until his body temperature decreased and his heart rate slowed. He was drifting into a second stage of meditation when a sound alerted him. He remained with his eyes closed and listened.
There was someone at the side of the house.
No, there were two.
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