(My inspiration for this one was when I saw a print in a gallery, of a woman in a long dress looking out to sea, with the back end of an old American car in the picture behind her.)
She noticed the car when she crested the path through the dunes. It wasn’t a beach on which people drove, so it annoyed her a little.
It was old. But clean and shiny old. Chrome details flashed sunbursts of light bounced from the waves. There wasn’t anyone nearby. The owner might be along the beach, at the other end towards the cliff. If the car was left for the tide, its brightwork wouldn’t last long. She shrugged away the thought and turned to the shore, the small box warm between her hands.
Jan had always shared her life with the ocean. In times of both sadness and happiness. Expanses of water represented for her life’s real force. The sea tore down and rebuilt coastlines. It carried seeds and animals from one part of the world to another. It fertilised barren volcanic islets. Just being near its energy could often heal human suffering too. Today she had come to grieve a friend’s death.
Since moving to northern California she had rejoiced in coastal sunsets that could never happen on the eastern seaboard. It was yet a few hours off evening, but the descending disc already had set an individual mood. One which, as it happened, reflected her own. Today streaks of clouds softened the sun.
She slipped out of her sandals and walked into the water. Waves splashed flecks of damp on her knee-length chinos. The soft sand massaged her soles as the water ran out again. Small but intense pleasures. Sounds of water, wind and seabirds fought for her attention. But she had something else on her mind.
You drew the short straw, Maggie, she thought. You didn’t get a fair shot. When Maggie died Jan was angry. At first she thought it a rage on behalf of her dead friend, but soon came to understand that it was for her own loss. “Sorry,” she said now, out loud to the ocean. “Sorry, hon, for being selfish.”
She delayed the moment, but eventually pulled the top from the box and tipped it over. A residue of gritty dust fell into the waves. It took only seconds in the flow and ebb for them to disappear. She dropped the container in, watched as it bobbed away. They had told her it was biodegradable, would be quickly absorbed back into nature. Good friend memory moments flooded in as she watched it take water and sink, and gradually she felt the remaining bitterness seep away. Goodbye, Maggie, she threw a final thought into the shifting water and light.
Not yet, she thought she heard. So strongly that it gave her a moment’s pause. Then she turned back to the beach.
She wasn’t alone here any more. A man stood above the line of the waves. The lens of a camera slung from his neck flashed gold in the sun. He was good looking in a tousled kind of way, his fair hair streaked, she guessed from being in the open air a lot.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi yourself,” she answered.
“I was watching.” He said. “Hope you don’t mind?"
She shrugged. “Keeping a promise to a friend.” She walked out, stuck out her hand. “I’m Jan.”
“Steve,” he said. His grip was firm, without being macho. She liked it. She nodded at the car. “Yours?”
He shook his head, gave her a lopsided grin. “I rented it for the day. From a movie supply outfit. It’s a prop for a photo-shoot.”
He looked at his watch, mouthed exasperation. “It is,” he agreed. “Except the model hasn’t turned up. The light will be gone.”
“That’s too bad.” She looked down, located and shuffled into her sandals. “I guess you’ll have to come back another time.”
“Can’t. The magazine needs the shots tomorrow. Even if I got an extension, there’s weather coming in.”
California didn’t often get much weather extremes. Which was why a storm moving in the next day had made the news. Something to do with El Niño, the periodic condition that happened off the South American Pacific coastline. “That’s tough,” she said.
“Guess they’ll have to use something else,” he said.
She figured it wasn’t the first time he’d had that kind of problem. She liked how he was being philosophical about it. “What’s the shoot?” she asked.
“Part of a retro fashion spread. From the early sixties. That’s why the car.”
She hadn’t intended what she said next. “You have a dress?”
He looked at her, curiously. “In the car.”
“Twelve. It’s a Balenciaga.”
She whistled. Old European fashion house. Very exclusive. The dress was probably more expensive than the car. “I’m a twelve,” she said. “It’s not a very model size.”
“Models weren’t as skinny then,” he chuckled. “Balenciaga liked shape.”
She couldn’t help a smile of her own. She knew she had shape. She and Maggie used to joke about it. Maggie had a model figure, and always claimed to be jealous of Jan’s more curvy one.
“I’m no model, but if it would help, I’ll wear it.” What on earth was she doing? He claimed to be a photographer, but he could be anything. A serial killer, even. At that one, she stomped on her imagination.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yes — if it helps.”
He looked at the dropping sun. Decided. He dug into a pocket and held out some keys. “The dress is on the back seat. There’s a hat too.”
“Give me five minutes.” She took the keys and walked by him. He lifted his camera to his eye, moved around, checking light and views.
Jan got in the car, wrinkling her nose at the pungency of the old vinyl in the heat. After a moment she clicked the doorlocks. She trusted him, really, but why take chances? The dress was white, long. Not what she’d wear for herself. But then, her wardrobe wasn’t at the Balenciaga level. She remembered reading once that Jackie Kennedy had been ticked off by her President husband for her lavish spending on the French couturier’s creations.
The old car was roomier than her little VW, so it didn’t take her long to slip out of her chinos and blouse and get into the dress. It was a pretty good fit. She found the hat, old-fashioned elegant. She wondered about shoes, but when she got out of the car she found that the dress trailed, hiding her feet. Her sandals would do fine.
He was at the shoreline, looking out to sea. She had the rather nice thought that he’d been making sure she wasn’t uncomfortable while changing. “Ready,” she called.
He came over, stopped some feet away. “Just stand here,” he said. Looking behind her at the car, then at the sky. “Look out to sea.” She moved into place and he walked behind her, out of her sight. She heard the camera begin to click, moving away. “Think like you’re on your own here,” she heard him say. “Do what you would if you were.”
She let her mind drift. Memories of fun days with Maggie wandered in. After a while she became aware of a weather change. Cloud gusted in and waves snapped at the sand instead of caressing it. A squall plucked at her dress. From the distance of wherever her thoughts had gone, it all became rather ominous.
“Sweet. Really sweet.” Startled from her reverie, she turned. Steve was beside her, his camera down, flashing the grin that she was beginning to find very attractive. “Done,” he said “At least, that’s all I’m going to get. Now it’s up to the magazine.”
The squall had moved on. Somewhat disoriented, she found herself oddly lost for words. She nodded, managed a smile. Both were silent for a few moments. “I’ll go take a walk,” he said then. “Let you change back.” He gave a little wave and wandered away.
Ten minutes later she was back outside the car. “Hey!” she called, waved when he turned from the shore. “I’m done.” He waved back, and walked up from the water edge. She watched him, enjoying it.
Busy at her work, she hadn’t been particularly interested in men for a while. “You’re takin’ root in that studio of yours, gal,” Maggie had said not long before she got sick. “It ain’t healthy. You need some lovin’, honey. You need to sip the nectar.” Maggie had always been very direct. Especially about men.
“You’re doing enough for both of us,” Jan had laughed. Her friend was a magnet to men, and made the most of it. Until little more than three months ago. From a full bloom flower Maggie had gone in that time to a handful of dust. Now scattered into the ocean she too had loved.
“Don’t be sad.” He was beside her now, showing a little concern. She shook her head, knowing though that she probably wasn’t convincing. “Not sad, just day-dreaming.”
He nodded, smiled. “Good. Listen, thanks for helping out.”
“No problem. It was a new experience.”
“A nice one, I hope?” His eyes twinkled.
“It was, thanks,” she smiled back. “What happens now?”
He packed his camera away in a bag he took from the car’s trunk, then began rummaging for something. “The magazine’s art editor goes through them. They use whatever they decide in the spread. Ah—” He pulled out a sheet of paper. “I need you to sign this.”
“What is it?”
He looked at her. “A waiver. Gives me permission to use your picture for commercial purposes. Still OK with that?”
“Sure. Anyhow, maybe your editor won’t think them good enough to use.” She flushed. “Whoops— I didn’t mean your photography.”
He shook his head, easing her embarassment with that smile again. “Oh, they’ll like them. You and the camera have something going. Has anyone ever told you that?”
A chat-up line, she wondered as she reached for the paper? He dug a pen from his pocket. “They’ll need your address.”
“To send the check. There’s a model fee.”
She laughed. “I’m not a model. I wouldn’t expect to be paid.” But she filled in the form and handed back paper and pen.
“It’s a commercial job,” he grinned. “You’re entitled.” He stuck out his hand. “Thanks again, Jan. You really saved my day. Hope it didn’t mess up yours?”
This time she held the handshake a fraction longer than before. “Nope. It got a lot more interesting.” She felt that she should do something now, for once, as Maggie had urged her to do. But she didn’t. Habit. Probably a bad one. “’Bye, then,” she said. “Nice meeting you, Steve.”
“Likewise.” He smiled again. She gave him a wave and turned away. Then she stopped and looked back. He was closing the car’s trunk. “Forgot to ask—”
“The pictures. Where will I see them?”
“’American Vogue’,” he said.
“Thanks,” she waved again, then walked away to her car. Wondering what Maggie would have thought about her almost-reclusive best friend appearing in the pages of the nation’s biggest fashion magazine?
For the same reason that she couldn’t afford Balenciaga gowns, Jan’s home wasn’t located directly on the coast. But twenty minutes inland from the beach wasn’t at all bad. On the edge of the hills, the house was high enough to give her good sunsets. By the time she got home, this day’s one was nearly done.
She had a light salad with some fruit juice, then pulled a much-washed smock over her clothes. Her ‘studio’ was really a grand name for one of the house’s bedrooms. She worked there so she didn’t have to rent another space for her business of providing individual art for decorating corporate buildings.
Among the commissions she had in play, a seascape for an office foyer was almost complete. A little more work and she could make it money in the bank. But this evening something else was pulling at her. She took a fresh canvas and set it on an easel. Squeezed some paints onto a palette, dipped a brush. Made first strokes. The piece moved quickly. Outlines became a scene. A beach. A woman stood in a long white dress looked off the canvas. The tailfins of a car.
Jan finally stood back. The face was almost fully detailed. It wasn’t anybody that Jan knew. But her expression was pensive. And had something else Jan couldn’t quite pin down.
Outside was now complete darkness. Time to finish, she decided. She put her brush into a jar of cleaning fluid. Pulled off her smock and hung it on the door. She reached to turn off the light, looked back. Now she saw what else was in the woman’s expression. Fear.
‘Slap, slap, slap’. Feet behind, running on the sand that was wet, soft, holding her in slow motion. Sucking at her feet as she frantically tried to keep ahead. ‘Slap, slap, slap’. She felt herself falling.
Sweating, Jan sat up. In her bed, not on the beach. No chasing feet noises. But her heart was thumping and her lungs felt as though she had been gasping for air. Her night clock showed six-thirty. A pre-waking bad dream. She got up and went to the kitchen. Put on the kettle and then walked out on the deck. The promised bad weather hadn’t yet arrived.
When the kettle shrieked she made coffee and brought it back to the deck. Watched the day brighten. Breakfast later, a shower and dressing, and it was time to work again. She was, after all, running a business. Deadlines to meet, commissions to finish. But for some reason she was reluctant to cross the hall to her studio.
She busied herself with housework. Two hours further on, essential dusting, brushing and polishing was done. A load of clothes swirled in the washing machine. She picked up her bag, closed the door behind her, and got into her car.
Jan wasn’t surprised to find herself back at the beach. There, the weather was going downhill. A cooler wind from the ocean whipped frothlets off nervy wave tips. There wouldn’t be a sunset here this evening.
She walked far enough up so that her sandals didn’t get wet. The sea usually cleared her head, but today it was broodingly uncooperative. She couldn’t get the image of the woman in her painting out of her mind. It was all Maggie’s doing, she thought. If she hadn’t come down to the beach yesterday, she wouldn’t have met Steve. She wouldn’t have worn the dress. She wouldn’t have a strange painting in her studio. She wouldn’t be confused.
Above the grumpy sound of the ocean she became aware of a ‘slap, slap, slap’ of feet on the softer part of the beach. Running up behind her. She turned.
“I figured you might be here,” Steve said, a little breathless as he slowed. “You sure take catching up with.”
He had called her house, then followed his hunch about the beach. Spotted her in the distance from the dunes. He’d called out, but knew she was unlikely to hear him against the wind. So he had run. “Things are getting a little weird,” he said.
They sat on a rock in the lee of the cliff. He fished in his pocket, held out some photographs. From yesterday, Jan wearing the dress. “At the back, behind the car?” he prompted. She looked closer. In several prints she saw a figure. Shadowy against the dunes. A man, maybe wearing a long dark coat. She looked up. “There wasn’t anybody else here yesterday.”
“Nope. But that’s what my camera saw.” For now, he wasn’t smiling.
Thunder cracked. Ominous initial spatters turned in seconds to a roaring deluge. They ran, but by the time they reached their cars, they were wet through. His car today was a well used SUV, foreign. She saw the name Land Rover.
“My place?” she shouted above what had become a rolling succession of thunderclaps. “You can dry off.”
His hair was dark and flattened from the rain. Jan didn’t want to know just how bedraggled she must look herself. He nodded. “Thanks. I’ll follow you.”
The storm was still coastal and by the time they got to Jan’s house they were in sunshine again. She showed him the guest room and found him a man’s tee-shirt and swim shorts to wear while she ran his wet clothes through the dryer. “My friend Maggie had men friends over,” she answered his unspoken question.
She made coffee and they sat on the deck. Steve pulled a sheet of paper from his bag, pushed it across the table. “You might like to know whose dress you were wearing.”
A copy of a newspaper story. ‘Anthea Delacroix Missing’, the headline ran. Dateline 25 June, 1962. Jan drew in a breath. The head shot was grainy, had little tone. But it was enough. She stood up. “Come with me,” she said softly, sounding calmer than she felt. “I need to show you something.”
He looked at the news clipping. Back at the painting again. The woman Jan had painted was the woman in the clipping, Anthea Delacroix. The face on her canvas was somebody real, though somebody she had never heard of.
“They never found her,” Steve said. They were back on the deck, having given up trying to solve the puzzle in her studio. He had made a call to the magazine’s researcher. “Police figured foul play, but without a body it didn’t go anywhere.”
Jan was looking again at the clipping. “They usually suspect the husband first.”
He shrugged. “She might just have run?”
“Rich heiress flees marriage into oblivion?” Jan shook her head. She didn’t buy that. She sipped at her coffee. “What happened the husband?”
“The researcher thinks he remarried. She’ll call me.” He looked at his watch, then back at her apologetically. “I have to go, Jan. I’ve a client to meet later and I need to get home and change.”
She nodded, then got up and went inside. When he followed through she had taken his things from the dryer and was stuffing them into a Wal-Mart plastic bag. “Thanks,” he said, taking the bag. He hesitated, gave her that grin again. “It’s been a funny couple of days.”
He hesitated. “Listen. Would you, um, like to meet tomorrow? Maybe an early dinner? I might have found out more.”
Her laugh was gentle. “If this is a roundabout way of asking for a date ... sure.” Maggie, she thought, was somewhere pumping her fist in the air.
“Hey, that’s good,” he said, his grin a confirmation of his words. “Do you have a cell?”
She shook her head. “Used to. Too intrusive, I dumped it. I’m mostly here, or clients get me by email.”
He pulled out his wallet and gave her a card. “Here’s my cell number. You call me, OK?”
She felt almost schoolgirl giddy. It was nice. “I’ll call around noon,” she said. “See how it’s going.”
For a moment she thought he might kiss her. But it passed. “Bye,” he said, squeezing her hand instead. “Tomorrow.”
She watched him drive out of the yard. He waved before he went out of sight. As she went into the house she thought she heard Maggie chuckle. “Sip the nectar, honey.”
She ate sparingly. Washed up quickly and went to her studio. She stood looking at her latest work in progress. She had no doubt now that she had indeed painted the face of Anthea Delacroix. Despite never having seen the woman before, or even knowing of her.
She picked up a brush. Dipped it, flicked it on the canvas. With a few strokes she had a figure outlined in the background. A man, in a long coat.
She stopped and thought for a while. Then got another blank canvas, set it on a second easel. She had a portrait an hour later. A man, longish face, heavy nose. Intense and brooding. Nobody she knew, no more than Anthea’s had been the evening before.
She put her brushes to soak and wiped the palette. From the doorway she again looked back. Maybe it was how she had placed the two easels, but the man seemed to be staring intently at the woman. From Jan’s perspective, he looked ... menacing?
She closed the door. Decided the rest of the evening should be spent with a bottle of red and a book. Preferably not a Stephen King.
Maybe with the help of the wine, Jan slept that night without any strange dreams. When she woke, and had worked up her first cup of coffee of the day, she decided that she needed to get back to proper work. Clients had to be satisfied. The last couple of days had been distracting tangents.
In the morning light, she didn’t see in the two paintings the intense emotions of the evening before. She looked through her order book. Two current pieces were promised for delivery in a week or so. Locating the first from the works stacked against the wall, she got busy. The morning passed easily and by lunchtime she was satisfied with progress. She picked up the phone, dialled from the card. He answered, and she felt her heart do an unfamiliar flip. “Hi,” she said.
“You still want to meet?” Giving him an out. Bad habit again.
“Sure. My idea, remember?” She could hear the smile at the other end.
“You got anywhere in mind?”
He told her. Neutral, not romantic. “Good,” she said. “See you there.
She hung up, then did something she hadn’t for quite a while. Started to worry about what she should wear. That distracted her work for at least half of the afternoon. Finally she gave up and began trying on different outfits. Not that she had that many.
About to drive off, she thought of something. Back in the studio she took the second painting from its easel and slipped it into a protective sleeve. She put it on the car seat and left the yard.
“Glad you’re here.”
“You didn’t think I’d call?” she grinned.
He shrugged, smiling too. “Guess I wasn’t sure. But I really am glad.”
He was dressed smart casual. After all the clothing combinations tried in the last couple of hours, she too had finally kept it simple.
The restaurant was an Irish bar that had escaped becoming trendy. They ordered steaks and trimmings. He took a beer, she had wine. The place wasn’t far from her home, so she reckoned a taxi ride was a probable option. Suggestions of another she put out of her mind.
‘Sip the nectar, honey’ she heard in her head. Took an unladylike gulp at her wine instead.
“I found out more.”
They had dealt with the steaks, had a couple more drinks. Their conversation had been of the kind that people have when trying to get to know each other. Now Steve brought them back to what both had been trying to ignore. It was a bit like she’d felt when coming down after her first flight in a sailplane. “What kind of more?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “The husband. He did marry again. Anthea’s sister, May. Half-sister, actually. Anthea’s father was a widower, had married again.”
He shrugged. “There wasn’t much more in the newspaper morgue. Anthea was never found. She was officially certified dead after the statutory period. The husband — his name was Tarsin, by the way, Jack Tarsin — then married May.” He pulled a paper from his jacket, a copy of another clipping. “This was Anthea’s wedding photo.”
Anthea she recognised. The dress too. It seemed the woman had got married in the Balenciaga. But there was something else. If Jan had been still holding her cup, it would have crashed on the table. She stood up, a little unsteady. “Wait here a minute, Steve.”
“OK,” he said, clearly concerned. Even more so when, instead of going to the ladies’ room as he had expected, she left through the restaurant’s front door. She came back a minute later, carrying a folder.
“Maybe you should order us both another drink.” Her smile seemed a little forced.
Steve raised a finger to their waiter. “More wine?”
She shook her head. “Whiskey. Irish. No ice, splash of soda.”
He ordered the same for himself. When the waiter left, Jan took the canvas from its cover. She held it up, face across the table. He frowned, picked up the news clipping and looked at the wedding picture. “Same guy,” he murmured, lifting his eyes to hers. “The husband.”
She nodded. “I painted that last night. From nothing. It came out of my head.” She told him about putting the outline figure on the first painting, as it had appeared in his photographs. “It had no detail. But I did this separate painting. Which—” she touched the paper “—which is him.”
Their drinks arrived. Jan sipped at the whiskey, its warm smokey flavour doing its best to counter the sudden chill which she felt. She looked at him. “I ... I’m really spooked, Steve.”
“Me too,” he muttered. “I’m not into the supernatural thing. But this is just ... bizarre.”
She ran a finger around the rim of her glass, then looked up. “During the shoot, I thought the weather got funny. But there’s no sign of that in your pictures?”
He shook his head. “The weather didn’t change, Jan. It was perfect. Just what I’d hoped for.”
She brooded for a while, then picked up the clipping. “This was forty-seven years ago. He would have been, what, twenty-six?”
He glanced at the picture. “Guess so.”
“He’d be old now,” she mused “Is he still alive?”
“I don’t know,” he murmured. “But I will find out.
She shivered again. “Would, um ... would you please take me home, Steve?”
At her house, he walked with her to the door. “Coffee?” she asked.
He squeezed her hand. “Only if you want some. Otherwise, I think we should both get some sleep.” He hesitated. “You want me to come in and check around?”
She was tempted to say ‘yes’, but shook her head. “No. There’s nothing to worry about out here.” She stretched up and kissed him on the cheek. “Call you tomorrow?”
He nodded. “I’d like that.” He squeezed her hand again. “Good night, Jan.”
After he had driven away, she leaned against the inside of the door. “Not tonight, Maggie,” she whispered. “Not because I’m scared. Wrong reason.”
She didn’t put the painting of Jack Tarsin back on its easel. Instead, she left it in its cover on the kitchen table. Give Anthea a break, she thought. Then she went to bed.
She woke in the night. Something was trying to get her attention. She got up, went to her studio. She gazed at Anthea’s picture for a while, trying to pull open a door in her mind. Eventually she turned off the light and went back to bed.
She waited until after nine before making the call.”Steve? It’s Jan. Hi.”
“Hi you, too.” He sounded pleased to hear from her. “You sleep OK?”
“Yes.” She cut straight to the reason for her call. “Do you still have the dress?”
“No. The agency took it back to the Museum. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. It has a couturier section. Seems that Anthea’s husband gave it to them after she disappeared. Said it was too upsetting to have around.”
“Could you get it again?”
“OK,” he said after the barest hesitation. “I’ll ask.”
She spent the rest of the morning working on her commissions. When the phone rang, it took her out of deep concentration. Wiping her hands on a rag, she picked up the handset.
She felt that little flip again. “Hi. What’s new?”
“Jack and May Tarsin died five years ago. Car crash. No children. And there’s a twist.”
“They lived in the Delacroix family home, where Anthea and May were brought up. When her parents died, it went to May. That house is just above the beach where I met you.”
No wonder there was so much atmosphere about the beach, Jan thought. “Any word on the dress?”
“They sent it straight over. They’re keen to keep me sweet because of the publicity with the spread.”
She hesitated, fighting a tinge of apprehension. “Can you bring it here?”
“Give me an hour?”
“Sure.” She hung up. For several minutes, she stared again at the painting of Anthea Delacroix. Eventually she cleaned up her brushes and palette and left.
When the Land Rover pulled into her yard it was rather more than the hour he had promised. “Sorry,” he said in her doorway a few moments later. “Traffic.” He had a box under his arm.
She took his hand.“No problem.”
“I think I know where you’re going with this,” he said, a bit bothered. “Firm it up for me?”
“It’s something that’s gotten into my head. If anyone else said it to me, I’d say they were crazy.”
He put an arm across her shoulder and squeezed. “Tell me anyhow. At this stage I’m the least likely to think that.”
When she finished, he sat quietly at the table where she had talked out her idea over coffee. “OK,” he murmured finally. “It’s worth a try. If it comes to nothing, only you and I know.” He raised a smile. “And I sure won’t tell if you don’t.”
She changed into the dress and they drove to the beach in his Land Rover. She put the hat on when she got out of the car. “OK. Ready, I guess.”
He held her hand as they walked through the gap in the dunes.
The beach was deserted, for which Jan was glad. Whatever might or might not happen, it was probably less likely to if there were others about. They stopped at the upper tide line.
“Let me go on from here,” she said. “Stay back. But watch.”
He squeezed her hand. “I’ll be close enough, don’t worry.”
The weather took a turn for the worse soon after she started walking. The sea got cranky and fractured. The sky darkened. Wind snatched at the dress. This time, she again felt the growing sense of fear, but more so. And it was, oddly, as if she was experiencing someone else’s panic. Suddenly she found herself running towards the cliff, the wet sand slowing her. Again she heard the sucking ‘slap, slap, slap’ behind. She stumbled, spinning with the fall. But, unlike in her dream, this time she got to see who was chasing her. A man. Jack Tarsin’s face. Her husband. She blinked. No, Anthea’s husband. She had jumbled flashes of memory. Scrambled emotions. Joy, confusion, betrayal, fear. A wedding celebration. A rumpled bed and discarded clothes. Somebody who shouldn’t have been where she was.
Tarsin was upon her. Hand raised, swinging. She put up her arms, knowing, though, that her attempt at protection was probably futile. A flash. Pain. Darkness.
Then she was an observer, looking at a woman lying in the shadow of the cliff. A kneeling man, leaning over her. A rock dropped to the sand, blood that had glistened its surface washing away in a receding wave. She saw the man stand, look back the way he had come. He waved. Jan tried to see, but the scene was disappearing. She got an impression of another figure.
She found herself back on the sand. A man kneeling over her. Instinctively she raised her hands. “Jan? It’s OK.” Steve said, taking her in his arms. “It’s OK, hon.”
A few minutes later they walked side by side back towards the dunes. Retracing two sets of footsteps, hers and his. Wherever she had been, she thought, there would have been a third set.
She left him in the kitchen making coffee. When she had changed out of the dress, she found he had also produced a couple of sandwiches. “I’m used to making do with what I find,” he said as he saw her smile.
In between bites, and eventually sips of the cooling coffee, she told him what she had been part of. “That other figure,” he said when she finished. “Was it familiar?”
She shook her head. “No. Too indistinct.” They sat at the table in silence. Eventually she stood. “I want to try something, Steve. Will you stay?”
He nodded. “Sure. Long as you want.”
She bent down and kissed him on the cheek again, thinking she’d have to do better soon. “Thanks. I’ll be in my studio. I think I need to be alone there.”
She went first to the original painting. Using black paint she added a second, smaller figure beside the outline of the man. Then she put aside Tarsin’s portrait and placed a fresh blank canvas on that easel. Soon, again, she found herself in a different place. When she finished she gazed for a few moments at a woman’s face, staring back at her. “Steve?” she called.
“Hi,” he said seconds later from the doorway. He came in and put his arm across her shoulders. She was getting to like that. “The third person?”
“Yes. Know her?”
He shook his head. “No.” The woman was pretty. Younger than Anthea, he thought. Maybe even vaguely like her. But there was something different about the eyes. She wasn’t a soft person, he thought. He looked at the portrait for a bit longer. “I reckon we need to take this further up the line,” he said then.
Steve had a friend in the Detective Squad, which meant that they didn’t have to get their story through a Desk Sergeant first. Jan was sure that would have consigned them immediately to the weirdos file.
The detective, Matt Dexter, listened without comment as Jan told everything. Steve added details of his own as appropriate. “I know, it sounds crazy,” she said at the end. “It sounds even crazier now, telling it to you.”
Dexter shrugged. “I get worse than that. A lot worse. Besides, I know this guy—” he nodded at Steve “—he can be oddball sometimes, but he’s not crazy.” He reached for his phone and punched buttons. “Marie? Listen, I need you to dig out an old cold case file. Delacroix. Anthea Delacroix.” He looked up at Steve. “When was it?”
He passed on the date, then put the phone down. He nodded at the canvasses stacked against a wall. “There’s something familiar there,” he said. “I worked cold cases a couple of years. Maybe I saw the file.”
After a few moments of thought he picked up the phone again, punched more buttons. “Traffic? Listen, it’s Dexter, Homicide. I need a report on a double road fatality, about five years ago. Hold on.” He looked through the notes he’d scribbled. “Tarsin. A couple, both killed. Yeah. Thanks.”
A young woman walked in with a faded file jacket. “Thanks, Marie,” Dexter said as she put them on his desk. She glanced at Jan and Steve as she left, giving them an appraising smile.
The detective leafed through the file’s contents until he came to the case status summary. It took him just a couple of moments to scan it, then he looked up. “There was pretty strong suspicion about the new husband. He came in for her inheritance when she was certified dead.” He put the sheet back, shaking his head. “No body, no witness, no case,” he sighed. “Long time, it’s not likely there’ll ever be evidence to reopen.”
His computer beeped. He reached for a mouse and jiggled it. “Mail,” he murmured, “from Traffic.” Another click, then his face changed. He spun the monitor around. “Look,” he said softly. “Anyone familiar?”
There were two people, both elderly. The man was Jack Tarsin, his strong features retained in age. Jan turned and looked at her newest picture against the wall, then back to the monitor. The woman’s image was much older, but there was no mistaking the expression in the eyes.
“Anthea’s sister,” the detective said. “May Delacroix. Later the second Mrs Jack Tarsin.” He spun the monitor back, then tapped a pen on the desk. “Jan, was there any way you could have seen these pictures before?”
She shook her head. “I never heard the name, or the story of Anthea Delacroix, before this week.”
He nodded. “OK. This is a long shot, and a little crazy. But if it finally closes this case, it’ll be worth it.”
They found the remains buried deep in the sand at the base of the cliff. There wasn’t more than bones. A necklace found with them, gold and uncorroded, was familiar from the wedding photo. Jack Tarsin’s wedding present to his first and short-lived wife.
“He couldn’t take it from the body,” Matt Dexter said as they watched the remains being placed in a coroner’s wagon. “Questions would have been asked if it had turned up.” He scuffed his foot across the sand. “Burying her here was clever enough, too ... the tide quickly smoothed off any signs of digging.”
He turned and looked out at the sea. “May was probably in on it. The money coming to Anthea had been a trust from her grandfather. He hadn’t approved of the woman who had married his widowed son. May’s mother. Only gave them an allowance. But she still inherited the house, and Tarsin had already gotten Anthea’s inheritance.”
He looked at them. “Listen, guys. I don’t know how this worked. I don’t even want to try and know. I can close the case with a note in the file, since there’s nobody around to bring to trial. No family to ask questions.” He shook his head. “But I’m not going to make anything public. It sounds too crazy.”
He shook hands with both of them, then turned back to his crime scene business. Steve took Jan’s arm. They walked back along the beach. Where they’d first met, she squeezed his arm and stopped. She looked out to at the ocean, waiting.
Nothing. Maggie had moved on. Possibly with that other spirit who had been waiting so long to be set free. She turned away and took Steve’s arm again. “Let’s go home,” she murmured. “It’s time to sip the nectar.”
She could see he didn’t understand. But he would.
©2009 Brian Byrne.
Friday, August 28, 2009
(My inspiration for this one was when I saw a print in a gallery, of a woman in a long dress looking out to sea, with the back end of an old American car in the picture behind her.)