by Laurie Stevens
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“I see you,” Paul St. Germain muttered to himself. He was looking across the beach chairs and could see Blaine Taylor sitting with his mistress. Ashley, thought Paul, my ex-girlfriend. Through the poles of the blue beach umbrellas, Paul watched as Ashley and her new lover Blaine giggled and shared secrets. They are probably talking about me, Paul thought.
Ashley stretched out her long, tan legs, digging her toes into the warm, sun-kissed sand. She wore a black bikini, visible through a white, gauzy summer dress, a combination only Ashley could pull off and still look like a model for the cover of Vogue. The Harrington Beach club had a policy on proper attire, so Ashley was abiding by the rules, but Paul knew that Ashley was a perfect little trollop at heart and loved to parade her body around in the nude, especially if there was a wealthy man nearby.
Blaine was another story altogether. Paul narrowed his eyes at the other man. Blaine wore shorts and a Polo shirt that hid the slight paunch that even his obsessive workouts at the gym couldn’t eliminate. It’s all that gourmet food and fine wine you consume, Paul thought. Looking at him now, Paul watched as Blaine signaled the waiter and ordered a cheese and fruit plate along with a vodka, his third of the day. ‘You gluttonous lush,’ Paul muttered under his breath. The loathing Paul felt by looking at Blaine Taylor made him want to crush the glass bottle of Perrier he held in his hand. As it was, Paul’s knuckles were white, he was holding the bottle so tightly.
Paul relaxed his grip and turned his eyes toward the beach and the water beyond. A walking path separated the Harrington Club from the rest of the world. The Harrington, founded in the latter part of the nineteenth century, boasted high-standards, an impressive membership roster, which included celebrities and politicians, and an exorbitant price for dues.
An Asian family, tourists maybe, walked along the path that bordered the Harrington and the father stopped to take a picture of the privileged few on the other side. Next to Paul, a blustery red-faced woman, holding a Piña Colada, clucked and remarked, “Can you believe that?”
No, Paul thought and stopped himself from sneering. It’s not to be believed. It’s not to be believed how the people on this side of the walkway think they are vastly superior to the humans on the other side. If only Mr. Tourist knew that some of the folks sitting on these revered beach chairs had liens against their homes. If only he knew that these self-same VIPs would never quit their memberships with the Harrington because to do so would be social suicide.
Case in point, thought Paul… Me.
He knew he was about to be thrown out of the Harrington Beach Club. It was a joke for him to be sitting here under an innocuous sun, waiting for the higher powers to cut his cord. Still, Paul couldn’t quite bring himself to skulk away like a whipped dog, whimpering in his humiliation.
The image of a whipped dog, once proud and beloved, nearly brought tears to Paul’s eyes. The St. Germain name did mean something at one time. Paul had owned a successful business. He had taken one retail store that sold work boots and made it into a national chain. Is that a laugh? Paul became part of the upper crust by selling to the common laborer. Once upon a time, he had a fancy house in town and a second home in Maui. He traveled first class, he was on the A-list for parties. And what glittery parties he went to! Chef-made food and bottles of Cristal, men high-fiving him and beautiful women whispering their phone numbers into his ear.
And then there was Ashley. Paul glanced once more at her. Black designer sunglasses topped her high cheekbones and her full lips smiled, as she tossed her long auburn hair over her shoulders. Her thin but shapely legs were well oiled and shone under the summer sun. Blaine had his hand on her thigh.
Paul looked away.
“I wish they’d just continue walking,” said the matron next to him as she took a slurp of her Piña Colada. Paul turned toward her and saw that she was referring to the Asian family, who were still ogling the Harrington Club.
Paul wanted to take the lady’s drink and pour it over her head. A bead of sweat coursed its way from his receding hairline down his face. Today was a hot one, even here near the ocean. Paul lifted the Perrier bottle to his lips and finished it off. Almost immediately, a waiter came over with a friendly smile and asked if Paul would like another bubbling water. He told the waiter that he would and wondered when they would finally cut off his tab. What would the dour bitch sitting next to him say about that? A ruckus suddenly erupted behind him, causing him to turn around in his beach chair.
A young woman, wearing spikes of blue in her otherwise jet black hair, was grappling with one of the wait staff. “Give it back, you dick!” she yelled at the man.
The waiter, a senior staffer by the look and attitude of him, held a cell phone away from the girl’s grasping hands. “Miss Blanchard, you know the rules about no cell phones at the Harrington.”
“Screw you and your elitist rules! Give me back my phone!”
Paul looked around at his fellow members. Everyone seemed to be watching with one eyebrow up and a frown of disdain on their lips. Way to go, Girlie, he thought. You give them a show. They’re all bored anyhow.
The girl with the blue spiky hair finally gave up with a huff and watched as the male staffer walked away with her phone. “I’ll hold it for you, Miss Blanchard, until you are ready to leave.”
“Hold this,” the girl muttered and held up her middle finger.
The woman next to Paul clucked once more and shook her head. “Spoiled brat.” She hoisted herself out of the chair, which promptly fell over in her wake. The woman left it lying like a dead bug and trudged off into the club.
Almost immediately, Miss Spiky Blue lifted the chair upright and plopped herself down in it, next to Paul. She was a tiny thing, to pack so much wallop. Observing her, Paul could see she had an assortment of piercings on her face – one in the lip, one in the nostril, one in the cheek and a variety of earrings adorning both ears. It was a shame to spike such a face, as she was pretty in a pixyish sort of way. The girl wore lots of rings and bracelets, and her shorts were too short for the Harrington sandbox and had ragged edges besides. A definite no-no.
“What are you looking at, Lech?”
She was glaring at Paul. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look away either. Miss Spiky Blue then pulled a pair of dark sunglasses out of the beach bag, put them on and continued to stare back at Paul through the dark lenses. He let her win and looked toward the ocean. The Asian family had moved on but more beach-goers came along. All of them looked toward the Harrington members in curiosity. Some of them looked on in envy.
“Want to see something funny?” the girl next to him asked.
Paul turned his head toward her, but didn’t respond. The girl smiled gleefully and put her hand to her ear as if she were taking on a cell phone. She moved her head around in a motion that mimicked a lively conversation.
In no time, another waiter was at her side. “Miss Blanchard, I thought you were told –”
“It’s for you,” the girl said and pretended to toss the imaginary phone to the waiter, who actually made a grab – at nothing. Spiky Blue gave him a movie star smile. The waiter gave her a look that said, they-don’t-pay-me-enough-for-this. He walked away. She looked back at Paul. “You’re not laughing,” she said.
“It wasn’t funny,” Paul answered.
“I thought it was hilarious.” Spiky Blue reached for her beach bag again.
“If you hate the rules so much,” Paul said, “Why do you come here?”
“I hate everything this place stands for.” Digging into her bag, she pulled out a pack of chewing gum. She offered a stick to Paul, who declined.
“Then why do you come?” he asked again.
She popped the stick of gum into her mouth and between chews, she said, “Because I love when I arrive and they tell me this is a member’s only club. To which I answer, I am a member. I love the fact that the metal in my face scares their kids. I like stealing the tampons out of the bathroom. Why do you come?”
Paul wiped a trickle of sweat from migrating into his eye. “Because I’m a damn fool, that’s why.”
“Don’t tell me,” the girl said, “Let me guess. Your company pays for your membership, so it’s a write-off.”
Paul shook his head.
“You made a ton of money in the stock market and now you want everyone to know about it.”
Paul didn’t reply.
“You’re pathetically typical, aren’t you?”
In answer, Paul pointed to Ashley and Blaine. “See that couple over there? See that man? That man offered to buy my company from me. We were friends. Business fell off and I was overdrawn on my credit line. I needed cash. Life is like that, you see. Perhaps you’re a little trust fund girl who will never know what it’s like to see a business you’ve built start to wither and die like a starving child. Slowly and painfully.”
Spiky Blue smacked her gum, but didn’t comment.
Paul continued. “I worked my ass off for twenty-five years. I was tired. Blaine came along and offered to pay my debts and employ me. Long story short, he burned me. He took over the corporation, fired me after six months, and then messed with the contract, knowing I didn’t have enough money to hire lawyers to fight him. Then he went after my girlfriend Ashley, who follows a trail of money like a bitch follows the piss trail of another dog.”
Miss Spiky Blue leaned over and took a good long look at Ashley and Blaine.
She then sat back in the beach chair. “Bummer.”
A short laugh escaped Paul and he turned his attention to the breaking waves. The sun was beginning a downward course as the afternoon progressed.
“What’s your name,” Spiky Blue asked.
“What does it matter?”
“I like you,” she said. “You’re sketchy. I like sketchy. My name is Pepper Caliente.”
“I heard them call you Miss Blanchard.”
“I was born Elizabeth Blanchard. My family has had a membership here for years. Daddy doesn’t come anymore. He got fed up with the Harrington. Mom is too busy, always too busy. My two brothers are in college and live out of state.”
“So now it’s just you.”
Paul frowned at the girl. “Daddy doesn’t come here, but he keeps his membership. I’m sorry to break this to you, but that is pathetically typical, Elizabeth.”
“You can call me Pepper Caliente.”
“But I really can’t, can I? Because it’s a put-on, isn’t it? Besides, Elizabeth is a nice name,” Paul told her. “Why choose the name of a porn star?”
Spiky Blue laughed and smacked her gum again. A yuppie couple, occupying the beach chairs nearby, rolled their eyes and corralled their children away from the vicinity of Paul and his nonconformist companion. “Devil’s spawn,” Spiky Blue commented as she observed the children, loud enough for the parents to hear.
Paul smiled and held out his hand, “Paul St. Germain.”
Spiky Blue looked at his hand, but did not take it. “Okay, Paul.”
Paul lowered his hand, but the smile stayed on his face as he said, “The Harrington is a safe place where we can all feed our illusions of being better than we are. I can sit here, a financially and emotionally bankrupt man and yet everyone will think I’m important – a guy who has everything his heart desires. That’s the lure of the Harrington. That’s why Daddy can’t break his membership.”
He swallowed and looked back toward Ashley. Did she ever think about him anymore? Paul could see Blaine’s hand creeping up under the gauze of her sundress. Blaine was trying to be subtle so as not to upset the genteel balance of the Harrington Club.
“You’re a whiner,” Spiky Blue said.
“And you’re a sellout, Miss Blanchard,” Paul said as he turned back toward her. He could see he had gotten the rebel where she lived, that was for sure. Paul felt a bit sorry for her. He supposed Elizabeth Blanchard was a creative soul, yearning to be free of the material world she thought she could not live without. “Take Daddy’s money,” he reassured her. “It’s much nicer to be rich, trust me. It’s a lot more fun.”
“Duh,” she said blandly.
The two of them sat without talking, but Paul could hear her crack her gum now and then. Out in the water, a dolphin jumped happily. The yuppie couple quickly pointed the dolphin out to their young kids, who squealed delightedly. The waiter came with Paul’s Perrier and asked Spiky Blue what she would like to order. She ordered a chicken sandwich with French fries and a beer.
“You’re not twenty-one,” the waiter told her and walked away.
Spiky Blue watched him go and told Paul, “That’s another thing I’m going to like about this place. In the not so distant future, I’ll be able to drink beers until I pass out and guys like him will have to carry me up to the clubhouse. How’s that for service?”
A wave crashed loudly and Paul said, “Want me to tell you your future, Miss Blanchard?”
She eyed him.
“You’ll graduate from a trophy college and Daddy will network and set you up in some sort of career. You’ll marry a rich man, because only a rich man will do for a Blanchard. You’ll have three children who are raised on Baby Einstein and go to a stupidly expensive pre-school that guarantees to make your children geniuses. You’ll have the largest house in the neighborhood and be upset when someone builds one larger than someone builds yours. But you’ll still party with your new neighbor even though you’re jealous because God knows they might be in with the in-crowd. Your husband will cheat on you because you’re so plastic and because, even with all his money, he’s never satisfied. You’ll get a facelift before you’re forty. You’ll work out at an expensive gym and starve yourself in the hopes your husband will find your body attractive, but he won’t. You’ll be half yourself, Miss Blanchard. And sometimes, late at night, you’ll remember a girl named Pepper Caliente and wonder when everything turned to shit.”
Paul thought she might leave, but she didn’t. He had to give her credit. He had insulted the very core of her but she remained in her beach chair.
“Why are you here?” She asked finally.
“To say goodbye.”
“To this life.”
Spiky Blue shook her head. “You really are a whiner. What? Is today a nice day for committing suicide?”
Paul said nothing.
“Well,” Spiky Blue said. “Don’t be a chump about it. Frank Zappa said don’t be a suicide chump. Get it on, get it over with, and get it right the first time.”
“How do you know about Frank Zappa? He was dead before you were born.”
“I like music. I like all kinds of music.”
For the first time all day, Paul felt a stab of tenderness. “I think you have some substance, Elizabeth Blanchard. There may be hope for you yet.”
“Know what I think?” Spiky Blue said with some malice. “I think you sold out, too.”
“No, Miss Blanchard,” Paul countered. “You can only be a sellout if you realize you’re giving up something of value. I wasn’t brave like you. I never would have rebelled in the face of the Harrington. I embraced it. I fell in love with it. I didn’t have a clue who Paul St. Germain was and I didn’t care. That was sloppy of me. You should always keep tabs on the true person inside of you. That’s where your soul lies.”
“You think I’m brave?” She asked it with a hint of sarcasm, but Paul felt her nonchalant tone was just a cheap shield. He had the feeling she truly wanted the affirmation.
“I think you’re struggling.” Paul stretched his legs out. They ached and he felt his back crack a little. Too much time sitting in one position. Ah, the pitfalls of growing older.
As the sun dipped lower, turning the sky pink and yellow, the waiters assembled and began stacking wood in the fire pit.
“Are you staying for the bonfire?” Paul asked Spiky Blue.
“Why not?” she replied. “It’s a nightly tradition, isn’t it?”
Paul knew that it was. The common folk on the other side of the walkway were not allowed to barbeque or light bonfires. Drinking on public beaches was strictly prohibited. The Harrington, however, grasping at its postage stamp square of private land, could serve liquor and light bonfires for the pleasure of its patrons. How ridiculous it all seemed to him now. For a drink and some firelight, he had paid thousands of dollars a year. Now he was broke. Paul saw Blaine order one more vodka straight up. Ashley took off her sunglasses and appraised her surroundings with the aloofness of a queen.
“Aren’t we lucky, Miss Blanchard?” Paul said in a low voice.
“What?” Spiky Blue answered. “Did you just say something?”
“I said, aren’t we the lucky ones to be sitting here so far above the maddening crowd?”
She gave him a strange look and then shrugged. “I guess so.”
The first star appeared in the now violet-colored sky. A few boats bobbed lazily far out in the water. The ocean, a slate gray now, was calm. The sparks from the bonfire flew like fireflies and Paul was reminded of the smoky scent of barbeque that used to permeate in his parent’s middle class neighborhood every Sunday afternoon. How he wished he could have one of Dad’s big thick hamburgers smothered in mustard right now.
“Don’t miss the s’mores!” A waiter appeared next to Paul and handed him a skewer upon which three marshmallows were impaled. “Chocolate bars and graham crackers are –”
“Right on the side table over there,” Paul finished for him and pointed to a table where waiters were laying out condiments.
“You’ve been here before,” the waiter said genially. He turned to Spiky Blue.
“S’more, Miss Blanchard?”
Spiky Blue readily accepted her skewer with the gleeful anticipation of a little girl.
Paul suddenly put a hand on Spiky Blue’s arm. “Don’t get stuck in the sand trap, Miss Blanchard. Play the game if you must, but do not get stuck in the sand trap.”
Spiky Blue looked at his grip on her arm in surprise and a little fear. Then Paul St. Germain was up and out of his beach chair.
Watching him, Spiky Blue perked up in her chair. Was he really going to do it? She had only been kidding about not being a suicide chump. Was he going to walk into the ocean and never come out? She looked around. Nobody seemed to notice Paul. Nobody seemed to care. She was the only soul who knew how desperate he was. She looked wistfully at the marshmallows she held in her hand and with a sigh, laid the skewer down in the sand.
Spiky Blue rose from her chair, intending to talk to Paul. Instead of walking toward the ocean, however, Paul St. Germain went and stood at the edge of the bonfire.
She saw him wave to the man he’d called Blaine. Blaine, drink in hand, saw Paul waving him over, but didn’t move. Finally, Blaine winked conspiratorially at Ashley and then sauntered over to Paul. He did so in a condescending manner, making it clear to Paul he was doing him a great favor by joining him. Through the crackling of the fire, Spiky Blue could only make out a few words of conversation between the two men. Paul seemed defeated as Blaine stood by haughtily.
Spiky Blue decided to make her way over. If anything, perhaps she could say something humorously bitchy to Blaine for Paul’s amusement and get him out of his funk. Why not? It would be for her enjoyment as well and then maybe they could laugh about it.
She was halfway there when Paul suddenly grabbed the vodka that Blaine was holding and promptly threw the drink in Blaine’s face. Spiky Blue halted, watching the liquid soak the man’s shirtfront. She was unsure of what to do. The defeat she’d seen on Paul’s face earlier was completely gone. It its place was a very determined rage.
“And don’t forget your s’mores!” Paul yelled and shoved the skewer of marshmallows into Blaine’s throat. As the other man grabbed his bleeding neck in disbelief, Paul pushed Blaine Taylor into the roaring bonfire.
The alcohol acted like an accelerant and Blaine was soon engulfed in flames. Spiky Blue felt her mouth drop open and left it there. The image of Blaine Taylor, on fire and running in panic along the sand with a skewer of marshmallows sticking out of his neck, would forever stay in her mind. For a young woman, forever is a truly long time.
The Harrington members, holding their skewers or eating s’mores, watched in astonishment as Blaine ran to the water’s edge. Spiky Blue heard screaming, but it seemed to be coming from only one person – Ashley.
“Don’t worry!” Paul yelled to the crowd. “I’ll put the fire out!”
And Spiky Blue saw Paul grab the struggling figure and throw him into the water. She could swear she heard a hissing sound when Blaine’s flaming body hit the surf, but she couldn’t be sure. One thing Spiky Blue was sure of though, Paul hadn’t come to the Harrington to kill himself. He’d come here to kill Blaine.
Paul’s teeth were bared like a wild animal as he knelt on top of Blaine, pinning him under the saltwater. Wave after wave pushed against the two men, but Paul kept Blaine under water until the burnt man struggled no more.
It was a Mexican man walking with his sweetheart who saw what was happening and decided to play the Good Samaritan. He ran into the water and grabbed Paul, disconnecting him from Blaine, who now lolled calmly in the water like a piece of floating seaweed.
One of the wait staff had already called the police. The law arrived very quickly. This was the Harrington Club, after all. Once the Mexican man got Paul subdued, other men, club members, suddenly found their own inner machismo and started barking orders and saying, “We’ll take it from here.”
When the police were trying to put the handcuffs on Paul St. Germain, he suddenly broke free and ran to the food table. People gasped. One woman screamed. Some members ran off. Paul quickly swiped up something from the table and chucked the object at Spiky Blue. He received a whack from a cop’s sap for his effort. Spiky Blue didn’t duck, didn’t even flinch. She caught what he threw to her and her quick reflexes caused Paul to smile in brief admiration. Then the policemen cuffed his hands behind his back and steered him off the beach.
Spiky Blue watched him go, unable to speak. Perhaps she was in shock. She’d never seen a man implode before. She never thought she would witness a murder.
A uniformed policeman stood in front of her.
She couldn’t answer him.
“People here are saying that Mr. St. Germain was speaking to you right before he… Right before the incident. I’d like to know what you two were talking about.”
Spiky Blue nodded, a bit unsteady on her feet.
“First of all, could you please show me what he threw at you?”
Spiky Blue, still unable to talk, showed the policeman what was in her hand. He seemed confused and then shrugged it off.
“Okay, Miss…could you please tell me your name?” The policeman readied a pad and pencil.
She looked down at the small packet of pepper lying in her palm and then lifted her eyes toward the ocean.
“My name is Pepper Caliente.”
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