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Alan Cook

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Hollywood's Burning
By Alan Cook
Posted: Friday, June 12, 2009
Last edited: Monday, December 24, 2012
This short story is rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Alan Cook
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           >> View all 26
It's 1961 Los Angeles and people are dying by the ocean--and then there are the photographs and the fire. Although this is a work of fiction, the fire was real.

 

            I pressed the shutter button on my trusty Leica camera just as the sun sank into the blue Pacific Ocean, its last rays lighting up half of Meg’s face while the other half was in contrasting soft shadow. Alternating light and shadow also played on the fire escape ladder and the railing of the fourth floor balcony above Venice Beach. 
            Both had been painted white, but patches where paint had peeled off exposed bare metal underneath. One wall of the older red and yellow brick apartment building would show up on the left side of the picture, adding to the look of genteel decadence.
            Meg sat on the narrow railing, each of her feet on a different rung of the ladder, smiling at the camera, her youth and beauty impervious to the decay around her that had occurred since the heyday of this Venice in the new world, and to the precariousness of her position over the hole for the fire escape. In addition, I had framed the shot so that the floor of the balcony wasn’t visible, giving the impression that there was nothing between her and dozens of strollers along the walking path below, enjoying this balmy Wednesday evening, in May 1961.
            A long-time Angeleno could follow the sweep of the broad and silky sanded beach south to the horizon line of the picture and pick out the twin hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, visible under Meg’s right arm with which she held onto a rung of the ladder, and Catalina Island, over twice as far away but still clearly visible to her right, on the clearest day since I had arrived in Los Angeles.
            “That’s going to make a fabulous picture,” I said as Meg dismounted from her awkward pose, her skirt sliding down to cover the bare legs that had added to the sensual quality of the shot.
            She frowned. “You used all the best light.” She glanced out over the ocean toward where only a glow remained of the fireball that brought us life, and picked up her own camera. “Quick, I want to get a couple of shots with you in them while I can still see my hand in front of my face. There isn’t even a moon tonight like Ansel Adams had when he took the picture of the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico.
“Lose the camera and run a comb through your hair so you don’t look like a complete… On second thought, forget the comb. Maybe that’s what I want. The contrast of a Midwestern hayseed with the tropical paradise of L.A.”
*
            “A girl was killed on Venice Beach last night. She fell—or was pushed—off the balcony of an apartment building.”
            My roommate, George, threw the Los Angeles Times onto the small table we used for all our meals, almost knocking a cup full of hot coffee into my lap. Venice Beach? Where I had been last night with Meg, not far from this apartment in Santa Monica. On a balcony. I quickly picked up the paper and looked at the picture. It wasn’t Meg.
I felt momentary relief until I realized that I knew the girl. I gasped. It was Jody who worked at the bank where I was an employee. Who was also from my hometown, although we hadn’t known each other there. I stood up fast, banging my thighs against the table. The jarring knocked the cup over this time, spilling coffee onto the floor. A few drops hit my pants, but I couldn’t take time to change.
“I have to get to work,” I said as I whizzed past an astonished George. “I’ll clean up the mess later.”
“Did you know the girl?”
“Explain everything tonight.”
            I was out the door and taking the stairs down to the ground two at a time.
*
            “You went to the same high school as Jody in Indianapolis, but you didn’t know her then?”
            Detective Jacobson eyed me, skeptically, as he wrote in his spiral notebook. He looked too young to be a detective, with his short, dark hair and his smooth, clean-cut features. However, his suit was rumpled, as if he had slept in it, he was unshaven, and his tie had the tell-tale stains around the knot of the permanently knotted ties I wore in college to dormitory dinners where ties were mandatory.
            “She was three years behind me. When I was a senior she was a freshman. It’s a big school. Seniors don’t associate much with freshmen. It wasn’t until I started working here three months ago that we discovered we were from the same town.”
            “How long have you lived in L.A.?”
            “Three months. I just got off active duty with the Army Reserve. I was in college before that.”
            We sat in the bank’s conference room with the door closed. In my haste to get here I had even beaten Bernice, our operations officer and my boss, who usually opened up in the morning. She arrived at the same time as Detective Jacobson, shaken up from having been called by the police very early. We exchanged a few horrified words about Jody, and Bernice told the detective, who wanted to question all the employees of the branch, that he could speak to me first.
            “Did you see Jody yesterday?”
            “We were both at work so—yes.”
            “Did you talk to her? What kind of mood was she in?”
            “I probably said hello to her, but I didn’t really talk to her. I’m a teller and she runs a bookkeeping machine. We don’t have much chance to talk.”
            “Did you see her after work?”
            “No.”
            Jacobson made a quick note and then stared at me, not saying anything. If he was trying to intimidate me, he was succeeding. I couldn’t keep quiet.
            “I-I was at her apartment building last night, but I didn’t see her.” Anticipating his next question, I continued. “I was taking pictures of the beach—for a photography class at Santa Monica College.”
            “Where were you taking pictures?”
            “From a balcony.”
            “Which floor?”
            He was dragging it out of me.
            “Fourth floor.”
            The same floor Jody had fallen from, according to the Times.
            “Who were you with?”
            “Meg Chalfont. She lives in the building, and she’s also taking the photography course.”
            “Where did you meet Meg?”
            I could say we met in class, but that wouldn’t be the truth.
            “Jody introduced us. She…knew we both had an interest in photography.”
            “What time did you leave the Venice apartment?”
            Sunset had been about 6:45. “I would say seven fifteen, maybe seven thirty.”
            “And you never saw Jody while you were there.”
            “No sir.”
            Jacobson cleared his throat. “Your story pretty much meshes with Meg’s. Although she said she didn’t remember how you met.”
            He had already talked to Meg last night. I should have figured that. Jody had fallen off the balcony about 10:30. Was I in the clear? My wet armpits didn’t think so. Jacobson questioned me about Jody’s general behavior and moods. I said she had always seemed like a happy girl. Could he be trying to establish suicide?
I ventured a question. “Do you think she was pushed?”
            Jacobson seemed to be contemplating how much he should tell me.
            “She had some alcohol in her blood, but she wasn’t legally drunk. Did she drink much?”
            “I don’t know. I never saw her drink.”
            He asked me a few more questions, and then said he might want to talk to me again. He didn’t actually say, “Don’t leave town,” but he implied it. I wasn’t going anywhere; I had to keep my job.
*
            “The girl had been drinking, but the results of the autopsy won’t be available for several days. Although she has severe head trauma. Yeah, I guess you could expect that, falling from a fourth floor balcony. Lots of bleeding, too.”
            George was looking at the Friday morning article in the Times. When he threw the paper onto the table I was prepared. I grabbed my coffee cup and lifted it away from the impact zone. He ignored my save.
            “So how come you never told me about Jody? I know you didn’t go out with her, but hell, I might have wanted to.”
            Sensitivity was not George’s strong suit. I didn’t feel like discussing Jody’s rating on the dating scale. “She was a nice girl, but she probably wasn’t up to your standards.”
            “All right, I guess I have to accept that now. By the way, take a look at page two. There’s more information about the other girl who fell off a cliff in Palos Verdes.”
            “What other girl?”
            “I guess you were so upset about Jody you didn’t see it in yesterday’s paper. Her body was discovered at the bottom of the cliff Wednesday morning, so she must have fallen off Tuesday evening. Quite a coincidence, two girls falling to their deaths on back-to-back nights.”
            I read both articles. The other girl, named Rita, lived in Redondo Beach, next to Palos Verdes, and had apparently been drinking, just as Jody had. Both falls could have been accidental, although the Times clearly liked the murder theory better, at least in Jody’s case. It sold more papers. I wasn’t sure whether I would rather she was murdered or just got tipsy and fell. If it had been an accident, at least I wouldn’t be subject to more questioning.
*
            “Alex, come and look. You can see more lights from this spot than from anywhere else in the world.”
            Meg had run ahead to the edge of the cliff while I got out my camera and tripod and locked my Volkswagen Beetle. You couldn’t be too careful. When I reached the spot in the Hollywood Hills where Meg was standing, I had to agree with her. The night view looking south from here was overwhelming. The lights of the city below went on almost forever, like an upside-down starry sky as seen from the desert on a cloudless night.
            I started to set up my tripod. “Is this where you were Tuesday night?”
            “It looks a little different. The roads coming up here are so curvy I got confused. And of course Bob was driving. He knows his way around this area. But the view looks similar. I knew when I saw it that you would love it too.”
            I attached the camera to the tripod and set it for a long exposure, necessary for a night shot. The camera had to be kept perfectly still. I had to hold onto the tripod or the gusty wind would blow it over. I tried to phrase my next question to Meg without sounding petulant.
            “Why did you ask Bob to bring you up here? I could have done it.”
            Bob wasn’t even a photographer, for crissake. Although he had known her longer than I had, and had the advantage of living in her apartment building.
            “Quit complaining. We were together Wednesday evening. And we’re together now.”
            “When do you think you’ll be able to buy a car?”
            “Soon, I hope. I’ve got some money saved. Then I won’t have to beg you and Bob to drive me around.”
            Meg worked as a waitress. I had mixed feelings about her buying a car. At first I hadn’t minded chauffeuring her, but now it was getting a little old, especially since the return on my investment had been nonexistent. As the old song, “A Fine Romance,” went, there had been no kisses, and we didn’t wrestle, or even nestle. But it didn’t help my case to sound like a crybaby.
            “Are you going to take any pictures? You can use my tripod, but you have to hold it or the wind will blow it over.”
            “I’ll take some hand-held shots. My hands are pretty steady, and I can brace myself against this rock. Ansel Adams didn’t always have the luxury of using a tripod. Besides, I think I got some good shots Tuesday night. I’ll know as soon as I develop them tomorrow.”
            Meg put the flash on her camera and took pictures of me taking pictures of lights. Should I be flattered? She liked taking people shots, unlike Ansel. I was moving the camera around to compose a new shot through the viewfinder when something red flickered in the corner of the scene. I pulled my head away from the camera and looked at the dry hillside beside us.
            “Fire! The hill’s on fire.”
            Meg turned and looked at the flame that was growing larger by the second, and said, “I want to take a picture of that.”
            “We’ve got to get out of here. No telling where the fire will go with this wind. People will be trying to get away; fire equipment will be coming up here—and the streets are so narrow.”
            I grabbed my camera and tripod and ran to the car. Meg took her own sweet time following me. She snapped several pictures of the fire. I was tempted to drive off without her. Finally, she turned away and ambled to the car while I clamped my mouth shut to keep from screaming at her.
            We had spotted the fire in its early stages, and had little problem driving down the hill, once I found the street that went almost straight down to Franklin Avenue. From there, I jogged down to Hollywood Boulevard and headed west in the Friday night traffic. The inhabitants of the other cars seemed to be oblivious to the fire raging above them, even though light from flames turned buildings and streets and cars an eerie red color, like a scene from a science fiction movie. The apocalypse was at hand and nobody cared. Business as usual.
            Meg continued to take pictures out the window of the VW. I had to concentrate on driving, and envied her this freedom. Still, she was the one who wanted to be the next Ansel Adams. I just wanted to have fun—and Meg.
When buildings blocked the fire from our view, Meg pulled her head in the window and said, “What kind of questions did that detective ask you?”
            We hadn’t talked about Jody, other than a few sentences. I stammered something about telling him how Jody and I had met, and how well I knew her.
            “Did he ask you about her drinking?”
            “Yes. I told him I never saw her drink.”
            “You blew that one. She drank a lot—every night. She was an unhappy girl.”
            “How do you know?”
            “We lived in the same building. Everybody knows everybody else.”
            I was about to ask Meg more questions about Jody’s drinking when we passed Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I saw that it was playing Gone with the Wind.
            On impulse. I said, “You wanta see a movie?”
            “Sure,” Meg said, reading the name on the marquee. “I haven’t seen it.”
            I quickly turned onto a side street and parked before she could change her mind.
*
            Meg got most of the attention at the Saturday morning photography class because of her pictures of the fire. We developed our film at the class, made contact prints, and then blew up the more promising ones. I had to admit that two of her fire shots were excellent, one taken from the cliff, and the other from the car on Hollywood Boulevard. The instructor oohed and aahed over them.
            My shot of Meg over Venice Beach also attracted attention, and I had several nice shots of Los Angeles city lights. In addition, I was feeling good about having a real date with Meg, although we hadn’t done anything more than hold hands in the movie and kiss briefly at her apartment. But it was a start. I had made out better than Scarlett O’Hara.
            When Meg printed a picture of city lights she had taken on Tuesday evening, I compared it to mine. There were some differences in the patterns and spacing of the lights. One string of lights in her picture followed a major street as it curved a number of times. There was no comparable street in my picture. My north-south streets went in straight lines, directly away from the camera.
            When I pointed this out to Meg, she waved her hand and said, “I took mine from a different place. I told you I got confused by all the curves, and couldn’t find that spot again.”
            I asked her if she would make an additional print for me so I could study her composition. She said I could borrow that one, since she had the negative and could always make others.
*
            The telephone was ringing off the hook when I walked into my apartment after the class. It was my mother.
            “Alex, are you all right?”
            “Sure, Mom, I’m fine.”
            “We were worried sick about you. I’ve been calling and calling and nobody answered.”
            I was surprised. She rarely called me because the long distance charges were expensive. “Well, here I am. I was at my photography class this morning and out last night. George left on a business trip yesterday.”
            “I am so relieved to hear your voice. After all the killing that’s going on there. And that fire burning all those houses. Los Angeles is such a dangerous place.”
            “It’s actually not so bad.” Then I remembered Jody. “Oh, you’re talking about Jody Richards.”
            “Yes. And Rita. Rita Snivel. She died there several days ago.”
            “Rita Snivel?” I remembered the other girl who had fallen off a cliff. “How do you know about her?”
            “Rita was in the same class as Jody. She fell off a cliff in a place called Palos Verdes.”
            My mother butchered the pronunciation of Palos Verdes. When I had read the newspaper articles, the name Rita Snivel hadn’t meant anything to me. This information was a shocker. “Rita and Jody must have known each other.”
            “As I recall, they were good friends.”
            My mother ought to know. She had taught English at the high school for many years. I spent the next few minutes trying to convince her that Los Angeles wasn’t as dangerous as the newspapers and television made it seem. These two deaths so close together were coincidental. In addition, they were probably accidental. The fire was confined to the hills. I didn’t tell her how close I was to it when it started.
            When I hung up the phone, I may have convinced her about coincidences, but I hadn’t convinced myself. I searched for the newspaper articles about Rita. Fortunately, George and I weren’t prompt about taking out the trash. I found the articles and read them again. They were short and didn’t include a picture.
            The police thought she had fallen from the cliff Tuesday evening. Her body was spotted Wednesday morning by fishermen on a boat off the coast. Jody had fallen from the balcony Wednesday evening. Both girls had been drinking. They were good friends. They were both from Indianapolis.
            Coincidences? Too many coincidences. I rummaged around until I found the high school yearbook from my senior year, one of the few items I had crammed into my VW when I drove to L.A. from Indianapolis to escape the cold. I opened it to the portraits of the class of 1956. God, I looked young. My classmates had written the usual inane things beside their photos.
            Each of the lower grades had a single page allotted to them for class pictures. All members of the class of 1959 were jammed into two photos on their page. I found Jody first. She wore a white blouse and long skirt, just like the other girls. I recognized her, even though her face was small in the picture.
            I found Rita in the other photo by checking the names underneath. It was difficult to tell, but she must have been pretty. Now she was dead. They were both dead. I was sure that when these pictures were taken they hadn’t thought they would be dead in five years.
            Restless, I went for a long walk on the beach. I got as far as Venice Beach and the apartment building where Jody had lived—and died. Even watching body builders and the colorful people on the beach walk didn’t elevate my mood. I ignored the booths selling T-shirts and other souvenirs. The young man juggling several items, including a roaring chainsaw, only made me think of death. I returned to Santa Monica as evening approached, popped a frozen chicken pot pie into the oven, and ate it for dinner.
            I jumped into my car and drove south on Sepulveda Boulevard toward the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the beckoning hill I had seen under Meg’s arm, but where I had never been. Sepulveda mysteriously became Pacific Coast Highway. I followed it through Redondo Beach, then turned off and ventured up into the hills of Palos Verdes.
I angled toward the cliff from which Rita had fallen, along the unlit, winding streets with the aid of the newspaper articles, a map, and a flashlight. At times I could hardly see at all, and had to stop to read street signs. This must be the locals’ idea of a rural atmosphere.
            Parking near the cliff, I walked through a field to it and gazed down from the top. I could just see the dark ocean below. Too far to survive a fall, especially since there were rocks at the base of the cliff.
            Unenlightened as to what had happened here, I returned to my car and drove uphill. By trial and error, I reached a point facing north that overlooked Los Angeles. I got out of the car and saw the same mesmerizing city lights I had seen from the Hollywood Hills—in reverse, and with a few differences.
            As I gazed, it occurred to me that this exact scene looked very familiar. I found my portfolio of prints in the backseat of the car, and extracted the print of city lights Meg had said she photographed from the Hollywood Hills on Tuesday evening, the night Rita died. Using my flashlight, I compared the picture to the view in front of me.
            Here was the same curving string of bright lights, that I now knew must be Pacific Coast Highway, wending its way north, looking more like a snake than one of the legendary Roman roads known for straightness. Here was the exact view in Meg’s picture, including the dark area at the left of the scene I had attributed to a low cloud, but which was actually the water of Santa Monica Bay.
            I drove back down the hill and north on PCH, as Pacific Coast Highway was known, as fast as the traffic and my conscience would allow. I drove to the apartment building in Venice where Meg and Bob lived—and where Jody had died. I entered the building from the parking area in the rear.
            As soon as I was inside, my ardor cooled. I didn’t know what apartment Bob lived in. I didn’t know him very well at all. I hesitated for some seconds, and then I heard music and laughter. A party was in progress somewhere in the building.
            Incensed that the inhabitants could be so carefree so soon after one of their co-tenants had died, I followed the sounds to the third floor and then to the open door of an apartment, from which Caribbean rhythms were blasting. Nobody was sleeping here tonight.
            I stood in the doorway and saw a number of bodies, male and female, through a haze of cigarette and marijuana smoke, as I could tell from the distinctive odors. Some were standing, some were sitting, mostly on the floor. All were drinking and laughing at a girl who bent her body backward as she tried to walk under a stick held by two people, without falling. A limbo contest. Her skirt was well above her knees, and not for artistic reasons. The girl was Meg.
            Meg was oblivious to me as she collapsed on the floor shrieking with laughter, was helped to her feet by some man, and took a proffered mug of beer. I spotted Bob, sitting near the doorway, and went to him.
            I stooped in front of him and shouted over the racket. “I need to talk to you.”
            He looked at me as he would a minor distraction, such as a fly, and went back to a conversation with the girl sitting beside him. I put my face close to his and yelled again. He frowned at me. I motioned toward the door and said, “Outside.”
            He grudgingly rose to his feet, trying not to spill his beer, and followed me, swaying a little. I went to the third floor balcony to escape the noise of the party. He stood near the doorway with a puzzled look on his face, carefully staying away from the railing.
I spoke loudly, not sure whether he had all his faculties. “I want to talk to you about what you did Tuesday evening.”
            He had a blank look on his face. I tried again.
            “You drove Meg somewhere.”
            “Oh, right. Uh, the Hollywood Hills. I drove her to the Hollywood Hills.”
            “What did you do there?”
            “She took pictures…of the lights.”
            “Tell me exactly where you drove her.”
            He appeared to be thinking, but I doubted what was taking place in his head was worthy of the word. “Uh, I can’t remember, exactly. We drove up to where we could see the lights.”
            “You didn’t really go to the Hollywood Hills, did you? You went to Palos Verdes.”
            “No, man, it was the Hills.”
            I grew impatient. “A girl is dead. If you don’t tell me the truth, you could be obstructing justice.”
            Big words I had learned on the Perry Mason TV show.
            “Jody?”
            “Not Jody, another girl. Do I have to go to the police?”
            “No, man, I’ll tell you. I didn’t go anywhere. Meg borrowed the car. She went somewhere, but she told me to swear that I had driven her to the Hollywood Hills. Don’t tell her I told you this. She’ll kill me.”
            “What did she give you in return?”
            Bob looked sheepish. I knew the answer. It involved S-E-X.
            “Thank you. Go back to your party. Don’t fall over the railing.”
            I made sure Bob got safely inside the building before I exited down the stairs.
*
            Back at my own apartment, I went at once to my high school yearbook. Turning to the page with the photos for the class of 1959, I scrutinized them carefully. Damn it, the faces were too small. I took a magnifying glass I used when looking at my own photographs, and checked the faces of all the girls. What the magnifying glass primarily did was to accentuate the graininess of the photos.
            Maybe there wasn’t a connection between Meg and the other girls. I was about to give up when I remembered something. Meg had told me she was twenty-one, not twenty. She was probably from the class of 1958. I turned to that page and started over again. Halfway through the second of the two pictures I hesitated, and then picked up the magnifying glass again.
            Could this girl with short, brown hair be Meg with long, blond hair? I had a vague memory of that girl. Her name was Alice White. I confirmed this by checking the names beneath the picture. I looked again with tired eyes; it was approaching 2 a.m. Above average height, high cheekbones, bright eyes. Her smile is what convinced me. The corners of her mouth turned up the same way Meg’s did when she smiled.
            I stumbled off to bed, my mind in a whirl. It must have stopped whirling soon, because I didn’t remember anything after that.
*
            “What can you tell me about a girl named Alice White, class of 1958?”
            “She disappeared. She was involved in a hit-and-run accident with an old lady. The lady died, the police caught Alice, and then she disappeared.”
            “When was that?”
            My mother paused to think. “Soon after she graduated from high school. Late 1958, I think. Two and a half years ago. Why are you asking about Alice?”
            “Because I think I’ve found her. She may have killed Jody and Rita.”
            My mother gasped. “Why do you think that?”
            “It’s too complicated to explain on the phone. What else can you tell me about her?”
            “Let me get the yearbook of the Class of 1958.”
            Mother had yearbooks for every year. When she returned to the phone, she read me what it said beside Alice’s class picture. What stuck in my mind was that Alice had been a member of the Photography Club for her last two years of high school, after I graduated.
            Mother asked me whether I had talked to the police.
            “I will. I’ll write everything to you in a letter. Don’t say anything to anybody.”
            “Be careful, Alex.”
            “I will.”
            As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. It was Meg. She wanted her print of the city lights back. I told her to meet me on the beach in front of her apartment building in half an hour. I was certain she was starting to look over her shoulder.
*
            Meg was standing on the beach walk, dressed in short shorts and a sleeveless pink blouse, gazing pensively toward the water. She looked good, considering her carousing the night before. I walked toward her, admiring the view. I got to within a few feet of her before she saw me.
            When she spotted me she said, “Where’s the print?”
            “It’s in my car.”
            “I need it, Alex.”
            “In a minute. But first, Meg, we need to talk. Or should I say Alice? Alice White?”
            I saw a frightened look in Meg’s eyes before she looked away.
“You’re right; it was the print that gave you away. You didn’t realize that there would be that much difference between the city lights views from Palos Verdes and the Hollywood Hills. Even after I mentioned it to you, it took a while to sink in, didn’t it? I bet you had me take you up to the Hollywood Hills so you’d gain credibility when you talked about being there, since you’d never been before.”
            “Bob took me there.”
            “Sorry; Bob defected. Perhaps because he’d had too much to drink or smoke, perhaps because he didn’t want to be an accessory to murder. You drove the car alone to Palos Verdes to meet Rita. Or, more likely, you met Rita at her Redondo Beach apartment, had a few drinks, and then drove her to Palos Verdes.”
            “You can’t prove anything.”
            “I don’t have to. I’ll let the police do that. But I have some ideas. After you escaped out here from Indianapolis and changed your name, Jody and Rita somehow got wind of where you were and followed you. They blackmailed you to the point where you couldn’t afford to buy a car. That must have gotten pretty old.”
            Meg didn’t say anything.
            “Rita welcomed you with open arms Tuesday evening, because you brought money. She’d drunk enough so she wasn’t on guard when you walked with her to the edge of the cliff and pushed her off. Jody probably didn’t know about Rita when you did her in, because it hadn’t hit the papers yet. A few drinks loosened her up, also.
            “You thought you had an alibi for Rita, but that broke down. Jody was riskier, but as long as your real identity wasn’t discovered you should be safe, since there weren’t any witnesses. Which brings up a question. You knew I was from your school. Weren’t you afraid I’d find out who you were?”
            “I had a crush on you in high school, but you didn’t know me from Eve.”
            Meg had a tear in the corner of each eye. She spoke in a low voice. “Jody wouldn’t have introduced us if she thought you’d catch on, because it would have ruined her game. We even discussed that together. Of course, I didn’t want to be recognized, either. We figured you and I would meet sooner or later, because we both liked photography. Better to do it under controlled circumstances. I enjoyed the fact that the tables were turned. Instead of me having a crush on you, you have a crush on me.”
            “Had. Now you disgust me.”
            Tears flowed down Meg’s cheeks. “I couldn’t stay in Indianapolis. I would have gone to jail; my life would have been ruined. I always wanted to come to California—where I could reinvent myself. Here in the warmth, the desert, the ocean. I wanted to take pictures, live beside a beach where it never gets cold, and lie on soft sand forever. I hated cold weather and meddling people. Life was good for a while—until those two bitches showed up and ruined everything.”
            Her tears were getting to me. “I have to go now.”
            “Wait. It doesn’t have to end this way.” Meg started to unbutton her blouse. “I still like you. Come inside with me. I’ll give you anything you want.”
            “It’s too late for that.”
            She placed her hands on my chest. “All right, do me one favor. Wait until tomorrow to call the police. I promise I won’t run away.”
            I hesitated, and then promised not to call the police. My heart isn’t as hard as it should be.
*
            I awoke very early the next morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, dressed, and made myself a cup of coffee. It was too early to eat breakfast and much too early to go to work. The apartment was eerily silent. George was still away on his trip. I got into my car and drove to Venice Beach, not sure what I would do when I arrived.
            The newly risen sun warmed my back as I walked from my car to the beach walk. I inhaled the cool morning air, and wished the world was as peaceful as it looked. A few surfers floated in the water, almost obscured by mist over the water, flocked together like ducks, waiting for the perfect wave. An older couple walked along the beach near the water. The man and woman stopped and examined something on the sand.
            The beach was too wide for me to see what they were looking at, but I was pulled toward them by an unseen force. I took off my shoes and socks and walked across the sand, looking out of place in my business suit. As I approached the couple, I saw the woman holding items of clothing that looked familiar. I said hello.
            She raised her head and said, “We found these things here beside the water.”
            A pair of shorts and a blouse. It wasn’t unusual for people to leave clothing on the beach while they swam, but there was nobody in the water except the surfers, and they were some distance away. Also, I didn’t see any sign of a towel. The blouse was pink, the same color Meg had been wearing yesterday. I reached for it and looked at it closely. I was sure it was the same blouse. I saw something in the pocket.
            It was a California driver’s license in the name of Margaret Chalfont.
            The man looked over my shoulder and said, “Holy shit.”
            The woman reproved him. “Harold.”
            I had trouble speaking. “I…know her.”
            The woman placed a hand on my shoulder. “I hope she’s all right.”
            The man said, “We should call the police.”
*
            I stayed out of the investigation, beyond answering the bare minimum of questions. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that it would be a good thing for the parents of Jody and Rita to know their daughters were blackmailers. Meg’s body was never found. Aren’t the bodies of drowning victims supposed to rise to the surface after a few days? Of course, sharks abound in the Pacific Ocean.
            Some nights I have a fantasy of a young woman appearing in a town where nobody knows her, with a brand new name and a brand new life. Taking pictures and hoping to become the next Ansel Adams.
            By the way, the police never found her camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Web Site: Alan Cook, Mystery and walking writer  

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 6/13/2009
Good story, Alan; well penned!

Love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D


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