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Chapter One

Snick!

I smiled.  “Man, that’s a beautiful sound.  You don’t know how much I look forward to hearing it all week long.  Too bad I don’t live down here; we could hang out all the time.”

            “What’s wrong with you?” asked Aaron.  “You still pining away for one of those soppy commercial lives where the kids come running to daddy after work?”

            I looked up at him.  “Isn’t everybody?  Besides, I’m already at the top of my career.  What else can I do?”

            “Umm… chase women?”

            I thumbed the little wheel again and heard another snick!  This time, I put the flame to the bong and took a long draw from it, letting the smoke rush right to my head.

            “Hey,” I asked him, after I blew out my smoke.  “How old do you think a kid has to be before you have to stop smoking in front of it?”

            “Why bullshit the kid?  Don’t stop.  Just keep doing it all along, like my dad.  Eventually he’ll catch up and start smoking with you.”

            “I don’t know about that.”

            “You’re really hung up on that perfect life, aren’t you?” asked Aaron.

            “I don’t know about perfect, but yeah.  I want it to be damn near.”

            “Dude, that perfect life you’re always looking for?  There’s no such thing.  Just get out there and meet a chick and get laid, why don’t you?  And loosen up while you’re at it.”

            “What, I’m loose,” I laughed, bouncing in my chair.

            “You already have your necktie on, for chrissakes.”

            “Yeah, well, I have to look nice for Hearst Castle.  Oh, man.  Give me some of that fabric freshener.  I don’t want to go down there smelling like a pothead.”

            “All right, but when you get back from San Simeon, I want you to put on something normal, for a change.”

            “This is normal.  For me.”

           

            I was bowling along down Scenic Avenue, dreaming of living in Carmel for real, like Aaron.  I loved it there, with all its quaint little buildings and houses.  It reminded me of Cambridge, some of the happiest years of my life.

            Thank God I got Aaron for a roommate, I was thinking.  He was the most down-to-earth and real guy I’d ever known, and I’m a strong believer in fate.  From the moment I met him, I knew it was destiny and we’d be best friends forever.

            I was busy turning these subjects over in my mind when I noticed some old bag lady—in Carmel?—standing at the edge of the turnout, frantically thrashing her arms.  I slowed to get a good look at her and she lurched out into my lane.

            I slammed on the brakes and got out of the car.  “Get out of the road, you crazy bitch.  I almost hit you.”

            She stumbled forward and sprawled across the hood of my car, clinging to it like the last lifeboat on the Titanic.  She put her head down and wept in relief, and I was far from jaded enough to turn my back on a woman in distress, even if she was a bum. 

            “Ma’am?”

            She lifted her head.  Her tears had washed away some of the mud and blood, and underneath, her face was soft and smooth-looking. 

            She couldn’t have been much more than twenty, I decided, and when I touched her shoulder gently, she rose up and gestured toward the dark, churning sea. 

            I shifted my gaze and she, too, turned to face the broken guardrail at the outer edge of the turnout. 

            The shattered wood and tire marks told their own tale.

            I turned back to her, shocked.  “Did you crash?”

            “Brian,” she whispered, and with that, her head hit the hood of my car.  She slid down in a big smear and I barely caught her in time to keep her from hitting the ground.

            I glanced out toward the broken rail again, and a second later, it clicked.  This Brian, whoever he was, was in the water.

            My suit was ruined anyway, so I dragged the unconscious girl over to a nice, soft spot on the turnout and laid her down there.  I threw my jacket over her and called 911, and then I moved my car out of the road and set the emergency brake.  

            The sea was a dark, shifting mass of green and gray.  I went over to the broken guardrail and I couldn’t even see a car under the surf, much less a body.  A body.  This Brian guy had to be dead by now.

            I felt sorry for him.  Lord knows how long the girl stood beside the road before I happened along.  Add to that the time it took to swim to the surface and crawl up the embankment and it seemed impossible he could still be alive.

            I returned to her side and looked down at her filthy, unconscious little face.

            She had lovely features, and no doubt she was quite a beauty when she wasn’t soaking wet and covered in mud, but now she looked like she’d just dragged herself through a cat box.  I stole a glance at her smoking hot body and suddenly I was glad I stopped.

            I forced my head back in the game and knelt to feel for her pulse.  It seemed strong, so I plucked a strand of seaweed from her hair and flung it aside. 

            Brian’s chances dwindled by the moment, and I pondered jumping into the surf to try for a rescue myself, but before I knew it, the police and ambulance had arrived.

            A paramedic knelt over her, cracking a packet of smelling salts under her nose.  She sat up and slapped his hand away, and then she cast a searching glance at me.

            “I remember now,” she said, and held out her arms to me.  I dropped to my knees in the grass and took her in my arms.

            “Don’t try to move, Miss.”

            She buried her face against my shoulder and obeyed, but a moment later, she glanced around at the flurry of activity going on around us.  A diver was in the water with a steel cable, ready to pull the car out. 

            I swallowed hard, and when she glanced back at me, I met her dark gaze.  “Is there someone we can call?” I asked to distract her.

            “My grandfather,” she told me, and rattled off the number.

            The paramedic helped her to her feet, and I climbed to my own, reaching for my phone and dialing the number she gave.  I stepped out of earshot to spare her feelings, because even if she could catch the tone of my voice, I didn’t want her to hear what I was saying.  “Hi.  You don’t know me,” I told the man, “but my name’s David Lethbridge.  Your granddaughter’s here with me and she’s all right, but there’s been an accident.”

            We talked for a minute or two and he rang off.  I returned to the girl’s side and sat beside her on the ambulance bumper, my protective arm around her as we awaited her grandfather’s arrival.

            A few minutes later, an elderly gentleman pulled up in a green Jaguar.  He stepped from the car, his sharp, hawk-like gaze lighting on her at once.  “My God, Lisa, are you all right?”

            “Yes.  But Brian…”

            His glance followed hers to the men working onshore, and she watched in numbed fascination as the car slowly emerged from the water.  After several long minutes, they heaved it up onto the beach and cut the power to the winch.

            A cop bent down to peer through the window at the lifeless form slumped over the steering wheel.  He broke out the window with his baton and gently tipped Brian’s head back to feel at his throat for a pulse.  He straightened up and looked over at Lisa’s grandfather with a grave shake of the head. 

            Just then, Brian’s head lolled sideways. 

            I grabbed her chin to divert her attention, but it was already too late.  She sucked in a horrified breath and flung herself into my arms, shaking her head violently, too freaked out to even cry.

            The cop approached, her sopping wet purse in his hand.  “You kids been drinking?” he asked, setting her purse on the bumper beside her.

            She looked up at him and shook her head.  “Nope.  Just pissed off.”

            She tipped the bag sideways and watched as the water drained from it.  The contents were ruined, anyway, just as waterlogged and sodden as the corpse in the car. 

            Suddenly, she spoke.  “He knocked himself out,” she said, to none of us in particular.

            “Miss?”

            “He hit his head when the car slammed into the water and got knocked out.”  She started to cry, but continued to speak.  “There was this show on TV the other day, how the government in Holland did some big study.  They have all these canals there, and people drive into them all the time.”

            I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight.  “Don’t worry about that now,” I told her, but she was insistent. 

            “They wanted to know why they all kept drowning, even when the canals weren’t that deep.  They studied the problem for months and found out people weren’t wearing their seatbelts.  When the car hits the water, they hit their heads and drown, simple as that.”

            She glanced over at the car.  They were zipping Brian into a body bag now and she let out a sob of despair.  “I tried to get him to slow down,” she wept, “but he just laughed and drove even faster.  I put my seatbelt on because I remembered about Holland, but I never dreamed he’d really do it.”

            Her grandfather blanched.  “Are you saying he drove the car into the water on purpose?” he asked her.

            “No.  I don’t know.  Maybe.”

           

            After a lot more questions, we were finally dismissed, and I walked along with them to her grandfather’s Jaguar. 

            Suddenly, a sweet-looking Aston Martin pulled up at the scene and a middle-aged woman came leaping out and ran toward us.  Some shift in the girl’s body language told me to let her go, that she was expecting this attack and meant to face it head-on.  She even seemed to brace herself for it, and I watched as the woman slapped the girl very hard across the face. 

            The girl seemed to falter, and then she went down to her knees, apparently more injured by the slap than she was by the wreck itself.  The cops on scene instantly ripped the woman away, but her husband approached the girl calmly and helped her to her feet.  He begged his wife’s pardon, blaming it all on her quite understandable grief.

            “Don’t you dare apologize to that little bitch for me,” said his wife.  “This is all her doing.  She’s the one who killed my boy.”

            The man tuned his wife out and turned back to the girl, who stood there looking dignified—as dignified as possible, sopping wet, with a dirty, red slap mark on her face. 

            “Please don’t listen to her, Lisa,” the man pleaded softly.  “She doesn’t mean a word of it.”

            Surprisingly, the girl appeared to harbor no ill will toward Brian’s mother and politely asked the police to let the woman out of the handcuffs.  She turned back to the woman’s husband then and smiled weakly.  “Go on, Geoffrey.  You can call on me tomorrow.”

            “Of course,” he said, taking his wife in his arms and holding her firmly.  “Of course, my dear.”  He led the reluctant woman away as we stood there watching, and a moment later, they drove off.

            “Wow,” I said.  “That was intense.”

            Her grandfather (“Call me Sid.”) turned to me.  “Yes,” Sid told me.  “Claire is prone to strong hysterics.”

            He paused to settle Lisa into the car, and then he turned back to me.  “You look a fright, dear boy.  Why don’t you follow us back to our house?  We live quite near.”

            I was about to politely decline, but then I glanced quickly into the car.  Lisa met my gaze head-on and laid her hand on the glass, and one look into those beautiful, haunted eyes of hers was enough to make me accept. 

 


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