As he approached the coast he entered into a thick fog that obscured the road ahead. It was late. There were no other cars on the road. No lights to blind him, no lights to guide him. There were dangerous curves. He had to proceed slowly to avoid calamity.
After an immeasurable time he emerged from the forest onto the straight stretch that proceeded the climb up the cliff to the coastal highway. Still enveloped by fog, he found it easier to see as he was no longer surrounded by the dark trees. Something small scampered across the road, a shrew mole or a meadow mouse.
As he approached the town a few lights flickered. He turned in at the first entrance. Something caught his eye outside the window on the driver’s side. He turned to look. Whatever it was, he couldn’t make it out. Suddenly he heard a loud bump. The car rocked back and forth. His heart raced. He’d hit something.
He stopped. As he walked behind the car he saw the crumpled body of a man. There was no doubt the man was dead. His head was smashed. The scene was surrounded by silence and fog and the smell of the ocean. He looked around in all directions. He saw nothing. For a moment he thought about driving away. This was a complication he did not need. But, he knew what he had to do. He pulled out his cell and notified the authorities. He would wait for the proper people to arrive. It was the only thing he could do if he wanted to live with himself. A man was dead. He was responsible. Four o’clock in the morning and all was not well.
When the police arrived he answered all their questions satisfactorily. He submitted to a sobriety test. The ambulance came and took away the body.
“You’re free to go,” said the inspector. “You’re a local. We know where to find you. You did the right thing to call us. We will contact you if any further questions come up. We should have the official report in a month. You will receive a copy and further instructions if there are any.”
“That’s it then,” he asked.
“That’s it for now. Looks like an unfortunate accident. The report will spell out all the details and any consequences if there are any.”
“Well, you could be charged with a crime if we find negligence on your part but that seems unlikely given your story and the evidence I’ve seen.”
He left the town to drive home without picking up the mail as he planned. The sun was coming up. The fog was burning off by the time he parked in the driveway of his short term rental. He was still shaking. He tried to sleep but it was useless. He made a cup of coffee, sat at the kitchen table and watched the fog burn away. He thought. And thought.
Three weeks later he received the official report. He’d already read about it in the news – Local Transient Killed In Unfortunate Accident. He was happy they hadn’t named him as the driver. The transient was identified as James Winkler. In the official report ‘the driver’ (that is, he) was fully exonerated-“tragic accident—transient in dark clothing ran into the street in front of the car—no chance for the driver to react.”
Of course, that wasn’t quite true, was it? He knew the rest of the story. He had been distracted. He wasn’t paying the attention he should have paid when he looked away toward the driver’s side of the car. Someone else was there. He was sure of it. This was a worry he could not dispel.
A month passed. He tried to forget the incident. He avoided the street where the accident happened. He became more of a recluse than usual.
Unfortunately his name had got out as the driver of the car. It was a small town, impossible to keep a secret. He knew that sooner or later the inevitable would happen. It did happen and sooner than he thought.
He sat on the deck in back of the house to smoke. As usual for this time of year the fog descended from the treetops and with it the smell of the ocean. It was the fog and that ocean smell that triggered his memory, took him back to that night.
He knew now what he saw out the driver’s side window. He couldn’t piece it together at the time. It was just a blur and then running into Mr. James Winkler monopolized all his attention. What he saw was someone running ahead of Winkler on the other side of the street, whether fleeing Mr. Winkler or running with him, he couldn’t tell. Who was this other person and why were both running? These questions he grappled with as he sat and smoked in the darkening fog.
The owners of the house he rented had two German Shepherds. They were just inside the door to the deck. Their growls disturbed his thoughts.
The fog was so thick he couldn’t see the fence at the bottom of his meadow but he heard the gate open. He sat up, alert. He looked for a weapon but knew he had none. Out of the fog a shape emerged, a man. The dogs barked. The man walked toward him.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“No worries man. Just want to talk.”
As he got a better look at the man the concern for his safety diminished. The man didn’t look well. He had to struggle to make it up to the deck.
“Talk about what?”
“Your accident. That guy you killed, he was a friend of mine.”
“I’m sorry about Mr. Winkler. It was an accident. I don’t have anything more to say about it than what you’ve already read in the paper.”
“We’ll see about that.”
The man climbed up on the deck and sat in a vacant chair. His hair was long and uncombed. He had a scruffy beard and a fresh cut on his forehead. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in awhile. The dogs settled down. It was quiet for a few moments.
The intruder smiled and extended his hand. “Billy’s my name. I know who you are Mac. You wash dishes at The Frolic. Probably don’t remember me but I’ve been in and out a few times.”
Mac looked him over. He concluded there was nothing to worry about.
“So, Jimmy and I were workin’ a deal that night. We had some … let’s just say some kinda high end shit. On both ends of that deal there are some pretty mean fuckers. You don’t want ta mess with’em. Jimmy was carrying the stuff in his backpack. So, where is it Mac? I know you’ve got it.”
This Billy character now had Mac’s attention.
“What do you mean, ‘mean fuckers’? What stuff? I don’t know what your talking about. I don’t have anything from that night except regret.”
Billy looked straight into Mac’s eyes. The cut on Billy’s forehead foreshadowed what Mac feared might happen to him. He knew he could handle Billy who was afraid and just wanted to get out of a jam. But these guys Billy spoke about, they were the problem. Mac knew about the gangs that worked these small coastal towns. If you valued your fingers and toes let alone your life, you didn’t mess with them.
“You do know and you do have the stuff. You have to have it. The cops didn’t get nothin’. Ambulance guys either. I know. Already checked. We need to get that stuff to where it belongs now, or we’re both dead.”
The dogs barked and scratched at the screen door.
“I don’t have any ‘stuff’ Billy. Whatever you’re talking about. This isn’t my problem, it’s yours.”
Billy was looking past Mac toward the side of the house. Mac felt his heart beat fast. He turned to look. There were three Hispanic men walking in the space between the house and the fence.
There was no use to call the police. Depending on where they were, they could take up to an hour to respond. Mac jumped up. He let out the dogs and they jolted toward the three men. Mac ran inside the house followed by Billy. They ran right back out the side door and jumped into Mac’s car. Mac knocked over the front fence on the way out. He knew the Mexicans would be after him but they couldn’t cut him up unless they caught him and they had to deal with the dogs first.
He knew a few tricks from driving these roads in the dark on the way home from work late at night. He had a plan. The fog was thick but he knew every twist and turn, when to brake and when to speed. He hit a straight patch and punched it to the floor. The Mexicans were speeding right behind, just as he planned. At the right moment he made a wild turn onto an unmarked road almost losing control of the car. The Mexicans had no time to react. They kept on going straight but the road was a dead end. They crashed into a giant redwood tree. Mac and Billy backtracked and returned to Mac’s house.
“End of the line, Billy. If I were you, I’d skip town.”
Billy ran off, his blue eyes blazing.
Mac knew that someone would come calling again soon. He wasn’t going to press his luck. He gathered his few belongings and drove south.
After about an hour, when he was sure he hadn’t been followed, he stopped at a lookout point above the ocean. When he got out of the car he noticed something sticking out from under the back bumper.
He got down on his hands and knees and looked under the car. There it was, a backpack that had lodged itself between the back tire and axel. He got out his knife and cut it loose. Inside he found the drugs.
“Well, I’ll be fucked,” he said to himself.
He walked to the edge of the lookout point. The cliff dropped straight down. He threw the backpack with its contents over the side. It fell into the fog and disappeared. He heard the splash when it hit the ocean.