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1. Wicked Light

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Chapter 1

I dreamed of people with extraordinarily white teeth. It wasn't a disturbing dream, but the next day, the things started happening. At first, I thought they were coincidences and bad luck, then I began to worry. I would see things in my peripheral vision. That afternoon, when words weren't flowing like they should, something flew past the window. Stepping to the sill, I saw Hailey's rose garden with nothing amiss. It was probably a squirrel. Since I wasn't writing well anyway, I lingered admiring the view of the palms in the greenbelt with their dark, shiny fronds and the late afternoon sun sparkling on the sea in the distance. Through the trees, I could barely distinguish the pier, but at night its lights were festive. The casement was open, and the sundowner breeze was rising from the water. Shaking myself out of that trance, I returned to the matter at hand, how to extricate Elizabeth from Inspector Maxwell before she slips and reveals her complicity in the murder of Edward. Sometime after four, I checked my word count, which wasn't very good, saved the day's work, and crossed the room to put the detachable media into the old beige fireproof file. It was locked. Irritated, I turned over my monitor and read the combination from the adhesive label I had stuck there hoping to hide it from burglars. I also wrote it backward. I should replace the behemoth with a modern file that locks with a key, but fireproof files are expensive, and I was attached to the massive beast. I thought I saw the shadow cross the window again. Looking, there was still nothing stirring, and the only sound was a woodpecker cackling from one of the queen palms. Well, the day was done, and it was time for a drink. On the way to the bar, I stopped in the door of Hailey's office. She was seated at her computer. In profile, the sweep of her salt-and-pepper hair framed the classic cameo of her faultless face, the face,almost unchanged,that snared me so many years ago. I walked behind her and massaged her shoulders, then bent to kiss her cheek. "How'd it go today?" she asked not looking from her monitor. "Had better days." "I picked up your jacket from the cleaners." "What jacket?" "The off-white one. It will be a nice night to sit outside." "What do I need a jacket for? They don't even have outside tables." She tilted her face toward me. "I want you to look nice. Be thankful I don't make you wear a tie." "Writers don't wear ties. It's in the rules." I left to get that drink and walked past her terrier mix, Gretchen. The little monster growled at me and snarled. "What's wrong with her?" "You probably startled her." I filled a glass with ice, poured gin three quarters to the rim, squeezed a lime wedge into the mix, and splashed it with tonic. A second cocktail went down easily as I watched the news, then I supposed it was time to get dressed for dinner with my sometimes irritating agent, Maury. I hadn't worn the jacket since last summer. Somebody once told me it was gauche to wear white in the winter. In Southern California, what difference did it make? Anyway, I couldn't get into the thing. "Hey, they shrank my jacket," I yelled to Hailey who was in the bathroom putting on her lipstick. "Dry cleaners don't shrink things." "Then they gave you the wrong jacket." "See if the laundry mark is under the collar." "It says 'Walker.' Is that me?" "You must have gained weight. You've been taking bigger portions lately. I've been meaning to say something." "I get on the scale every morning. I've weighed between one eighty and one eighty-four for twenty years." "You just don't want to wear a jacket. Maury will have a jacket on." "I'll wear a damned jacket,just not this one. Shit, you couldn't get into it." She left the bathroom and examined the coat. "This is your jacket all right. If they washed it in water, the lining would be all puckered. The scale must be wrong. Remember this when you order tonight." I shrugged on my tan jacket. "Then how come this one fits?" "I don't know. It's time to go." We drove down from the hills toward the coast in silence, passed under the freeway, and negotiated the coast road for the short way to the Santa Barbara Inn. The valet took the car and I steered Hailey by the elbow into the lobby, and then to the elevator. I was still feeling irritated and said, "I'd just as soon we were having dinner alone." "Stop complaining. He drove all the way from Los Angeles for this." Maury Goldstein was already seated at a table with a view of the ocean. He stood and hugged Hailey. She pretended to kiss his cheek and asked, "How's Karen?" "She's fine. She's in New York on a book tour." I didn't care where Karen was as long as it wasn't here. Maury held Hailey's chair before shaking hands with me. "Christopher, old man, how's my favorite author?" "Just fine, how about you?" "Couldn't be better." Maury already had a bottle of wine, which he proceeded to pour. "When are you going to approve the cover art?" "I don't like the cover art." "I have passed along your concerns. I'm afraid it fell on deaf ears." Grunting, I studied the menu. "I think I'll have the lobster." "You don't want lobster with red wine, dear," Hailey said. I looked at her and felt my brow knit. "I feel like lobster. I'll get a split of champagne." She returned my scowl and looked at the agent. "Maury, I don't know how you put up with him." "We have a lot in common." He gave Hailey a sly look that I didn't quite get. Maury ordered pâté to start, and conversation drifted to the spectacular view. As the meal progressed, I was digging in the lobster's carapace looking for the roe. "That stuff is gross," Hailey said. "It's embarrassing to be seen with you when you're eating it." "So, don't look." I spooned a heap of the green glop onto a chunk of bread. That was when I felt the insides of my elbows start to itch. "My throat is starting to constrict," I croaked. "It's from eating that disgusting stuff," Hailey said. "I've eaten it a hundred times." Maury said, "I think you're having an allergic reaction." "I've never been allergic before." "It can develop anytime." Maury went urgently to the hostess station. He returned on the double and said, "They're calling the paramedics. Let's get you down to the lobby. Can you walk?" "I can walk. I just can't breathe." "You're turning green," Hailey shrieked. Maury hauled me to my feet knocking over the chair. He dragged me across the dining room, past the startled diners, and into the elevator. In the lobby, he put me on a bench. The EMTs were there in minutes and strapped me to a gurney. A chunky girl with a cute face and unusually white teeth, who couldn't have been any older than my daughter, Ashlee, gave me oxygen on the way to the hospital. They wheeled me into the ER and through the double doors to the treatment area without pausing at the nurses' station. The girl with the oxygen bottle stayed with me. "You ever have this happen before?" I shook my head while still gasping for air and thinking about my dream and her teeth. A few minutes later, a nurse pushed back the curtain and gave me a shot. "What did you eat?" "Lobster. I've had it a hundred times. It's my favorite." "Allergies can pop up at any time. You're going to have to find a new favorite," she said while taking my pulse. "You should be breathing easier in a minute." "It is better." "Good. Just lay still and breathe. I'll check on you in a little while." The nurse and the EMT girl left and Hailey passed them moving fast. "You scared the hell out of me." "I had a few bad moments myself." "I told you not to have lobster." Irritated, I said, "I've had lobster a hundred times without a problem." "It's just a good thing Maury was there and remained calm." "Good old Maury. Where is he?" "In the waiting room. I was too shaken to drive. I should let him know you're okay." "I'm going to be here a while. You might as well let him take you to get the car if you're together enough to drive now so you can take me home." "Yes, I'll do that, and I have to give the nurse your insurance information." Hailey left, and I lay staring at the fluorescent light over my head as the minutes crawled past. After an hour, I felt fine and was contemplating walking out of the place when the nurse who injected me withdrew the curtains. "Feeling better?" she asked and checked my pulse again. "I'm fine now." "You're sure?" "Yeah, I'm ready to go." "Have you got someone to take you home?" "My wife should be out there. I expected her to wait with me. Did you tell her not to come in?" "I haven't seen anyone." "She must be waiting outside," I said swinging my legs over the side of the bed. "Okay, just sign this release form." I scribbled on her clipboard and sat in the wheelchair that she produced from behind the curtains. It's weird that they insist on wheeling you out after you've recovered. I scanned the waiting room. There was no Hailey, in fact, the crowd looked to be completely Hispanic. "She must be waiting outside," I said. She pushed me through the automatic sliding doors. There was nobody outside but ambulance drivers. "Christ, where is that woman? I'll call her." The call went straight to voicemail. "Dammit, Hailey, pick up. Where are you?" I looked at the nurse. "I'll just call a cab." "I hope something didn't happen to your wife," she said. "Me too." I vacillated between concern and anger until the cab arrived. On the way back to the hills, I cooled a little, but anxiety returned as I tapped the code into the keypad by the garage door. The door rose, and I was baffled to see the rear bumpers of Hailey's Land Rover and my antique Jaguar XJS, which I'd driven to dinner. In the dim light filtering through the bedroom window, I saw Hailey's form under the covers. She heard me enter. "What are you doing here?" she said sounding alarmed. "Me? What are you doing here when you were supposed to bring me home from the damn hospital?" "They said they were going to admit you and that I couldn't see you again until morning." "Who said that?" "The nurse." "What nurse?" I asked. "I don't know what nurse,a nurse." "That's crazy. Nobody ever said anything about admitting me. And why didn't you answer your phone?" "I turned it off when I went to bed. It was a misunderstanding. You don't need to yell at me." "I'm not yelling." I wanted to yell, but I turned and left the room. Downstairs, I poured whisky into a glass and heard a suspicious plop. Reaching under the cabinet, I pushed on the switch of the bar light. In the soft glow, I saw at the bottom of my glass a little white scorpion. After drinking Glenfiddich for longer than I can remember, I knew they did not put scorpions in their whisky bottles. The pickled arachnid went down the disposal along with the contents of the decanter. Thankfully, I had an unopened bottle in the liquor cabinet. After that encounter, I deserved three fingers instead of two, which I sipped in the dark until I felt calm enough to try for some sleep. When I tiptoed into the bathroom to brush my teeth, my toothbrush wasn't in the drawer. Deciding to avoid confrontation, I slipped into bed with filmy teeth that were not very white.

Biography

Scott Skipper is a fiction writer with a broad range of interests, including history, genealogy, travel, science, and current events. His wry outlook on life infects his novels with biting sarcasm. Prisoners are never taken. Political correctness is taboo. His work includes historical fiction, alternative history, novelized biography, science fiction, and political satire. He is a voracious reader and habitual and highly opinionated reviewer. He lives in the foothills of Southern California with a wonderful wife and some foolish dogs.

 

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