How could it have come this far? She had sworn it would never happen again, and yet here she was, climbing the stairs into the open air at the top of the building. It was nighttime, cool, still, and starlit. She followed, hand trapped in his—if she could only find some strength, pull him down and watch him
tumble to the landing, she could step over him and go home and forget. She was here, she told herself, of her own free will. This would be the last time, and it would be easy to say so.
They stepped out onto the roof. He put his arm around her, nuzzled his face in her hair, and then led her toward the wall at the perimeter. He leaned her against it and moved up behind her, close, his face in her neck as she looked out over the blazing lights of Westwood. They were directly up two flights from her apartment, fourteen stories from street level. His arms crossed in front of her and his hands cupped her breasts under her robe. How did this happen? I despise this person! Yet she shifted her shoulders to accommodate his embrace from behind. She had liked him once. With reservations, yes, but he had been so charming.
He had helped her when, without even knowing it, she most needed help. She felt his left hand slide down past her belly, grazing the soft hair with his fingertips. He placed his right foot between her feet, prompting her to set them farther apart. A finger curved and found its mark—she gasped and realized she was moist, betrayed by her own body as it reacted, as if in pleasure, in spite of her feelings.
Her hair was still wet from a bath. He liked her freshly bathed for these sessions. Our little times together, he called them. As if they were lovers, but without the love. She concentrated on the rough texture of the stucco wall. He withdrew his hands and turned her around, then lifted her so that she sat on the wall. This is the last time, you son of a bitch.
Absentmindedly, she placed her hands on his shoulders as he parted her robe and bent to brush his lips high against the inside of her thigh. The wall was narrow and uncomfortable to sit on. Behind her, LA’s affluent Westside stretched all the way to the ocean. It had all seemed so thrilling when he first brought her up here—the danger, the craziness of it—she had convulsed in orgasm before falling into the safety of his arms and weeping in relief.
Now she felt nothing, not even fear. Just an odd detachment, like staring out a window into the rain, or waiting in a long line at the market. Soon she would simulate an orgasm so that it could all be over.
There was a pressure at her stomach and she felt herself tilting backward. It happened so suddenly she lost hold of his shoulders, and now she felt the sharp points of the stucco scrape the backs of her calves.
Falling, she thought of her brother, Jeff, and the time he saved her life. They were teenagers, bodysurfing at Santa Monica Beach, and he plucked her out of the ocean after a wave tumbled her for so long she thought her feet would never find the sandy bottom. Her last thought before she hit the ground was of the man on the roof. How clear, how perfectly clear, that everything they had done together had always pointed relentlessly toward this.
Jeffrey Fenner found out about his sister’s death while waiting for a plane to take him home. By the time he arrived at San Francisco Airport it was almost midnight, and now he had to decide between a nearby hotel and the redeye special. He needed a drink but the airport lounge was closed. He opted for the flight back to LA. He bought his ticket and headed for the men’s room. Locked in a stall, he sat on the toilet seat and put his briefcase on his knees. There was over an hour to wait, plus forty minutes on the plane, then the taxi ride home meant another forty minutes—it all added up to at least a half-gram of coke required for the duration. He opened the briefcase and pulled out a bank deposit bag, inserted the key into the lock, and pulled the zipper. Inside were a variety of neatly labeled vials and plastic bags. He located the bag marked “personal” and the orange vial that said “Valium.” From the bag he pulled a flake of soapy white crystal the size of his thumbnail.
Resealing the bag, he took out two Valiums, placing one in his mouth and the other in his pocket. He fished in his left shoe in the hollow of his arch and located a small amber glass vial. Using the vial, he mashed the piece of cocaine into powder and scooped it onto his driver’s license, which he then bent into a curve as he tapped the powder into the mouth of the vial. When the vial was full, he capped it and replaced it in his shoe. He transferred the rest of the coke on his license to the back of his left hand and lifted it to his nostril, inhaling sharply.
Refreshed, he closed up his briefcase, checked his nostrils in the mirror, and went back out to the lobby. The lighting was grim and everything looked dingy. The people had an equally grim look, as though lost or sentenced to an endless purgatory for travelers. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten in a long time.
In the middle of the lounge was a fast food stand. He joined a line of ten or twelve people who stood, zombie-like and silent, waiting for a Middle Eastern-looking guy with a red-and-white striped cap and matching apron to microwave a new batch of chilidogs. The food looked plastic, like the permanent display meals at a cheap chain restaurant.
He stared ahead and listened until the sounds around him merged into an abstract buzz. He looked forward to getting back home, although in fact he wouldn’t be going home; he had to stop by Rich’s place first and make a delivery. At least he could relax, have a drink, while they weighed product and did the math. Then he could finally go home and go to sleep. Sleep—he hadn’t slept in three days.
Muscles in his leg twitched with exhaustion and toxins; he felt creaky and brittle, cranky, jumpy, and increasingly sour. From the background of babble, one particular noise seemed to be demanding attention. It had a red flag on it, like a loud knock in the middle of the night.
“You are wanting something, sir? We have veddy good chilidog. You are wanting how many chilidog?” He found that he was at the counter, oblivious to how he had arrived there. In a moment of panic he realized his hands were empty; he looked down and saw his briefcase on the floor, locked between his ankles.
“Two.” He held up two fingers to verify. The guy handed him a pair of paper boats containing long lumps covered with something that looked like steaming dog food. Jeff paid, scooped up his briefcase, and turned away.
The food was ugly, but he was surprised at how good it smelled. He devoured both dogs, wolflike, sitting in the row of hard plastic seats farthest from the other waiting passengers. Afterward, he headed back to the men’s room to wash his hands. It was large and very bright, but vacant, so he took a quick blast from the cap of the amber vial. There was still some time to kill, so he pulled out his cell phone and thumbed Rich’s number.
“Hello?” Rich’s girlfriend answered on the first ring.
“Hey Lilah, it’s Jeff.” His voice echoed weirdly in the bathroom stall.
“Where are you? Rich waited, but he had to go out.”
“I’m at the airport in San Francisco. Things got a little hung up but I’ll be there by two thirty.
Think Rich’ll be back?”
“I haven’t been able to reach him. Are you still coming by?” He pictured her, with her high cheekbones and pouty little mouth. Her crazy mess of hair. They had been friends for years, but someone else was always in the way. He went to a concession stand and bought mints and a paper, then went to sit by the terminal at Gate 5, where Southwest Airline Flight #3714 would be leaving for Los Angeles at 12:10 a.m.
It was in the Metro section of the LA Times:
SUICIDE IN WESTWOOD
Twenty-eight-year-old Marilyn Fenner, a research assistant at UCLA, was found dead Monday morning, apparently after jumping from her twelfth-floor balcony.
Shit, he thought, no way.
Jeff Fenner’s life is out of control. At the nadir of a rocky, sometimes-up-usually-down career, he has come face to face with his demons: he’s being investigated by the police, he owes money to the wrong people, and he sees an empty future shutting down in front of him. When
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By the time Savvas arrived at the copse in Filothei, the police had already cordoned off the area. Two ministers, the High-up Chief and the Press Secretary of the Government were waiting at the crime scene. The head rookie bypassed the representatives of the Intelligence Service and grasped the hand of colleague Jacob Oldman.
“What do you mean, good morning?” queried Oldman.
With greying hair, thick moustache, squared shoulders and serious expression, the taciturn Oldman was the most senior officer in Homicide. “Come see,” he said in a fatherly tone, pointing at the victim’s Rover. Gus Black, the President of the party in power, was slumped at the wheel, with two contact shots in the head. Three hours earlier he had dismissed his bodyguard and driver. Black’s door was closed, the rear door was not. The gun used to shoot him had not been found, and neither had the revolver he kept in the glove compartment or his personal belongings.
“How do you feel about robbery after murder?” whispered Whitebrow, who had crept up as quietly as a cat.
“It’s likely,” said the senior officer.
The Chief pulled Savvas aside.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Did the Honourables remove his personal belongings?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“They thought they would round off the crime scene, eh?” chuckled the head rookie and swore at the “good for nothings” for tampering with the investigation.
In his opinion, the passenger door had been broken into by an amateur; someone who must have known how long Black would be unaccompanied. If it was someone the victim knew, it was likely they would sit beside him. Otherwise, the threat of a weapon would have been enough to get them into the car. The perpetrators had preferred to break in and hide behind the driver, leaving mud smears with DNA. And as it hadn’t rained for days, it was probably transferred from a garden.
“Black must have been followed by at least two people,” said Stretch. “When they saw him head towards his vehicle, one hid in the back. We’re looking for a thin, short and flexible person, who jumped up as soon as the politician turned the key. He didn’t let him drive far due to the increased police presence in the area, killed him and hopped onto his accomplice’s motorbike. This was indicated by the narrow tire tracks behind the Rover. The victim must have been at one of the villas nearby. It smells like a political crime committed by an amateur.”
“We’ll get caught up with professional liars. Zeus, take note. Your theories are for my ears only. Oldman is in command of the investigation, I’ll explain your role to you in private,” said the Chief, and returned to the huddled VIPs.
Officially he was in charge, unofficially…
“Clearly one coroner won’t suffice,” murmured Oldman, motioning to the Crime Scene Investigators to stop snickering, as no less than three coroners pulled up.
While they were waiting for Black’s driver and bodyguard, Savvas decided to consult with the representatives from local police station, certain they would be aware of the quirks of their citizens, many of whom were involved in politics, be it front and centre or behind the scenes. It turned out to be no secret that the victim often visited Claire Vane, who lived 200 metres from the scene of the crime and another 200 from his own villa. Although she was Black’s closest associate, they had not been instructed to inform her of his death.
The head rookie updated Oldman, who requested Savvas handle Vane.
:: Warm-blooded Constituent
In the meantime, the police had blocked off the roads leading to Black’s residence. Savvas asked the patrol car to pass by the house first. Arriving there, he saw the victim’s wife in a red convertible waiting for the garage door to open. It was 4.55 am. The patrolmen had some very interesting gossip about the “brand-new widow” Lola Black and the Vanes. Among other things, the latter’s husband, former MP Vane, had moved to the city centre “to serve his female constituents better”.
His “official wife” was sleeping. Her house was like a bungalow with large uncovered windows, which offered the perfect view into the sitting room. The head rookie walked through the unlocked gate and rounded the garden. There were puddles in a few areas from a recent watering. He requested that Forensics take a sample of the mud for comparison with the trace found in the Rover and to search for footprints and other evidence. Ringing the doorbell, he heard Claire Vane’s voice a few seconds later.
On hearing about Black’s death, she burst into sobs. However, she quickly regained her self-control and systematically asked for details. She then proceeded to make telephone call after telephone call. Her authoritarian words testified to her anger and antagonism. To Savvas she said that Black had also been a close friend of her father’s. The previous evening they had shared a bottle of wine, chatting easily. He must have been killed just a few minutes after leaving her house. Claire flatly rejected the possibility that it was an organised political crime, or that the perpetrator was a friend or colleague.
“Politicians kill with their words,” she stated. The only possible explanation was an entirely unpredictable action by a warm-blooded constituent. The “only possible explanation” was interrupted by the sound of her telephone.
“Yes, I know… an officer is here now… I don’t care… it’s your problem,” she said, hostilely.
Her husband, wondered Savvas. Was he asking for an alibi? He looked at her questioningly. She wasn’t going to enlighten him. He expressed his condolences and bid her goodnight.
“You are completely different from the woman who opened the door to me,” he said.
“Please explain, Mr Kallinis.”
“I met three Claires this evening. One opened the door, warm from her bed. Another expressed her deep grief on hearing about the murder of her closest friend. Now I’m bidding farewell to a disciplined, dynamic scientist. I won’t mention your political standing in case you misunderstand me.”
Before shutting the door behind him, Mrs Vane took his mobile number saying, “We will meet again.” There was no doubt in his mind that she was flirting with him.
The old, beat-up Chevy pickup came to an abrupt stop about a foot from the back of Ruby’s prized Jeep. She scowled with disapproval as the driver shoved open the door and dropped to his booted feet before the engine even had a chance to shut off.
"Help you, miss?" he asked, with a slow, deep twang, wiping the dirt from his hands with a handkerchief he’d pulled from his back pocket.
She squinted against the midday sun a little harder now as his voice rang a touch familiar. She watched him for an over-long moment, the mother cat twisting her lithe body around his legs in greeting. Sweat glistened on his tanned, muscular arms as he bent to pick up the kittens that came out to join their mother.
She smiled. There had to be something special about a man who elicited the love of animals. He was at least six foot two, and built like he could lift a hundred pounds straight over his head with no problem at all. A smudge of dried mud followed the line of his strong, stubbled jaw. He could be the most handsome man Ruby had ever seen. Not a sophisticated, city kind of handsome. More a Russell Crowe, gladiator, kind of handsome.
The irritated scowl returned to his face after he put the tiny, tabby kittens down, almost like he’d just remembered he wasn’t pleased about being pulled away from something important. This made him all the more interesting. Part of Ruby was glad she'd been such a bother. The day just became more intriguing.
“They’re adorable. And they seem to like you.” She tried to break the awkward silence.
Curious, soulful green eyes peered out from under his dusty Stetson hat. He gazed first at her well-worn Justin cowboy boots, then slowly up her long legs to the khaki shorts, pausing momentarily at the denim shirt she had tied loosely around her waist, showing just a hint of pale skin. His gaze stopped momentarily at the mess of red-blonde hair she’d pulled away from her face, before he finally met her eyes.
Ruby held her giggle as he finished his perusal, not wanting to make him self-conscious since she’d recognized him. Billy MacCallister. Had to be. My, how he’d grown from the runny-nosed brat who used to follow her around so many years before. He’d been the pain-in-the-butt, kid brother of her best friend.
But, this grown up Billy MacCallister was a whole different creature. Mercy, he’s definitely a full grown man now. Ranch life looks good on him.
"So," Ruby avoided his eyes to keep him at a disadvantage for just a bit longer. She reached down to pet the dogs again, calming them. "How's your sister these days, Billy?"
He stopped wiping the dirt from his jeans and searched to get a better look at her face.
"What's the matter, Billy? Think you're seeing a ghost?" A smile crossed her lips.
"Ruby?" he asked, quietly at first then louder. "Ruby?" This time with unashamed excitement. Billy took two long-legged strides toward her, tilting his hat to get a better look. "Well, look at that, it is you."
Before Ruby had a chance to respond, he lifted her off the step and twirled her around, not caring at all that she now wore half the dirt he once had all over him.
The enticing scent of musk shampoo, salty sweat, and horses swirled around her, drawing her in. How could a man smell that good after working in the mud? It took all her strength to keep from leaning in and making a fool of herself. He smelled like home to her and she had to admit, it felt good to be held.
"Billy, good grief, put me down." She tugged at her shirt to keep it down, embarrassed. The pups jumped up, anxious now to play, as Ruby tried to gain composure. Not an easy task when being twirled around by a handsome cowboy.
"Ruby Lattrell, it’s so good to see you. How the hell are you?” The honest joy in seeing her poured from him. “Oh my God, you look fantastic!" He set her down and brushed the hair away from her face, looking her over now with those same hungry eyes he'd had as a love-struck kid.
She glanced away, self-conscious. When she finally mustered the courage to gaze up at him, she couldn't help but return his infectious smile. There was no worry there, or pretense. The tiny lines around his joy-filled eyes showed only that he knew how to smile. How to laugh. Something she’d forgotten how to do a long time ago.
"Well, that’s certainly more of a welcome than I expected." She stepped back to get some space and a better look at him. He had to be coming up on thirty now. Strapping. Still driving his mom crazy with that unruly chestnut hair tucked behind his ears, no doubt. Same innocent, broad smile that held secrets.
He continued talking and following her every move, anxious to know everything all at once. Where had she been? How had she stayed so perfect? Finally, he realized she hadn’t said a word. He stopped then, smiled that secret smile again, his eyes slowly filling with concern. "Ruby, I'm sorry I'm just going on. How are you? Are you all right? Oh Lord, I'm so sorry about your grandmother."
Ruby flushed when he caught her staring. "Oh, I ah, I'm fine. Thank you, though. I can’t believe she is gone. This place will be really weird without Granny Rube here." She took a step back toward the door, gathering herself, hoping she'd find the key in the usual hiding place so she could make a graceful exit.
"You don't act fine." He caught up with her, supporting her elbow like a real southern gentleman. "Let's get you inside."
Ruby didn't protest. She kind of liked the fuss he made. This was someone she'd known for nearly all her life. It felt good to know he'd missed her.
"Just wait till Claudie finds out you're home. She's going to just die." He reached behind the rusted iron pot for the key and turned it in the lock. "She's not living out here anymore. She's got a place in town. Married a nice city guy who moved here from Arizona, Mike Calloway. They bought old Fike's Market and fixed it up real nice. Doing real well with it. She likes living in town so much better than out here." He kept talking as he closed the door behind them.
The familiar smells of the house hit Ruby first, distracting her from what Billy was saying. Gingerbread cookies, Pledge furniture polish giving off an ever-present hint of lemon.
Ruby stopped in the entry, closed her eyes, and visualized her mother and Granny Rube laughing in the kitchen, handmade aprons tied around their waists, shoving cookies in that old Wedgewood oven, sharing private giggles.
Ruby stood for a long while as she replayed the memories over in her mind, only vaguely aware Billy had gone silent and held a supportive hand at the small of her back.
"Welcome home, Ruby," he whispered, his sweet eyes searching hers.
She didn't know why, but just then she couldn't keep herself from turning and wiping the dust from his cheek, feeling more true compassion from this one understanding look than she'd ever felt before.
"Thanks, Billy." She realized suddenly her eyes filled with tears. "Thanks for making me feel so welcome. I'm glad to be home."
She felt as if she’d stepped back in time. She was just a teenager when she left home almost two decades ago. Nearly everything in the house remained in the same place. The fireplace room still held the same worn velvet couches and mahogany side tables. The faded ivy wallpaper she'd helped Granny hang curled at the corners where moisture and age had gotten to the glue. The heirloom rug passed from her grandfather's family, now worn and fraying around the edges.
The same photos capturing a more innocent time continued to be displayed on the dusty river-rock mantle. Yellowed images of Granny Rube's parents looked too small and frail to have endured such a rough pioneer life. Next to that picture, Ruby saw the photo of her Grandpa Mac, taken only days before he was trampled to death by his prized bull, Heathen.
Ruby picked up the tarnished frame and held it close, realizing only now how handsome a man her grandfather had been, tall and lanky, his deep set eyes full of the devil. Reminded her of her mother.
"Granny used to say it served him right to get taken by the one beast on the ranch that was ornerier than him." Ruby wiped the dust from the frame and replaced it back on the mantle in the exact place it was before. "Momma told me Granny put Heathen down herself with a twelve-gauge shotgun the night he killed Grandpa Mac, but I still don't know if that's true. She had such a flair for the dramatic, it was hard to tell fact from fantasy."
"Your granny was a good woman, Ruby," Billy finally offered, a measure of respect in his voice. "Always remember that. She helped me out more times than I can count."
"I'm just sad I missed so many years with her. All I have are old memories of how things used to be. Silly stuff like, I remember when she calmed Jake and me during those hell-raising thunderstorms, and chased us into the pond when we were driving everyone nuts because we were so bored." Ruby turned away from the photos and took in the room once again. "She always had time for us. I can't believe I let her die alone."
His terminal path was irreversible and had been certain from the moment he palmed the cash at the blackjack table. The greedy moment was his second chance. Once before, he had attempted to steal from them. It was only a small amount that would not be missed, or so he thought. But they caught him, and later in an isolated shed deep in the woods, he experienced what they called awareness training…and he suffered. He survived the test only to gain a renewed, but baseless, confidence.
Greed can blind the goodness of a soul. Its selfish nature ignores those things important to the rest of humanity, consumes more than its share, and discards its rubble. Greed cultivates only that which feeds its insatiable appetite.
As time passed, the fear and pain dissolved with the distance of the memory. He learned from the experience and now believed that he knew the unwritten rules crucial to his survival. He settled back into the routine of his job and yearned for acceptance into the family. His desire to be one of them was fueled by an internal fiery ambition, which caused him to forsake all who had loved him before, and this temptation for easy money made him a different man.
He had underestimated the pertinacious spirit and the tenacity of their stewardship regarding family money. The lesson they taught him that night in the shed had faded, giving way to the undeniable force of addictive greed, which romanced him and enticed him to take the short stack of hundreds left on the table by a distracted, inebriated gambler. He palmed it with a swift practiced motion; no one would know. The drunk was barely conscious and unaware, but the ever-watchful eyes had seen the quick hustle. They showed him the camera replay before his trip to this final place to endure their wrath.
Scars are etched and spoils discarded along greed’s ugly trail. Greed is a cancer that tangles its suffocating tentacles to all it can reach and eats away the foundation of its subsistence. Greed devours and moves on to its next host. Greed teaches greed.
They tied him by his wrist to pilings under a dilapidated industrial dock on the Sampit River. The river branched and flowed in a deep channel previously used by ships that had served the Georgetown steel mill. The mill was closed and forgotten. Greed had converted this life-giving estuary into an abandoned, rust-colored wasteland. The murky channel was a frequent path for large bull sharks cruising upstream from the bay in search of schooling mullet and trout. Sharks would not overlook this tempting morsel for long.
Before the big predator arrived, the thief hung in the changing tides for two days with his mouth taped shut and his castrated loins slowly seeping his bodily fluids to mingle with the secretions of bloody chum bags secured about his waist. He was the anointed temptation and the warning. The water rose to his chin and receded to his waist in a slow, consistent, tidal cycle. He had guessed what might finally happen, but did not know how long before death would come. Anxious, but resigned to his fate, he wished the end to be now. He craved the satisfaction of relief, but there was no answer to his false prayer offered to a feigned religion.
The beast circled, moving faster as it sensed the source of the blood trail and tested the defenseless nature of the prey. It became more aggressive. He felt the first tearing punctures of the powerful, predatory attack as the hidden beast surged and ripped away the lower half of his body in one crushing bite. The attack was painful at first but ultimately delivered anticipated relief from his tortured trial. For a few short moments, he remained alive and conscious and watched as his life’s blood drained away. He saw the mortal wound but did not dwell on the implication. The attack was fueled by hungry, gluttonous greed.
Greed is often without mercy.
He had lived a short, highly charged life on the edge, with all that a young single man could want, but he had wanted more. While seeking more than his due, he had crossed the avarice boundary patrolled by a greater greed, and then he paid. His termination was the justice dispensed by an unmerciful, pestilent force, a force he had once nourished, but never allied.
He no longer felt pain, released his apathetic grip on life, and floated, rising above the body that was once him, watching the shark attack again and again in a ravenous feeding frenzy that would not stop until the prey was consumed. His soul was already gone, maybe to his final paradise.
The setting sun illuminated the clouds in a peaceful orange-and-blue sky. His violent death did little to disturb nature’s beauty at the end of this fine summer day.
Greed will prune the fresh buds of nature’s spring and sour the taste of its life’s stream.
A young hitchhiker stood on a high bridge that crossed the Sampit River. He was tired and hungry, but he stopped to watch the sunset over the vast stretch of pine forest that swallowed the winding river to the west. Without concern he looked down the river channel to see thrashing water under an abandoned pier. The dim light and the distance to the pier conspired to obnubilate his view of the prey and the predator. The water settled to a calm, black surface. He quickly lost interest and looked back at the distant sunset, picked up his bag, and moved on. He was going to Myrtle Beach, and he was sure that life would be better.
Battleship gray merged to powder blue as the eastern sky met the new day. Pelicans flying in a disciplined flight formation skimmed the glassy, rolling surf. Sandpipers raced along the seafoam cast to shore on the edge of each wave.
“I love this time of day. It’s just so perfect.” Edna sighed.
“Me too. I just wish it didn’t come so early.” Evelyn yawned and rubbed her eyes.
Each morning Edna and Evelyn walked a half block west from their apartment and crossed four lanes of asphalt, known as the Kings Highway, to purchase one of their little decadent pleasures: coffee and a warm Krispy Kreme doughnut. With the treats, they returned east two blocks, kicked off their flip-flops, and walked on the cool beach sand, to their favorite morning rendezvous off First Avenue South.
They enjoyed commanding views of the surf from this spot in front of the Swamp Fox Roller Coaster and Amusement Park. The two thirty-something friends relaxed on seats attached to either side of a lifeguard stand positioned near a high-tide beach drain know as the swash. While watching the calming turmoil of the surf, they savored each bite of the scrumptious, hot doughnuts. Both had a habit of dipping the sugared, caloric bombs into their coffee prior to each bite.
The early-morning salt air, the ocean’s constant music, the sand creatures scampering for their morning meal, and the new beachcombers’ bounty of shells left on the high tide were all things precious to these aging, but not old, former beach babes.
They had come to the beach during the most impressionable time of their young lives to experience the joy of the glitter and lights of Myrtle Beach in the summertime. At first, to stay or leave was an easy choice, but time rerouted the path to any other place. Each swore to the other she would never leave, and the promises had been kept, so far.
As friends since elementary school, Edna and Evelyn had enjoyed the summer beach vacations of their youth. They had played all the Pavilion games, shared cotton-candy swirls, ridden go-carts and all the amusement park rides. Each had swooned over a beach romance, falling in love for a week with a guy they would never see again.
Edna and Evelyn lived in an affordable two-bedroom apartment over Eddie and Vera Rondell’s garage. The girls had been renting this beach apartment from the Rondells for over ten years, and they had all grown to be like family.
Evelyn was Twiggy-cute, anorexic thin, and wore thick, black-rimmed glasses. She had straight black hair that she trimmed when the bangs hung over her eyes and had an uncanny ability to select unflattering fashion styles that hid her natural beauty. She was a prime candidate for a professional makeover.
With each of the many minimum-wage jobs on her Myrtle Beach resume, she left when the breaks were cut back, the boss was too bossy, or she just needed a change as a reminder that her dream was still possible. That new job would surely provide the bridge to greener grass and a path to her dream. She typically found the new patch of green grass to be maintained by similar gardeners.
For now Evelyn worked the two-to-ten shift at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. The shift was too late for breakfast and too early for the late-night pot-toker’s feast. But someone was needed to tend the counter for that late-afternoon sugar urge and for those who craved the hot, sweet appetizer that Krispy Kreme had delivered in the South since 1937. While the Krispy Kreme was short on bridges, it provided rare opportunities to pick up extra cash tips to supplement her hourly minimum wage.
Evelyn lived for the coffee, her cigarette breaks, and the occasional big tipper, the guy who dropped by more for conversation and a break from loneliness than a doughnut. For a few minutes, they met each other’s needs—a caffeine, sugary, afternoon high, mixed with a no-brain, incoherent conversation about the latest government-induced gripe, the sports report, or the weather. The tippers left thinking someone cared, and Evelyn left with a tip.
She held holy her ten-minute break allowed each hour by store management. The only smoke break location was out back on a concrete step, but in the heat or in the rain, Evelyn was there. For nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds, every hour, she sat on the back step thinking about her future and occasionally what her soul mate might be like when she finally found him. The available candidates were rare visitors at this job.
She wondered how long she would work the counter at this joint. Was she trapped in a life gradually morphing into someone she had never wanted to be? For now this beach resort was her place, her inescapable island of life.
She punched out at exactly ten every evening, a cigarette in her lips and a tired dream in her heart. When she left, she walked across Highway 17, the Kings Highway, to “her” happy hour at the Frisky Rabbit. She had a seat at the end of the bar that was always open for her. Each night Evelyn met her friend and soul mate, Edna, at the end of the bar, in the middle of life.
Edna still had the same curvaceous figure of her early twenties, with all the right parts in the perfect places. She dressed in a modest style but accentuated her positives and could still turn a few heads. Since her early teenage years, she had pampered her waist-length blond hair with expensive shampoos and one hundred brushes each and every night.
From the first week of her arrival at the beach, Edna had worked in a gift shop touted as the world-famous One-Eyed Flounder. She had worked her way up through the employment ranks of the Flounder, learning the retailing tricks required to succeed in the extremely competitive business of selling tourist trinkets in a coastal resort market.
She had toiled faithfully through the growth years to see each new addition to the One-Eyed Flounder as it slowly expanded upward and outward into a multilevel tourist bazaar. She was one of the few who could navigate the many aisles, rooms, and stairways without getting lost. She knew where every item in the store was supposed to be located.
On occasion and more often recently, she hinted to her supervisor, her supervisor’s manager, and the storeowner that she felt capable and deserving of the opportunity to move into a management position or at least a floor supervisor position. Unfortunately, all of these growth opportunities were currently filled and were likely to remain that way, as the owner had overstocked the positions with relatives. Most were lazy, clueless, unmotivated, and overpaid. Edna continued to labor silently under the supervision of the owner’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Darrell Jr.
All too quickly their morning routine was done, the sun was surprisingly hot in the early morning sky, the doughnuts were eaten, and the last sip of coffee emptied from their mugs.
“Ready to go?” Edna asked with an obvious reluctance to leave.
“No. But I guess it’s time. You know I could sit here all day and play on the beach. The tourists aren’t here yet, and the beach is so fresh and clean with all of the trash gone, but it won’t be long. I see ’em coming already, one by one.”
“Yep, the confused and thankless horde will be along directly. Look at that guy over there at the edge of the water already digging a hole in the sand, and for what? What is he thinking? The guy gets up at seven a.m., puts on a swimsuit, and starts diggin’ a hole in the wet sand. Has that particular urge ever hit you—to go out and dig a hole in the sand before dawn? I mean…what the hell?”
“Well, now that you ask—like, ah, nope, haven’t had that urge—but then I get to see this masterpiece of nature everyday, so I suppose I’m just spoiled. I’ve never been able to figure out what goes through the minds of most tourists anyway. They almost seem like an alien breed of some sort. It’s freaky, ’cause they look like the rest of us, except with a sunburn.”
“Hey, you know, you might be right. Maybe it’s just a disguise or something to fake us out!”
“Oh, Edna, you’re crazy, girl. Let’s get our fat butts moving. We got things to do.”
“Speak for yourself, fat butt. I’m gonna waltz my fine, tight, young stuff on back to the house. Maybe some redneck stud in a jacked-up pickup truck will whistle at me when I cross Ocean Boulevard! Woo-hoo! You know how I love that kind of intellectual love call,” Edna teased with sarcasm.
“You will just never grow up, you silly thing.”
They both laughed and trudged through the sand, flip-flopped over the hotel parking lot, and trotted across the asphalt of Ocean Boulevard. No studs of any type were out this early, but a large four-door Buick with Quebec licenses plates almost hit them.
The driver, with oblivious concentration, guided the car forward in the wrong lane, ignored the pedestrian crossing, turned sharply across four lanes without even a glance in his side mirror, clipped a stop sign, and continued weaving down a side street as if nothing had happened. Ahh, another day in paradise had begun. Summer was coming fast, and the Canadians were migrating back to their northern habitats.
The girls decided to reroute their path home, giving the main road and the unpredictable morning traffic a wide berth. They cut through the amusement park, taking a boardwalk trail that passed near the base of a large wooden and steel guy-wire structure, the world-famous Swamp Fox Roller Coaster.
“Edna, is that the kiddie train I hear running at this ungodly hour?”
“It sounds like it, but it’s too early. They never run that noisy thing much before noon. If it’s not against the city noise ordinance, it should be.”
The kiddie train was a small-scale replica of a passenger train and served as an amusement-park ride, normally complete with a properly attired engineer to drive kids and their attentive parents on a twisted route through the amusement park. They could hear the signature whistle of the engine making its way along its railed path beneath the massive trusses. The park was closed, and the girls were curious.
The miniature engine rounded a curve from behind a manicured Ligustrum hedge.
“Oh my God! What the—” Edna and Evelyn stood paralyzed with shock, their mouths agape as they stared at a naked young man with hands and feet tied and lashed across the engine. His head and upper torso were positioned over the front of the train and appeared like a figurehead on a ship’s bowsprit. A plastic bag filled with a small quantity of a greenish-brown substance was stuffed in his mouth and secured with duct tape. He seemed to be alive, but frozen in place.
“Call nine-one-one, call nine-one-one, call nine-one-one! Oh shit. Oh shit.” Evelyn trotted around in a small circle, her arms tucked at her sides and her hands flapping up and down on her limp wrist. She was not sure what to do, so she vacillated in place.
“No, I have not been drinking, ma’am!” Edna barked with extreme irritation to the emergency operator. “You tell the emergency boys to get here and get here quick. This boy doesn’t look so good.”
Finally, after thirty minutes, the Myrtle Beach Police arrived in their normal, less-than-rapid response to strange tourist sightings. The miniature train with its naked patron made ten more trips around the track before the first police car rolled into the parking lot. The officer eased one leg out of the car, and the rest of him struggled to follow. He carefully cradled a hot Krispy Kreme between his thumb and index finger. He reached back in the car to retrieve his coffee before moving his attention to this early-morning emergency.
Thirty minutes later the park manager arrived to turn off the ride. Lights were flashing, and sporadic sirens broke what was left of the early-morning calm. A small command post had been set up to support all the rescue teams, including policemen, fire trucks, firemen, an ambulance, and three EMTs. Two-dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a coffee thermos, and a small tarp were brought to the scene, while police gathered evidence.
The process was slow, and the mild enthusiasm decreased as the doughnuts disappeared. Sea gulls hovered, squawked, and looked for crumbs. Bored with the official disinterest and lack of progress, Edna went home to get ready for work. Evelyn went to take a nap before her weekly grocery-shopping duties.
The victimized young man, a first-year summer worker, was employed at the park. He had only been on the job for three weeks. He was confident, cocky, and considered a cool dude in his western Kentucky hometown. The teenager’s prayers had been answered with a summer job at the beach and a chance to get out of his nothing town for the summer. He was in heaven with girls, the beach, girls, pot, and girls. He relished the nightly parties that were easier to find in this town than a hamburger. He loved the crowded bars.
His small beach pad was a room in the Hutches Apartments located behind his new favorite bar, the Frisky Rabbit. All of these things created his perfect domain. He had met a pot dealer staking out new turf and had negotiated the rights for a small franchise to supplement his meager, ride-operator income. It was all good.
The young man had a bag of pot stuffed in his mouth and a note written with indelible black marker ink across his chest and duplicated on his back, saying, “Go Home.” The next day, he did.
The victim could not identify the assailant who perpetrated this weird crime of assault and harassment. The police report recorded the description of a thick, muscular man with a ski mask and gloves. The young man did not want to talk. He was scared, close-lipped, extremely anxious to go home, and of course, he did not claim the pot; it must have belonged to the attacker. At least, that was his story. He told the police he had no idea what the message was about, but he was not sticking around to help find the guy. His adventure in paradise was over.
From his front porch, Eddie watched the morning activity at the Swamp Fox Amusement Part with mixed feelings of disdain, regret, and satisfaction. He was weary of the unrelenting surge of unruly summer workers and overwhelmed by the continuous, unabated onslaught of tourism.
Eddie and Vera Rondell were lifelong residents of Myrtle Beach. They lived in the same house where Vera had grown up. For many years they had lived in an apartment over the detached garage, but after her parents died, the couple moved into the main house. Sixty years ago the modest white two-story frame house with gingerbread trim had been built on a quiet street near an isolated stretch of beach. It had been a quaint beach cottage.
Eddie had worked for thirty years at the Georgetown paper mill. Five days a week, he had endured the thirty-mile drive each way, first to save on rent and later to care for Vera’s parents. Moving from this paradise had never been an option. The resort town had grown up around them without their concurrence.
The vacationers were like an infected wound that healed during the winter months, only to have the scab scraped away each spring and the wound grow deeper. Tourists would blow into town, raise hell for a week, and then go home. The arrogance of each year’s crop of summer workers was overwhelming and caustic. These punks thought they owned the place for the summer season. To Eddie, these unwanted trespassers were infuriating, and he weathered each year’s crop with an increased anger and boiling anxiety.
The Frisky Rabbit bar was less than one hundred yards down the street from Eddie and Vera’s house. Cottages rented exclusively to summer workers were nestled between the bar and Eddie’s property. A scattered row of palmetto trees mixed with an eight-foot-high waxed-leaf Ligustrum hedge to visually isolate the co-ed cottages that were filled with loud, rambunctious, college-aged summer workers.
And if the bar and the cottages weren’t enough, a fast-growing lifeguard business had built an office and lifeguard dormitory across the street. The guards raced to check in at the office each morning before eight o’clock and raced out again two minutes later to set up their stands, tires squealing on both entry and exit. The same loud chaotic process took place around six o’clock, but with music, drinking, and loud profanities added to the irritating mix. Some guards who lived in the guardhouse raised the noise level late into the night.
Eddie and Vera had a clear view of all of this activity as they attempted to enjoy the summer evenings on their porch. The loudest and most obnoxious, late-night party hounds of all summer workers surrounded the couple’s quaint beach cottage.
Each summer developers discovered new space to squeeze more hotels on beachfront lots. Each new business required more workers. Eddie wished all workers could be handled like many hotel maids and maintenance workers, who were collected each morning from surrounding communities, transported into Myrtle Beach, and shuttled back to their homes at night.
Eddie saw the hotels, tourist trinket shops, fast-food restaurants, and arcades as an overgrown forest sorely in need of a vigorous thinning. He could relate to the words of a Joni Mitchell tune, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But in his version, they put up another tourist trap. The last big hurricane to hit Myrtle Beach was Hazel in ’58. Eddie thought it was time for another one. Too bad Hugo hit so far south; another fifty miles north, and he would have had his wish.
“Vera…honey…oh, Veeeerrraaa! I’m going fishing for a while down at the pier. You need anything before I go?” Eddie set two surf rods and a bait bucket in the back of his pickup truck.
“No, darlin’. What’s all the noise over at the park? My goodness, there’s police cars and everything. Was someone hurt? Do we need to help?” Vera stepped out from behind the screen door and onto the front porch.
“No, sweetie, if Myrtle Beach police officers, EMTs, and firemen with all their vehicles and gear can’t help ’em, we sure as hell can’t.”
“Now, Eddie, no need for you to be swearing. You just go on and fish a spell, and forget about all that. Don’t be gettin’ all worked up. I love you. Now get along, or those fish are all going to be done with their breakfast.”
Vernon was a tall, lanky, chain-smoking, nearsighted, hip mountain man with a bad haircut. He was pissed. With this kiddie train catastrophe, he had lost three bags of pot and a new salesman who had been located in a prime sales location. It had taken two weeks to recruit the right guy to put on the job. The kid was new in town, young, and not extremely perceptive. The temptations of the promised reward of money and girls attracted more potential sales agents to build this marketing pyramid than a free recruitment breakfast at a Mary Kay Pink Cadillac Convention in South Florida.
Vernon was the new self-proclaimed pot sultan for the summer in south Myrtle Beach, a territory stretching from Central Avenue south to Garden City and twenty miles inland to the town of Conway. He had worked hard to establish this position, and he would not relinquish this claimed turf easily. And someone was messing in his business.
During the previous summer, Vernon halfheartedly stumbled through numerous jobs but had learned the ways of Myrtle Beach, the hot nightspots, the restaurants, the amusement parks, and the way of the summer worker. He was really not all that smart, but his subconscious was a keen observer of the facade.
Vernon had worked jobs in three amusement parks, the go-cart track, two restaurants, two bars, three hotels, a T-shirt shop, a gift shop, and a water park, and was typically fired from each job shortly after he was hired. He was lazy and a natural screw-up, showed up late, spent more time trying to pick up female customers than selling, took a little cash for himself, came to work stoned, and once got caught having sex with a questionably young girl while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Vernon was not what you would describe as a model employee, but during the summer, few employers checked resumes for work history or references. If you could walk and talk, not necessarily at the same time, you could get a low-wage job serving the tourist industry.
Vernon and his two undaunted thugs stood in front of the Frisky Rabbit waiting impatiently on Booney, the bar owner, to arrive. While the trio waited, they watched the emergency response team help Vernon’s mentally tortured young dealer recover from his naked night ride on the small train.
“Son of a bitch! Harley, I thought I told you to keep an eye on that boy! What the hell, man?” Vernon barked, exasperated with his young thug.
“I was watching him, boss. I watched him almost all night, and I was getting bored, man, and then this bodacious hot girl with gigantic hooters sort of distracted me. It wasn’t my fault, man.”
“Did you get any?” Vernon asked sarcastically with obvious rhetorical intent.
“Naw, she ran when I tried to talk to her, started yelling for the cops or something, but then when I came back, the guy was gone, so like, you know, it wasn’t really my fault or anything.”
“You dumb ass, you just don’t get it, do you? David, what about you? I mean, dammit, there was two of you idiots to watch one guy selling dope. How friggin’ hard can that be?”
“Yeah, like, it wasn’t me, man. I was on break, man. I tested some weed from one of the other new dudes we hired, you know, just checkin’ to make sure he wasn’t cuttin’ the stuff too much, and then I sorta jumped a ride on the roller coaster ’cause a guy I knew was running the ticket booth, and—”
“Shut the hell up! You losers have got to be two of the biggest idiots ever. Jesus H. Christ! What were you thinking? Never mind, I don’t want to know. All I know is you assholes owe me three bags of weed.”
Vernon turned away from the rescue and pointed at a disheveled, troubled, young dude staring out through a small barred window on the front of the Frisky Rabbit bar.
“And this idiot, when we get his ass out of here, no more beer chuggin’ for him. Jesus, you turds are more trouble than you are worth.”
With a disgusted look on his face, Booney pulled into a reserved parking spot next to the front door of the Frisky Rabbit. Last night Vernon had misplaced another one of his new lifeguard pot dealers; Shoots McCoy. At the time no one cared where he was.
Shoots’ cell-phone alarm had roused him to an early-morning consciousness. He had opened his red eyes to find himself lying under a pool table next to a naked girl he didn’t know but maybe should have remembered. It took him a few minutes to figure out where he was and more time to find his clothes and then finally to discover his dilemma of being locked in the bar.
The owners always bolted the doors of the Frisky Rabbit from the outside. Shoots had thirty minutes to be on the beach, or he would be fired. The guard had already been warned twice about late arrivals. He called Vernon for help.
Shoots now had five minutes to hit the beach, or Vernon would lose another well-placed dealer. Booney opened the four padlocks securing metal bars and unlocked the two dead bolts. The liberated lifeguard emerged on a run, heading back to the guardhouse to get his gear before making his way to the beach.
After a quick check for damage in the bar, Booney emerged from a back poolroom with a young girl who squinted at the bright light of day, buttoned her shirt, and staggered to her car. She opened the door and crashed down in the front seat. Booney pushed her feet in and shut the door. Complaining to himself, he locked the front door to the bar and walked over to Vernon.
“Hey, man, you and your boys are going to get busted, or somebody is going to get hurt. You might want to stifle the crazy shit for a while, dude, or it ain’t gonna be cool around here, you know what I mean, man. And Murph, he’s pissed too, man, so you need to chill.”
“Sorry, Booney. I’ll talk to the boys, see what I can do. Here, dude, take this for your trouble.” Vernon slipped Booney a plastic bag with four fat joints, and then he looked down the street at the running guard, who caught his flip-flop on the curb and fell headlong into an eight-foot camellia bush in Eddie’s front yard.
“Jeessuss H…get in the van, boys, he’s never gonna make it in time. See ya, Booney. We gotta get that sorry asshole to the beach. Stay cool, man, stay cool.”
The Old Ones have scattered and now it is up to Lady Excalibur and her cohorts to hunt them down. But who is hunting who? A new Old One on the scene has a slightly different approach to world conquest. It's insane, it's radical, and it just might work. Now Lady Excalibur and the rest of the Freak Show must take on not only the Old Ones, but their abomination creations as well.
See inside the mind of a psychopathic killer, as she works her way through several murders in the City Of York. Accompany her hand in hand as she selects her victims.
When Darkness Falls is a testament to the human fascination with the criminal mind, and the debate over whether serial killers are wither evil or mad.
When Garry’s mother dies, he’s devastated. It’s not only her death, but her last words to him. He embarks on a search to uncover the truth. What follows is a dangerous journey. A journey full of unforeseen pitfalls, which could ultimately put both his life, and the lives of his whole family in jeopardy.
John Arnold and Lily Smoot sat on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza early that evening....
He looked at her in the dim light. “What are you doing running around with guys like Cummings and Damours, Lily?”
“Cummings is a U.S. Marshal, John. And I wasn’t running around with Damours. We were chasing him. What’s your point?”
“Cummings is not much of a Marshal and you know it, Lil. Is it true you worked in the Nevada brothels?”
She looked up at his face. Clearly his feelings had been hurt.
“Yes, John. When I left Utah, I looked into all the political and military and business management jobs open to teenage girls, but they were all filled. I didn’t meet any guys like you who were single and sitting around that I could safely live off, so I got a job where I could save some money.”
She looked closely and caught his scowl. “John, you're married, and unless you’re offering to adopt me or to start taking care of me, I have to look out for myself. And for my ranch.”
He looked down at her. For the first time ever, he hugged her. “I’m sorry, Lil. You’re right. It might not be appropriate, but I care about you and want to see you succeed.”
She stood up. Bent down to him and kissed him gently.
“Appropriate,” she said, “Is overrated.”
Space Resources, Inc. (SRI) mines asteroids for the riches a populated Earth needs without degrading the planet. Yet there are those opposed to progress in whatever its form such as the Gaia Alliance, a front group for eco-terrorists. During a violent attack on the Moon, the terrorists steal an exploration ship, arm it, and rename it the Rock Killer. Charlene "Charlie" Jones of SRI security is trying to infiltrate the Gaia Alliance's cabal to find evidence linking them to the murder of her fiancé. But a run-in with the law threatens to reveal her identity to the dangerous men of the Alliance. Simultaneously, SRI Director Alexander Chun is traveling to the asteroid belt to bring a kilometer-long nickel-iron rock back to Earth orbit to mine for its valuable metals. Following him and his multi-national team is the Rock Killer. Without armaments, millions of miles from help, Chun must stop those who threaten him and the lives of his crew.
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LEJ's Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp written by Leonard Earl Johnson DRAFT of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana Subscribe@LEJ.org Archives: ww w.LEJ.org ~*~ ~*~
(Available at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-the-gift-of-life-diamante-lavendar.html) When life gets tough, it’s not so easy to see it as a gift. When we are hurt or bad things happen,