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Vampires of Orange County Vol. One
Vampires Of Orange County (Volume One)

  John Bankston

  Copyright 2013 by John Bankston

  Cover Design: Jordan Delgado

  This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters depicted herein and persons living or dead is coincidental. Although real places and locations are described, the events that take place there are the products of the author’s imagination. No animals were harmed during the writing of this novel.

  Also by John Bankston (selected works)

  Who Wrote That? Lois Lowry (2009)

  Who Wrote That? Katherine Paterson (2009)

  Who Wrote That? Christopher Paolini (2010)

  Who Wrote That? Ray Bradbury (2011)

  Women of Achievement Nellie Bly (2011)

  Ancient India: Maurya Empire (2013)

  Your Land and My Land: Africa We Visit Kenya (2013)

  A Day in the Life of Chloe Moretz (2013)

  A Day in the Life of Selena Gomez (2013)

  Ancient Civilizations: Genghis Khan (2014)

  Blue Banner Biography: Kevin Durant (2014)

  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

  John 1:5 New King James Bible Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1982.

  If heaven and hell decide

  That they both are satisfied

  Illuminate the 'no's' on their vacancy signs

  If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks

  Then I'll follow you into the dark.

  "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," Death Cab for Cutie

  Gibbard, Ben. Music & Lyrics. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” Plans. Atlantic, 2006. LP

  SUNDAY

  Standing naked in the kitchen of Bret’s tanning salon, Morgan Anderson did a quick shot of cherry vodka. She took a beat, then did another –– just enough to keep the mundane from becoming totally boring.

  Returning her attention to the small washer, she watched Chemical Free All bubble over skinny 7s, a pink baby doll t-shirt, a lilac Roxy hoodie and a purple thong. Someone once told Morgan she did laundry like a guy, but it was so much faster this way. Besides, way before most of her clothes had time to fade she lost them or wanted new ones.

  She glanced at her pink Uggs, the only other thing she’d been wearing, standing at attention in the corner. She dumped the week’s accumulated dirties out of a paper Trader Joe’s bag. Brightly colored t-shirts joined their cousins, along with more thongs, boy shorts and two pairs of True Religion jeans purchased second-hand (along with the 7s) last month from the Portland Buffalo Exchange.

  The colorful, occasionally pricy clothes represented Morgan’s OC wardrobe. There were no whites, but more importantly, there were no blacks or grays. In Oregon, she’d gone way too heavy on the blacks and grays.

  Bret bought the washer-dryer for towels, but Morgan didn’t get health insurance. To her, saving quarters was an employee benefit.

  The tanning salon operated out of a converted second-floor apartment. Its two bedrooms held tanning beds, the living room a Mystic sprayer. After just a month in Newport and three weeks managing Bret’s little business, Morgan had developed a comfortable routine. She’d come in right after Bar Church, blasting happy music and stripping down. Doing a shot or three while her clothes got clean, she wouldn’t have a stitch to wear for over an hour. But the salon was closed. The longer she let the spray set, the better it looked.

  To Morgan there were few places sexier. All those gorgeous people getting naked and chilling in the UVAs. Most of them probably masturbated. One good reason for blasting techno and old school hip-hop.

  Truth is, Morgan envied the bed people. If she masturbated in the sprayer, she’d get the weirdest tan ever. They lay down in warmth. She was never warm. They napped. If she napped, she’d fall over.

  Exiting the kitchen, she padded barefoot to the tiny front room. This was where she greeted customers six days a week from nine p.m. ‘til three or four in the morning. This was where she took their cash (no checks or credit cards, only cash) and dropped the money through a small slot in a metal box. And this was where she struggled with the computer while wondering why she dropped out of high school.

  The computer dominated a cherry wood desk, both furnishings and technology too elaborate for a business where she was the only employee. Sighing, she booted up the computer. After only two attempts, Morgan programed the Mystic.

  Stepping into the hallway, she smelled coconut tanning lotion and instantly remembered Virgin Coladas shared with her mother. She was sixteen the last time they tanned beside her uncle’s pool. In the five years since, a ton had happened.

  Then she saw herself in the cheap mirror nailed to the Mystic Room’s door and realized how much hadn’t changed. Its reflection contained a face unblemished by sleepless nights and blonde hair undamaged by neglect. Morgan hadn’t added an ounce since earning her driver’s license. Her ribs were prominent, her hipbones curved up. Best of all, her boobs were still perky. Most big-busted girls her age were already worrying about sagging (at least the natural big-busted girls).

  Despite the small victories, to Morgan the mirror’s image was just so much smoke departing an ashtrayed cigarette. What she saw shifted and changed. She knew her body was created by God, but she felt nothing but disgust. She could have been one more member of the walking dead –– a dumpy, bland girl without fire or passion.

  Tearing herself away with a sigh, she opened the door and entered the machine.

  A little color would do her good.

  -2-

  The salon’s phone rang just as Morgan’s tanning session ended. She could have let it go to voicemail, but it might be Bret. He’d been in Hawaii for over a week and since he still didn’t trust her to make deposits the cash was piling up. It no longer fit in the metal till; she’d started putting the money in envelopes, writing the amounts on the upper corner. Hardly safe.

  Goosebumps grew along her skin as she exited the Mystic room. She was fixing her ponytail when she heard a noise. Morgan stopped.

  A man was behind the counter.

  His back was to her, his attention on the till. Although her stomach clenched, for a moment she thought she’d be okay. Bret was rich. She wasn’t fighting a criminal in her birthday suit. Screaming was pointless –– next door was a baseline so loud the wall was vibrating.

  She backed up. If she turned around and locked herself in the Mystic room, she could call for help. Her cell was back there in her purse. The Newport Beach Police had great response times.

  Then the man turned. He smiled.

  He was wearing an Ed Hardy shirt at least a size too small; his arms were thick and veiny like most cheesy HB boys. The tips of his faux hawk were frosted – a detail she noticed despite her terror. His skin was faked-baked, his eyes raccooned from wearing the plastic goggles.

  And he wasn’t a customer.

  “Take the money.” Morgan’s voice trembled. To the right, her vulnerability was reflected in the mirror. “The cameras aren’t working.”

  He stepped forward and his raspy voice just barely carried over the salon’s music and the party next door. “I know. We fucked your security.”

  It felt like she’d swallowed a jagged ice cube. Sweat bloomed along her spine before traveling south down her crack. A sudden breeze contained the stink of his cologne: spicy and over-applied. Beneath that was a scent both acrid and familiar. A few strands of hair escaped their band, drifting past her eyes. She pushed them away while gauging the distance to her phone.

  She backed up slowly: a child trying to escape a feral dog. Her toes tickled against the soft carpeting. A mile to go.

  Another step.

 
It was going to be all right.

  Morgan glanced at the man, judging the distance separating them. He looked hungry.

  She knew what he saw: a naked female, fake tan drying on a body both young and weak. Decision sparked in his eyes. She spun, banging her shoulder into the wall as her hand reached for the knob. She gasped in pain. The man’s sneakers were slapping against the carpeting as he sprinted toward her.

  Morgan saw her open purse and the cellphone of salvation.

  And then his hand closed over her wrist.

  The guy was perspiring, his cheeks reddening. He yanked her forward. Her feet left the ground. Their bodies collided. His chest pressed her boobs flat, his heartbeat a rhythm through her skin. She felt hardness through his jeans.

  That was when she realized he was yelling at her, his rage coming out in spittle and bad breath. But she didn’t hear a word. It was like being underwater.

  Morgan screamed.

  She felt it as rawness in her throat and pain in her head, but she couldn’t hear a thing. Her yell was probably swallowed by the music next door but he still picked her up over his head before tossing her like a throw pillow.

  The hallway flipped upside down. Plastic chairs banged against her legs, then upended over her back. The carpet burned. She tasted blood.

  Sound returned. She heard his curses –– heard the words “Bitch” and “Cunt” ––along with Snoop Dogg’s soliloquies and a distant siren.

  Morgan rose. She would not run. Five feet away the mirror captured her image. Every muscle froze like bas relief with veins throbbing across her chest and forehead. Her hair was tangled, her lips a polluted sunset.

  She no longer looked scared.

  She looked ready.

  The man smiled.

  Darkness arrived.

  -3-

  The stone wall grew cold under Meat’s ass. He’d arrived ten minutes earlier and immediately knew that even for Newport, there were way too many cops for a robbery. Half-a-dozen of their black-and-white Suburbans blocked off the parking lot entrances; uniformed officers were interviewing bar patrons.

  Whatever happened, it had been ugly and it was over.

  Lonnie was supposed to call. Meat had spent hours conjuring scenarios. How had his friend fucked up something so simple? Bret owed Meat twenty grand. But the guy had been ignoring Meat’s calls. Tough luck for him –– he still had a key and he knew that not only did every customer pay cash but the girl didn’t make deposits.

  She didn’t open on Sundays either.

  Lonnie owed him a favor. Taking a thousand or two out of the till would have made up for some of Meat’s trouble. Call it interest and penalties.

  So, yesterday, he drove Lonnie from HB to the Balboa Peninsula. At five a.m, they’d broken the security cameras. Meat gave his best friend the door key and a fifty-fifty split.

  A police siren startled Meat. He stood, squinting as the lights from one of the Suburbans strobed across the lot. A moment later, a van pulled alongside the tanning salon’s building, “Newport Beach Coroner” emblazoned on its side.

  Meat backed away. Because his best friend since senior year at Edison High hadn’t just robbed the salon. He’d killed the girl who worked there.

  -4-

  “Detective Anderson!” Mike Anderson turned at the sound of his name. The narrow hallway was littered with plastic cups and busy cops.

  His stomach wrenched. As a rookie detective he’d been at the scene of three teens whose lives were scissored by a shotgun. Their grimy apartment had been painted with blood and hair.

  This was worse. This was his daughter.

  At the hallway’s conclusion, he shook hands with the man who’d called his name –– a guy both taller and leaner. At 6’2, Anderson weighed 230 but he’d been trying to lose twenty of that for almost as many years.

  “That’s right.”

  “We spoke on the phone. Detective Christopher Magnol, Robbery-Homicide.”

  Rage was a color; the walls went pink. “Don’t play me, Magnol.”

  “Excuse me?” The thin smile never left the other detective’s face.

  “You told me my daughter had an accident, that she was in trouble but physically she’s okay.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Then why the fuck is a dead man’s ride waiting downstairs?”

  Magnol sighed. “Listen, I’m not gonna ‘cop’ you. I’ll answer whatever questions you have. But you have to see something first.”

  Anderson appraised the man’s tailored suit and shiny shoes. His Riverside County neighbors would make him for a well-heeled investor, but Anderson figured after-hours most of those guys dressed like his late wife’s brother. Who actually was a well-heeled Newport Beach investor while wearing shorts and t-shirts every day but Sunday.

  Magnol was way too spiffy for one-thirty in the am.

  When Magnol traversed the divide between hallway and crime scene, Anderson followed. “This my daughter’s place?” He hated his ignorance.

  “No, this here’s a tanning club –– no biz license, strictly cash and after-hours.”

  “I’ve busted some after-hours bars, but after-hours tanning?”

  Magnol shrugged. “This is Newport. Come on in, the coroner and the techies are done. Not much to trip over.”

  It was a wreck. A crack bisected the front desk; stepping over a computer, Anderson glanced at the circuits spreading out across a speckled carpet.

  “Gets worse.”

  “Figured.”

  “Just a warning.”

  Anderson’s professionalism slid away like an old bathrobe. Beneath plastic sheeting, small ruby footprints tracked the center of the room. Morgan’s.

  When he ran his hand over his face, it came back wet. Embarrassed, he made fists and rubbed his eyes. Hard. He needed to lean against the wall. He needed a drink.

  Instead, he took a deep breath as Magnol indicated a small room to the left. “In here.”

  Pausing for a moment, Anderson looked around. “Any security footage?”

  “Negative. Two cameras: one downstairs over the entrance, one outside in the hall. Linked to the computer.” He grimaced as he indicated the crushed PC. “IT guy’s on his way, maybe he can flush an image off the hard drive. No sign of a break in; the perp had a key.”

  “You sure?” He felt a little better asking questions.

  Magnol nodded then slipped into the room. Taking another deep breath, Anderson followed.

  The detective was posed beside the tanning bed like a salesman. Anderson thought maybe it had been hit with a hammer or a bat –– until he saw what had coagulated in its indentations.

  “This was the... well weapon for lack of a better word.”

  Shattered bulbs lay beneath cracked plastic and shards had sprayed across the carpeting. They were covered in blood. Looking up, Anderson took in the room’s only decoration: a poster of a naked model. Photographed from the rear, her skin was an even curtain of brown. Magnol stepped aside and Anderson lowered his gaze.

  A white sheet covered the small shape. Tears returned.

  When he spoke, his voice came out sounding weak and high. “Magnol, you said my daughter was okay. That she was okay... but you wanted me to come here first. What the fuck?”

  “Holy shit, Detective,” Magnol backed up, his shoulders jostling the poster’s cheap frame. “That’s not your daughter.” He pulled away the sheet.

  Lying crumpled in the corner was a man – for Anderson saw it was a man – who had been folded like a cheap t-shirt. His forehead met his knees while his face was a mess of bruises. Just below the corpse’s jawline, a perforated line bisected his throat. There was less than the expected amount of blood.

  “Your daughter is fine. I wanted you here because I need your help.”

  “My help? This is a robbery, yeah? This the guy?”

  “It appears so.” Magnol knitted his brow. “The key to the place? Jammed into his hand. Got a couple Miss Dees off his ID: robberies.”
/>
  “Someone helped Morgan fight this guy off?”

  “No sign of that I’m afraid. The door was open –– some kids from the party next door entered the premises. They discovered your daughter. She was catatonic, naked and covered in blood.”

  Anderson stared hard at the detective. “No offense, Magnol, but why are you talking to me when I should be talking to her? This was a righteous kill.”

  “Self defense, yeah. Except, logic gets in the way.”

  “What, you want to charge my kid with abuse of a corpse?”

  Magnol shook his head. “I’m gonna level with you. I recognized your picture on your daughter’s phone. I took your seminar on unsolveds last May. ”

  “This seem unsolved to you?”

  “Come on, Detective.”

  “Come on, yourself. My daughter defended herself.”

  Anderson turned to leave.

  Magnol called after him. “It was self-defense. Except your daughter is 5’2, a buck-five, and beat down a perp who topped 200 pounds and ate steroids for breakfast.”

  Anderson stopped, but he didn’t look back. “Okay. It’s crazy. I get you. But I’ve seen adrenaline do some weird shit.”

  “And there’s not a mark on her.”

  -5-

  The old man recognized most of the teenagers outside 333 Southwest Park Avenue. He knew the street kids and their suburban imitators (with their dirty jeans and clean fingernails). He knew which girls really liked girls and which ones pretended so they wouldn’t be bothered by boys. And he knew which ones cruised Stark Street (nicknamed Vaseline Alley for a reason), trading themselves to the after-work crowd for folding money.

  He knew more about the teens awaiting admission to Klub Z than most men of 67 summers. Then again, how many senior citizens had spent two years bunking down in a parking lot –– which happened to be right next to Klub Z? Tonight, for the first time, there was more waiting for him on the crumbling cement than stolen grocery carts.

  Dropping a duffel bag on the ancient orange truck’s bed, he smiled for the first time. His teeth were his own, but they were white and straight –– leading man perfect.

  An electronic beat escaped whenever the club’s doors opened. He was struck by an image of him walking in and standing at the juice bar. He would have been an unlikely customer. Technically an all-ages gay club, Klub Z attracted some trolls but nowhere near as many The City did in the ‘90s. Only last week, he’d read an interview with the most famous movie director in Portland who’d admitted to meeting his boyfriend there.

  Sighing, the old man unlocked his truck. He didn’t know why the idea of dancing to such terrible music interested him. And the kids were even less appealing. They would have seen him as just another creepy old guy. But if they did manage a second glance, they would have come away confused.

  His old-fashioned attire, and sun-spotted hands contrasted with an unlined face. Strolling to the truck, he’d been as spry as someone half his age. He sported oversized sunglasses despite the hour; their lenses were darker than his truck’s tinted windows. He’d bought the vehicle in early October –– it was the first he’d owned since Carter lost the White House.

  When he was living outdoors, the club kids only noticed him with a mixture of pity and horror. Yet in August, he suddenly lost his taste for booze –– and he’d never done drugs, not even weed. By September he was holding down a job –– just calling up people and asking them what they thought about the governor. It only paid eight bucks an hour but minimum wage was all he needed. Sober he was able to fill out the paperwork to get food and a cheap hotel room covered by the state.

  He knew the young hardly ever notice the old. Except for three months ago, when a young woman’s notice changed his life.

  Getting into his truck, he closed the door with a creak and a slam before starting the rebuilt engine. Weaving through a downtown obstacle course of the drunk and the sober, he couldn’t stop grinning. He was going to California. And if he could find the girl, he knew she would notice him again. Of that he was certain.

  -6-

  Anderson grimaced as he sped past Hoag Hospital’s valet parking sign. One more reason to hate Newport. At least it was too late for that bullshit. Instead, he maneuvered the Suburban into a reserved spot and slipped his police placard onto the dash.

  As a cop he’d been in enough hospitals to know how cold they were; he grabbed his coat before getting out. Slipping it on, his hands went into the pockets. The fingers of the right one briefly touched cold metal. When Magnol gave him the object, it was covered with blood. Now it was a kind of hope.

  Walking toward the entrance, he put a hand out just before the outer doors automatically parted. Heading toward the admitting desk, Anderson felt diminished and inadequate. The reception area’s muted pastel paint didn’t alleviate the sorrow seeping through the walls. He slid his badge across the desk, where a thin Latina was eyeing the computer screen with the boredom of a veteran bureaucrat.

  A moment later, he got the info he needed.

  “Detective Anderson? Your daughter is in room 410 ––” and here the woman drew a line on a piece of paper before handing him the map, “the elevator’s down the hall.”

  “Thank you.” The hallway was decorated with dancing purple whales. Pausing before the bank of elevators, he took a quick squirt of hand sanitizer from the dispenser, and pushed the button. Without even realizing it, he held his breath.

  A minute later, he exited onto the fourth floor. Slipping past a waiting area populated by haggard loved ones dining on worry and prayer, Anderson was glad for his cop privileges.

  The hospital had given Morgan a room so Magnol could interview her. Shared rooms didn’t exist at Hoag –– as he entered #410, he was grateful for the privacy. His daughter lay on her back, the sheet and blanket wrapped around her hips. Lank blonde hair formed a halo over a forehead spotted by perspiration.

  “Baby?” His voice sounded unfamiliar. Stepping closer, he paused with his hand a few inches from her shoulder. He’d been ready to wake her when he realized Magnol was wrong. There was a mark on her.

  Faint red marks shaped like fingers encircled her throat. The asshole had tried to strangle his little girl. Bile came up from his guts and burned in his throat.

  Morgan had saved him the trouble of killing the son of a bitch.

  A dark sheet of glass was revealed between parted curtains. Daughter and father were reflected; his image recalling the frightening and frightened man he’d been when Morgan was twelve.

  “Baby?” She stirred, and as he touched her arm, blinked. For at least the one-hundred thousandth time, Morgan’s blue eyes reminded him of her mother. “How do you feel?”

  “Like I’ve got the world’s worst hangover.” She smiled sheepishly, then stretched her arms out. “Daddy... Oh God, I can’t believe they dragged you out of Corona.”

  He twinged a bit at the way she said “Daddy.” Dropping into a chair by her side, Anderson recalled another anxious moment in another chair beside another hospital bed. Morgan had been premature. In a hurry even then. “I’m fine. Uhmm – ”

  “Could I have some water?” He got up, pouring a cup from the pitcher on the bedside table. Held it to her lips, although it probably wasn’t necessary. Wiping her mouth, he returned the cup before she added, “I just got back, Dad, and I was gonna call –– ”

  Anderson waved his arms. “It’s okay. The way I was over Christmas, I don’t blame you.” Last year, he’d spent four days up in Portland. They had spent the entire vacation arguing. He looked at her and asked, “Why’d you come back?”

  “It’s complicated.”

  “Everything’s complicated. But you don’t have to make it harder...” He sighed. “There’s a detective coming by. You can probably go home after you talk to him but I can’t put him off any longer.”

  “Talk? What about?”

  Anderson crossed the room and stared out the window. Looking at the few lonely lights twinkling along
the foothills he considered that NB Police or no NB Police, the good people of Hoag weren’t donating an ocean view room. “Tell me everything you remember.”

  “We’re closed Sundays, and I always go in to use the Mystic and do my laundry.”

  “Mystic?”

  “It’s a spray tan –– perfect if the sun makes you sick.”

  “Just like your mother.” The phrase brought unexpected tears, and he turned away coughing as a cover. He’d been crushed when his wife had died. He couldn’t imagine what losing Morgan would have done to him.

  “I know.” She smiled unexpectedly, adding, “Genetics. Lots of good stuff I got from mom, not just breakouts and nausea every time I lay out for ten minutes.”

  He returned her smile. “That’s true. Pretty blue eyes, great teeth and perfect diction among other things.” He didn’t add that they shared a stubborn streak two miles long.

  “So, I had the music up and there was a party next door. I didn’t hear anything. When I walked out ––”

  “You were naked,” he said, hoping judgement didn’t infect his voice.

  “Well, yeah, you’re not gonna spray that shit over a bikini. Besides, we were closed. Anyways, I get out and there’s a guy behind the counter. I guess he broke in.”

  “He had a key.”

  “Wow.”

  “You recognize him?” She shook her head. “Do you think he knew someone who worked there?” Anderson waited, aware he was observing his daughter with the scrutiny he used on suspects.

  Morgan looked away and stared at their reflection. When her eyes drifted back, he held her gaze before returning to the chair.

  “Dad, I’m the only one who works there. Bret –– the owner – he has a key, but he’s got no reason... I walked out and this guy was looking for the till – it’s this metal box under the counter. Bret does the deposits but he hasn’t been in for a week.”

  “I know about the till.”

  “Bret is gonna shit a chicken. There must have been four grand under the counter.”

  “The guy didn’t get anything.” Morgan’s hand brushed across her lips. He wondered if she was lying. “What else do you remember?”

  “After that?” She stared at the ceiling, her face grim. “Not a damn thing. Next thing I remember...” She paused. He could tell it cost her when she looked at him again. “I was in the ER and they –– they did a rape kit. When they brought me here, they did a fucking rape kit and –” her voice broke.

  Hating himself for his doubts, Anderson squeezed her shoulder. “Honey, you weren’t raped.” His little girl blinked back tears, the fake tan failing to mask her pallor. “The guy didn’t touch you.” Again inaccurate. Why was it so damn tough being honest? He coughed, amending, “Well he did, but not... Do you know how you got that mark on your throat?”

  Touching it, she winced. “What the hell?” She threw the blanket and sheet aside. The hospital gown ended at her knees. A carpet burn striped her left calf. “I need a mirror,” she explained as she left for the bathroom.

  He heard an angry groan through the open door. “Holy shit, that douche tried to strangle me!”

  “You remember being brought here, and you remember the rape kit?”

  Morgan nodded as she came back into the room. “Dad, I just hope they get the son of a bitch.” Climbing back onto the bed, she noticed the mark on her leg. “And what the hell? Did he drag me across the salon?”

  “Honey...” Anderson stood. He began walking around the tiny room. His right hand was raised, his fingers loose. Whenever he paced, he wound up holding an imaginary glass of scotch despite half-a-dozen sober years. He was raising and opening his hand just as he turned toward Morgan. Seeing his daughter’s expression, he realized the gesture looked like he was about to slap her.

  He froze for a second, the guilt overwhelming.

  His daughter was cowering like a nervous puppy, drawing herself tight against the pillow. He shook his hands out and backed away. He tried to look calm as he leaned against the foot of the bed. “Honey... He’s...dead. The guy who attacked you? When I left that illegal tanning operation they were bagging his corpse.”

  “Oh my God.”

  Morgan was trembling, but Anderson needed to finish. She had to hear everything. “Detective Magnol –– the lead dick on the case? He called me – made me visit the scene before I was able to come here. He told me you had blood under your nails and in your mouth. As far as I know other than your neck and the carpet burns, you weren’t hurt.

  “All he’s got is self defense, and the guy you killed deserved killing. But that blood in your mouth? It was his – and quite a bit of it from what they tell me. You need to remember. Something, Baby. Anything. Because no cop is gonna accept faulty memory considering you ended a guy twice your size.”

  “I don’t...” She wiped a tear away, and then her face went hard. Just like her mother’s. “I don’t remember and there’s nothing you can do to fix that.”

  Maybe it was the familiar look, or the familiar dismissal but Anderson felt his guts go hot with rage. “Clamming up isn’t gonna help. Were you drunk?”

  “Why, cause the apple doesn’t fall far?” She stared at him, her pupils icy.

  He was a big guy, used to backing people up, backing them down. Not his daughter. Even when she was eight years old Morgan always stood up to him no matter how pissed off it made him. “No, Morgan but ––”

  “I had two shots before I tanned. That’s it. And just so you know, I’ve had this happen without a drop of booze.”

  “Okay, I get that, but – ”

  “No. You don’t. There’ve been black spots since the summer after mom died.” Her fingers trailed to the red mark encircling her throat. She rubbed at it as she spoke. “But you never really cared much before, so why start now? I’ll tell your buddy the same fucking thing.”

  “Fine.” His daughter needed him, whether she knew it or not. If shit went wrong, she would be charged –– no matter how much she looked like the victim. But right now all that mattered was the room was too small, his anger too uncontrolled and he could actually taste the first sip of scotch.

  Anderson reached the door, then forced himself to turn around. “The detective... he found this at the scene.” He took the cold metal object out of his coat pocket and handed it to her. He’d used napkins from an all-night donut shop to clean off the blood. When Morgan accepted the necklace it looked as pretty as the day he’d bought it for his wife.

  His daughter let her mother’s gold cross glimmer in the ugly light. When she put it on, the chain lay across the bruise on her neck. But when she struggled to engage its clasp, Anderson didn’t help.

  -7-

  (From the Orange County Register - November 11)

  Newport Beach – Authorities are refusing to comment on last night’s police activity surrounding an unlicensed Balboa Peninsula tanning salon. At ten-thirty, officers responding to a noise complaint discovered the aftermath of an attempted robbery. The crime occurred beside the party which generated the initial complaint, on the second floor of an Oceanfront apartment building. Although tanning salons have been fronts for prostitution in the Costa Mesa area, sources within the department say no such complaints have been lodged against the Newport Beach business.

  Instead, those sources say the salon was run as a private club. Although it was closed at the time of the robbery, an employee was on site and may have surprised the would-be thief.

  Just before press time, several attendees of the party indicated the robber was killed by the employee, a twenty-one-year-old local female, acting in self-defense. Police and official sources refused comment.

  -8-

  Lying was familiar. As a kid, Morgan lied all the time. Her Dad usually caught her, but getting spanked didn’t change a thing. She kept her secrets. Except this wasn’t stealing a lipstick from the drugstore or TPing a principal’s house.

  This was different. Hell, he was different. It was more than her father
not drinking; she knew he was trying to protect her. Shining him on had hurt his feelings.

  Guilt was a wet jacket in March. Being told she’d killed the intruder didn’t make it real. It was abstract. Like a toddler covering her eyes with her hands, if Morgan couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist.

  Concealing the truth? That was real.

  Because Morgan remembered. Not much and certainly not killing the guy who’d tried to strangle her, but more than she’d admitted. The fragmented pictures were half-recalled, like memories remaining from the division between slumber and stirring, when reality is permeable.

  She saw herself dragging the guy across the carpeting just as he’d dragged her moments before. She saw him trying to hit her as she evaded every blow. But the strongest memory was not what she saw. It was what she tasted.

  It was sweet, salty and almost, but not quite, recognizable.

  It was heaven.

  “Ms. Anderson?”

  Looking up, she saw a man too tall, too thin and too well-dressed to be a cop. Except in Newport. The room’s fluorescent glare didn’t diminish the sparkle of his green eyes. They were pretty, but they held something else –– something deeper and harder to describe than mere color.

  Morgan’s father intimidated. It was how he solved the unsolvable. Helpful witnesses endured the same skeptical confrontations as criminals.

  Magnol was different. He remained in the doorway until she invited him in. Entering, he identified himself and then asked her to call him “Chris.” And without being asked, he stepped behind her and engaged the necklace’s clasp. A stranger’s hands near her throat should have made her nervous. Instead, she smiled up at him and said, “Thank you. Sincerely. I mean I was just about to give up on it.”

  “That’s evidence, technically, so let’s keep this between you and me.”

  She crossed her heart, “I promise.” She knew she was being played, but it was a sweet gesture. Lifting the chain, she winked at Chris, adding, “Of course, the next time I take a shower I’ll probably be on my own.”

  She’d hoped the comment would unbalance him, but he just coughed and pulled out the chair her father had just vacated. Turning it so he could face her, his expression grew serious. “Morgan, I know this is difficult. But I’d like to get the details while they are fresh.”

  Morgan shook her head. “Not much.”

  “Sorry?”

  “Not much freshness I’m afraid. Not many details either.”

  “Did you hear anything suspicious?”

  She shook her head. “Just the phone. I was waiting for a call from Bret.”

  “The owner, Bret Davidson?” She nodded and he continued, “He’s out of town?”

  “That’s right. He hasn’t made any deposits and the cameras were ––” She looked at him, feeling the blood leave her face. “Shit. The guy... he told me they broke the cameras. ‘Fucked them,’ is what he said.”

  “Our tech just told me. Nothing on your computer, nothing from the last twenty-four hours. So, the perp? Anything familiar about him?”

  “Nothing. I’ve never seen him before.”

  “So he wasn’t a customer?”

  “Nope –– far as I know last night was the first time he’d been to the salon.”

  “You’re sure?”

  “I’m the only one who works there.”

  “Bret never runs a shift?”

  “Uh-uh. See, I worked at this tanning place in Portland – real popular place for fake baking – and he liked the idea of opening a salon in Newport. Said locals would want a tan after they went out partying.”

  “He ran it as a private club... Not as a business?”

  “That’s right. Said he could get around taxes and... Sorry, I shouldn’t talk about that.”

  “Ms. Anderson, I’m not with state revenue.” He looked out the door. “Your father told you?”

  Morgan felt fresh tears. “I didn’t mean...” She stopped, unsure.

  “I need to know who this guy was. He didn’t break in, he had a key and he knew to take out the cameras. ...Have you seen him anywhere, hanging around? A bar maybe?”

  “All those HB boys look alike.”

  “Huntington Beach? What makes you say that?”

  “Well the Ed Hardy shirt for one thing. No one wears those, ‘cept those guys. Newport boys, they get buff from surfing, maybe running. Those HB guys are just... steroidic. And his hair? Totally cheap like he let some chick he wanted to bone color it... I bet he drove some pick-up with monster tires.”

  Magnol nodded. “He did, we found it parked a block away. You definitely inherited you father’s gift.”

  “I’m not a detective. I just live here.”

  “But you took a break for a few years. What made you leave Oregon?”

  “I missed...” She started to say the sun, then decided not to lie. “Everything... But...” She looked at him, considering, then asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”

  The detective rose, sighed and looked toward the hallway. “There’s evidence the perp knew the owner... Is there a reason Bret would let himself be robbed?”

  “That’s crazy. He wouldn’t put me in danger.”

  “But it was your day off, though, right? That’s what you told the first on the scene.”

  -9-

  It was supposed to be simple.

  Meat started a pot of coffee. Coffee was about the only thing ever made in the kitchen. After his mom left, he and his dad lived on takeout; after his father’s death, Meat continued the legacy.

  He’d gotten rid of some furniture and cleared out a few rooms before realizing he couldn’t handle roommates no matter how much he needed the money. Instead, he kept to the kitchen, living room and his bedroom; during sleepless nights he probably clocked a mile or two wandering back and forth through the 3,000 square foot house.

  The property was on a suburban tract two miles from the beach. He’d inherited it free and clear.

  Meat poured a cup, added enough sugar and nondairy creamer to make it tasty to the average six-year-old, and wondered where he’d left his gun.

  There would be a lot of people to kill, if the killing started. First on his list – ahead of Bret and Lonnie – was the dickhead who’d talked him into ghetto real estate. Using equity off his dad’s home, he’d bought a couple of properties in Santa Ana. Then the market crashed and he owned rentals that wouldn’t rent and a house which wouldn’t sell. Up and down the street, Bank Owned; For Sale signs were sprouting up on dying lawns amidst the weeds and beer cans. Thanks to shitty investments and the loan he made for the tanning salon, Meat was just weeks from joining his foreclosed neighbors.

  The twenty grand he’d given Bret could have kept him afloat for months. Instead, he gambled like a desperate man hoping for luck with the ponies. Bret was rich but claimed a cash flow problem. Meat was familiar. Bret promised full repayment in two months and fifty percent of the business for the next five years. It sounded sweet – he knew how those Newport bitches liked to tan, and the real sun didn’t always cooperate.

  He’d been played.

  His father’s desk was an island of misplaced papers. With Lonnie’s help, Meat had moved the six-drawer oak monstrosity from the upstairs office. It was headed for a guest room, until Meat decided he’d rather keep it in the living room facing the TV. That way he could contemplate his growing debt while watching Mixed Martial Arts.

  The .38 was in the top drawer.

  Beneath it, a promissory note from Bret and brochures from companies that dealt in tanning beds and Mystic sprayers. He could have called a lawyer.

  To Meat, calling a lawyer was a pussy move.

  It was still dark when he left the house. Standing barefoot in boxers on the front porch, Meat glared at the long row of dark windows. People used to get up and go to work. Now most of them had left; those that hadn’t weren’t going anywhere.

  Stepping gingerly across his damp lawn, Meat made his way next door –– his neighbor was one of
the few flush enough to get a paper delivered. Not for long. Meat had been hanging out with the guy’s sixteen-year-old daughter; evidently dad’s job ended last week.

  So it looked like both his nooners and his paper thefts were coming to an end.

  Grabbing the loser’s OC Reg, Meat stuck it under his arm and jogged home. In the kitchen he spread the Local section out on the table. He examined every page. There wasn’t much. Not much news on a Monday, he guessed. On the back, the cartoon “Orangey” was predicting a sunny day. BFD. The article was on page fifteen of the front section.

  Lonnie hadn’t failed. He’d been killed. Bret’s bitch had murdered his friend.

  He went back to the desk for his gun. She’d moved to the top of his list.

  -10-

  Just yards from the hospital’s filtered air, Morgan scored a Camel from a Mexican orderly. He didn’t speak English, but she smiled and made the international gesture for “smoke?” She was grateful and managed to get a decent amount of nicotine into her lungs. It sounded like he was trying to pick her up, but before their interaction grew awkward, her cab arrived.

  Morgan reached her building just as the night was losing its battle to the day.

  In the shadows of homes fetching millions, there were dozens of cheap apartments. They rested in converted garages, the backs of 5,000 square foot houses and haphazardly placed atop bars and restaurants. They were rarely advertised and rarely inspected. Morgan’s own one-bedroom was five blocks from the Newport Pier, right over a bike rental shop and a taco stand.

  Most of the second floor was devoted to studios with a shared bathroom at the end of the hallway. The owner rented to cash-paying surfers and travelers. Years ago, he’d let Bret tear down a wall in his third-floor unit. Whatever the landlord owed him, Morgan didn’t know. But she never filled out a rental application and the owner gave her a second floor one-bedroom with its own bathroom for just six-ten a month.

  In spite of everything, she smiled as soon as she unlocked her door. Already it felt like home. Alone she’d painted the walls the color of Syrah wine, the ceiling ebony black. Heavy drapes guaranteed twenty-four hour darkness. In the living area, life-sized framed posters of Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain shared wall space with black-and-white prints of the Portland skyline and a girl she’d slept with.

  A four-poster bed and an overflowing bookcase dominated her bedroom. There was no computer and there was no TV. For one thing, there wouldn’t have been room in her car. For another, well, she’d had both when she left SoCal for Oregon and in Portland they were nothing but massive time-sucks.

  In the hallway, the dawn patrol was leaving to ride the early waves, but Morgan barely heard them. Stripping off her clothes, she watched her reflection dance across the mirrors facing her bed. She looked like a girl who had lost a fight. Bruises formed purple landscapes across her back and bottom; scratches defaced her legs. Naked, she crawled beneath a thin sheet but was too hot even for that. She threw it off, and lay sweating on her back.

  Sleep came quickly. So too did the dreams.

 
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