Refuge

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CHAPTER 4 – A Walk on The Beach

SPACE

Dead ahead, the white streaked planet swelled with the armada’s slowing approach. As the navigators further relinquished their hold on the force, each link simultaneously separated from the others but still maintained a dense formation. Each one was a ship half a mile wide and with a shape reminiscent of earthly manta rays, or their smaller cousins, devil rays, gentle creatures, all, and undeserving of a satanic name. Then, as the armada circled the world like a raptor with its prey within grasp, each one dropped away. Using their individual grip of the force for their movements, they began their own controlled approach to their designated targets on the surface.


MUIR BEACH, CALIFORNIA

WEDNESDAY

When Nate Remington stepped onto the sand from the bottom step of the weather-roughened stairway, he turned and peered back up the hill. A sudden, compelling urge struck him to make the hike back up to her, to his Patty, but, with a chuckle at his still ardent though decades-old school-boy crush, he shook his head and turned away. She’d still be there with her laughing, emerald-green eyes when he returned.

He strode out onto the sand where his feet sank in at each step, putting extra strain on the leg muscles, building strength as he walked. One callused hand wiped briskly over his weathered and tanned face that, over the years, had evolved into what he referred to as a line-map of his life. He lifted to reposition his red and gold Forty-Niner’s baseball cap, and a puff of morning breeze ruffled the few strands of straight brown hair that still populated the top of his head above a full fringe around the sides and back. He hiked up the waistband of his trousers and re-tucked the tail of his plaid shirt that had a way of working out whenever he descended the stairs. After a dozen or so paces, he moved down to the packed sand near the waterline where low breakers flattened out to whisper in and caress the sand then crawl back to fade into the swirling foam of the next. His legs would get enough of a workout when he got to the hill at the south end of the beach. At sixty-eight and retired, hiking the coastal hills and backpacking occupied a good deal of his time and kept his small frame fit and trim.

A lone gull swept in to make a single pass over the land looking for a missed morsel. It wheeled on rigid wings and skimmed back over the tops of the incoming waves. Rippled sand stretched ahead to where it ended against the base of a rock, grass, and scrub covered hill that sloped down to the water’s edge. The coastline beyond that point was blocked from view the same as back to the north by the hill he had just descended. The summer sun had almost finished burning off the fog hugging the coastline there, six miles north of the Golden Gate, and the air warmed as it cleared.

He stopped to peer back at his hill with its variety of trees and brush so thick he could hardly see the numerous homes nestled among them. The wooden stairway zig-zagged up fifty feet of ice-plant covered, rocky cliff from the sand to the first curve of the roads snaking about the hill. Halfway up the sea-cliff, his house perched on a natural rock shelf jutting out over the water a couple hundred feet above the surf crashing against rocks. Only the west end of the house protruded from behind the mass of foliage blanketing the steep hillside. He turned and resumed his walk.

As he neared the south end of the beach, he noticed a man and a woman sitting far up the dune’s slope from the incoming waves and facing out to sea. As he drew nearer, he smiled with recognition.

“Good morning,” he said. When the woman withdrew her attention from the undulating surface of the sea, he added, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Good morning. Yes, it is. I love it.”

They both glanced up at the screech of a low flying gull.

Nate turned his gaze out to sea. “I always have to marvel that the waves may have traveled hundreds of miles to get here—perhaps even thousands—perhaps born in a store half way around the world. And the beach...changed just a bit each day, and no two days the same.”

“You must be a poet…or a musician.” Her soft smile was natural and pleasant.

“No,” Nate answered with a chuckle. “Neither. I just love the beach—all of nature.”

“Do you live here in Muir Beach?”

“Yes, I do. And what about yourselves? Moving in or just visiting?”

“Oh, just visiting, I’m afraid. I think I’d very much like to live here, though. We’re staying at the inn.”

With a nod, he said, “I saw you there last night.”

“Oh, of course. You and your wife had a table nearby, didn’t you? I’m sorry. I should have remembered you.”

Nate smiled and looked closer at the woman, a truly beautiful woman. He guessed her age as mid-thirtyish. Long, wavy hair with individual strands of pure blond, coppery red, and soft brown evoked Colorado gold at sunset—definitely not something out of a bottle. He had seen the intense hazel color of her eyes in a mountain meadow where patches of brilliant green only partially covered rich, loamy soil. The pale, lifeless tissue of a deep scar traced a “C” about two inches long beginning just below the outer corner of her left eye and circling around her prominent cheekbone.

“Not surprising that you didn’t, though.” He pondered what marvelous mysteries hid beneath the shapeless, gray sweats she wore. “I imagine all of us locals just sorta blend together.”

Her laugh was like the mellow tone of a finely crafted silver bell, soft but clear and lingering. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Not to make excuses, but when I saw you last night, I’m afraid my mind was on today. We’re here to work. John…” She clasped the hand of the man next to her on the sand, gave it an affectionate squeeze. “…is a very good friend who just happens to be one of the best photographers in the country. Or, is it the world, John? I forget.”

John’s grunt inspired another marvelous laugh.

“Anyway, he asked me to do some posing for him for a project he’s working on. Something awfully deep and artistic, he tells me. We’re going to be shooting here on the beach.”

Nate nodded to the man sitting in the sand.

He was late-fortyish with a medium build but appeared on the soft and pudgy side. Not into hiking, Nate decided. Of course, the pale blue sweats he wore were loose enough to hide minor imperfections of the body, but his face had a soft, baby-fat look that would probably have been sweated away in a program of regular exertion. His unruly mop of curly hair was the likely work of a skilled professional.

Nate looked at the woman again, closely, and it suddenly clicked why she looked so familiar.

“I know you. I’ve seen you on television, and in magazines, and—”

“No, you know my sister.”

“Huh? Your sister?”

She nodded and smiled. “You’re thinking of my sister, Shannon. Shannon Doyle?”

Nate’s mouth hung open for a moment before he snapped it closed.

“Your sister? Are you sure? I mean—now that was a pretty dumb thing for me to say, wasn’t it? Of course, you’re sure. I guess you should know if you are your sister or not. I mean—well, now, that’s even dumber than what I said before.”

She rocked back in the sand laughing.

She finally regained her breath and was able to focus her tearing eyes. “I think I know what you mean. I’ve been told before that we look alike. But she’s the pretty one, and I’m the one behind the camera.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. You may be behind your camera, but I can’t say your sister is any prettier than you. If you remember, I thought you were her.”

“That’s very nice of you, but I know what we both look like, probably better than anyone else. I was her first photographer. I was the one to get little Sis into modeling in the first place. With her long limbs and willowy body, she was a natural. If you saw us side by side, you’d see just how short and fat I am.”

Nate opened his mouth to reply, but he couldn’t think of anything to say without sounding either foolish or insulting. His starts and stops looked like a fish gasping for oxygen.

“That was an opening for you to lavish me with compliments.”

His confusion melted to a knowing smile, and he gave her a slow nod. “You’re also a bit of a tease, aren’t you? …So, you say you’re a photographer, but you’re going to pose for your friend, here. Do you model, too?”

Erin’s hand started to move toward the scar on the left side of her face. “No. Not anymore.”

After several seconds, Nate began to think she had forgotten about him and what she had been saying or was about to say. Or perhaps he had touched on a sore subject when he mentioned her working as a model. The way she said, “not any more” sounded like some hopes may have been dashed at one time.

Like she snapped out of a trance, Erin shook her head and smiled. “John and I are long-time friends, colleagues, and occasionally, partners. When I say he asked me to pose, what I should have said is that he conned me into posing.”

“Hey! That’s not true! I asked you very nicely.”

“Yes, John, you asked me very nicely.” Then, to Nate with a grin and a sideways-bob of her head towards John, she said, “One of the slickest con jobs I’ve ever seen.”

“Humph!” was John’s only reply as he wrapped his arms around his raised knees.

Still laughing with her eyes, she grabbed John’s near arm with both of hers wrapped tightly around it in an affectionate hug. “If I didn’t believe he actually is one of the best photographers in the business, I’d have told him to stuff it.” She extended her hand. “I’m Erin Doyle. And my friend here is John Wilden.” Her hand was warm and strong. “You are...?”

“Nathaniel Remington the Second, but just Nate will do.”

Erin returned his firm grasp and said, “I’m pleased to meet you, just-Nate. I’m sure John is, too, but he’s slightly anti-people when he’s on the verge of creativity. Geniuses are frequently like that, you know. Be nice, John.”

John glanced at Nate’s face, nodded ever so slightly with just a crinkle of a conspiratorial smile in his eyes, and lay back onto the sand to gaze into the disappearing overcast.

“I wish I knew how he does what he does with a camera, but I suppose as long as he knows, that’s what counts. I’m sure you’ve seen lots of his work. It’s in most of the national magazines, commercial ads, mostly. But he’s done some art stuff, too. That’s what this session is—art. Of course, if one or two shots are suitable, one day they could pay for this whole trip. And that’s why we put up with his little eccentricities.” She reached over and patted John’s cheek.

John answered her bright smile with a grunt.

Nate returned his attention to the lovely woman in front of him. “I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to tell you your business, but unless you want a pack of locals standing around watching and maybe butting into your pictures, I wouldn’t wait too long before getting started.”

“Actually, I think we are just about to start. We’ve been waiting for the sun to come out—something about how to manage shadows, he tells me—and here it is. Come on, John.” She folded her feet beneath her, and, with effortless ease, rose to her feet.

While John walked over to retrieve his camera bag from the base of a boulder, Erin removed her hoodie and sweat pants to reveal a teal colored bikini. The bra could have been painted on with a soft brush, supporting and covering with miniscule triangles only slightly more than what must be covered but not artificially shaping her hemispherical breasts. Against the golden tan of velvety skin, the suit defined the juncture of well-formed legs with the smoothly lined torso and its faint ripple of abdominal muscles. The suit’s bottom hiked high on the sides above the graceful flare of hips leaving uninterrupted long lines of muscular thighs. With rope-width strips of fabric on the sides and a thong rear, the front swooped low to a point barely above other tantalizing mysteries.

She moved with a grace and fluidity that hinted at grueling hours in a gym. With just enough body fat to soften the hard definition of well-developed muscles, she had the compact musculature of a sprinter rather than the long limbs of a distance runner, and she was certainly not fat. The scar on her face spoiled her beauty no more than a mole or “beauty spot” might have done.

Nate, further embarrassed that she might have noticed his admiration of her body, turned and started to head back up the beach. “Oh, damn! Now you’ll have to wait until I can get clear back to the other end.”

Then he stopped and, uncertain what to do, shuffled back and forth. “Or...no, I’ll go over that way and cross the bridge—unless that’s the way you’re going to shoot.”

“Nate! Nate! Hold it! It’s all right! It’s okay if you stay and watch. Okay, John?”

John shrugged his shoulders. “Sure.”

Still a little flustered, and even more embarrassed at being embarrassed like a schoolboy, Nate scurried through the deep sand to the place Erin suggested near John’s bag.

Soon, fascination absorbed him while John’s clicking camera followed Erin’s sensuous gyrations on the sand between slow, sensual strolls. Would he even recognize the familiar wooded hill in the background when the pictures became available to the public? It could be a year or more before John’s book came out. He’d have to look closely at every magazine ad he came across for the next year—at least any that contained a beautiful woman in a barely existing swimsuit. Closer than normal, maybe.

Nate leaned against the sand sprinkled rock of the cliff and listened to the BOOM...BOOM...BOOM of the rising surf as it rolled in to shatter itself against the jagged rocks at the water’s edge. His normal preoccupation with the sea, however, gave in, easily, to pleasant distraction as Erin cavorted on the sand a few feet away, her lithe and sensuous figure flowing from one evocative pose to another while John followed her.

Nate watched and fantasized.

In moments like these, feeling the old stirrings, he was confident he wasn’t totally past his prime. His appreciation of the female body had always been part of his basic love of life, evidenced by the fact that Patty had been a living doll in her younger days. Hell, she still got his old bones in a stir on occasion.

Nate’s eyes followed her as closely as the lens of John’s camera. So, when she made her turn at the end of the course down the strand that John had established and froze in her tracks after two steps back to the south, Nate almost toppled forward. It was like he had been leaning on something that was suddenly pulled away. Then he noticed she appeared to be, not just focused on, but mesmerized, as she pointed at something above and behind him and John. He turned, looked up and backed away from the cliff far enough to see what had stolen her attention, and he became mesmerized as well.

Even John forgot his art and watched with the others as a strange object arced down, seemingly, from the edge of space to where it slowed to a stationary hover southeast of them and many thousands of feet above the surface of the earth.


GOLDEN GATE NRA

The bay pilot guided the ponderous oil tanker into the wide opening of the strait that, in three short miles, would neck down to a mile width where the Golden Gate Bridge spanned it. He further reduced speed to a crawl in anticipation of the passage across the crowded bay to Richmond and the waiting berth at the long pier with its pipes and pumps. Bright white sails billowed full on the double masts of an inbound ketch as it slipped into the flat, calm water behind the tanker, eager to take advantage of a smooth entry into the bay. A tour boat from the Red and White Fleet sped around a sweeping curve near the outer edge of the strait just ahead of the tanker and began its return trip through the normally choppy water to its berth near Pier 39 just past Fisherman’s Warf.

Standing beside his daughter at the railing in front of the summit bench, Jason pointed to men like tiny ants moving about on the deck of the tanker as it passed below them. A red helicopter banked away from a hill to their left, swung out to make a wide sweep over the tanker, then circled back to the land. Emmie squealed with excitement when it came to a hover near the summit where it stayed long enough for the passenger to snap several pictures of the bunkers and fortifications that dotted the hill.

“Probably a tourist,” Jason said. “Or maybe it’s a newspaper photographer. Hey, maybe your face’ll be on the front page of the morning paper?” He playfully elbowed her shoulder.

But the idea of riding in it fascinated her. “Do they give kids rides, Dad? We’re tourists…kinda.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. They don’t give rides to anyone, though. There are no free rides, remember?”

The helicopter swung east then south toward the city, becoming a red dot in the distance. Jason’s hand, resting lightly on Emmie’s shoulder, felt her stiffen.

“Dad! Look! What’s that?”

High above the bay, from out of the pale blue of the late morning sky, there descended...an object. It was dropping from a much greater height from out of the southeast when they first saw it, so he had no idea how high it had been. Unlike while watching a high, fly ball arcing down like it was going to land at his feet, he had no impulse to try to catch it. Besides coming to a hover at an altitude of at least ten miles, its batwing-shape hardly inspired thoughts of baseball.

Although its shape might have suggested wings, its size would have made the side projections useless for atmospheric flight. In fact, he couldn’t imagine how it could possibly remain aloft, stationary or not. It had to be a balloon of some kind, a blimp, possibly a dirigible. Although, before it slowed to a hover, it had been moving at a speed he couldn’t imagine possible for any kind of lighter-than-air craft. And, it had to be one; it was huge. Its apparent size was maybe a tad smaller than a basketball as viewed from about twenty-five feet—many times the apparent size of a full moon. He knew it was high because the smears of cirrus clouds above the Bay Area were clearly visible below it. So, that would put its size somewhere around two or three thousand feet between “wingtips”—half a mile!

Emmie was awed. “What is it?”

“Darned if I know!” He did his best to sound casual even though tautness crept into the muscles across his back and shoulders. “I’ve never seen anything like it—or heard of anything like it! I don’t know...”


MILL VALLEY

Vince took the Blithedale Avenue off-ramp into Mill Valley, six miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge just as Vic pointed up through the windshield toward the southeast. “What the hell is that?”

Like a gigantic bat, the thing descending from the upper atmosphere southeast of them just stopped while still at an altitude of many thousands of feet. It appeared to be about over the middle of the Bay Area, maybe between San Francisco and Oakland, which would put it roughly ten miles away.

Vince craned his neck around to watch the strange apparition each time he turned a corner or whenever he thought he could take his eyes off the road without killing them both.

Vince shook his head and said, “Hell, I don’t know. A balloon of some kind?”

“I never seen no balloon that big. That thing is huge! Look at the clouds below it—hell, it’s bigger’n a battleship.” After a few moments Vic added in a voice tinged with awe, “You think it’s a flying saucer?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure, man; it’s full of little green men.”

“Well, what the hell is it then?”

“Oh, it’s probably just something the air force is doing for the city. You know, like with the navy and Fleet Week in October…some kind of air show.”

As they pulled into the parking area at Vince’s apartment building a few minutes later, more and more people had stopped wherever they happened to be to gaze up at the strange thing in the sky. Walking from the car, the brothers kept looking back over their shoulders, unable to resist, not knowing if they should expect something further.

Instead of going to Vince’s apartment they went next door to Carl and Mandy’s. By the time they reached the door and knocked Vince had dismissed what they were seeing as all they were going to see. No doubt, it was just a balloon that was going to hang over the bay area for some reason, maybe something to do with Fleet Week, after all, even if it was a little soon.

The door jerked open, and Mandy stood there gaping at them. She stood only two inches shorter than Vince, and, wearing brief shorts and a halter-top, her toned body held few secrets. Dark brown hair hung in tight curls to two or three inches below her shoulders and matched her dark brown eyes that always seemed to shimmer like liquid. She wore her age of twenty-five years as though each one had seared a decade of hard living into her. Still, she normally wore a smile for Vince that promised much if he ever wanted to send Carl out on an hour-long errand.

Her smile was absent when she motioned them in without a word and hurried back into the living room. With hands waving like she was fanning away a hot flash, she urged them in.

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