EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.
CHAPTER 2: NIGHT
After dinner, Ryan beckoned to Frank and walked outside. At the end of the pool, out of the arcs of light cast by the house windows, they had built a teepee of logs in a clay chimenea taller that Frank that rested in a wrought iron stand. It was all very rustic and authentic. Frank had watched while Ryan explained how to build a fire of the correct size. They stood and watched the flames lick at the wood. A few sparks went up into the air with the smoke. Ryan searched around on the ground until he found a piece of charred and blackened window screen. He bent the edges to keep it from sliding off and placed it carefully on the top of the chimenea.
“Don’t want to burn down the desert,” said Ryan.
Then he went into the kitchen and came out with two single malt scotches, doubles. He handed one to Frank and settled down in front of the fire. Flashed his bad little boy smile.
“Bending the rules just a little, Frank,” said Ryan.
Frank sniffed his glass to get the deep smoky smell of the peat.
“It helps staring into fires,” said Ryan. “They let you see things clearer. You’ll like it out here Frank. Have you ever been in the desert in spring? When we’ve had a good, wet winter, it just explodes with wild flowers. You have to go over the Anza Borrego. Just carpets of wild flowers. Colors just spread out across the land in big sheets.” Ryan turned into the wind, inhaling deeply. “When I moved out here I decided no lawn, no East Coast flowers. I wanted to be true to the land. Now I’ve got white sage, Saint Catherine’s Lace, that’s Orange Blanket flower. I brought in the Joshua trees.”
Ryan started with the basics. The collision on the road: a smash-up off in the near distance from the desert house. Feeling like he was seeing in broken stop-motion, while being helplessly flung around in the screeching, banging confusion of the crash. Then everything was still and you were trying to collect yourself and figure out what you’d just experienced.
Johns running toward the wreckage spread up and down the highway. Other cars coming through. Survivors being pulled out of cars. The police arrive. People attracted to the accident take photos. People begin disappearing into ambulances, into police cars, into the desert. A Lincoln Town Car, a vintage Porsche, a Jaguar, and a four-door German car—nine people—so much broken metal and torn humans scattered along the road.
People were dead.
“I was driving. I’ve never said I wasn’t. I guess that makes me responsible for some of it. I was going pretty fast. The police couldn’t really say how fast. I didn’t brake so there were no skid marks.” Ryan looked into his glass. Trying to see the accident clearly. “I was just . . . driving.” He seemed to be struggling with something within him and having a hard time of it. “I admit I was going pretty fast. No faster than I usually drive. No faster than anyone else around here drives. I pulled out to pass and a car in front of me started skidding sideways. And then I hit it. Then I was just bouncing around inside the car. Bounced off the airbag. The car is up on its side. And it’s all over.”
Frank didn’t say anything. He was thinking of the little memorial.
“Then it’s people running around and ambulances and police. I just walked out into the desert, ended up here at the house sitting out by the pool.”
“You left the scene?”
“I just needed to get away and process it all. Then I got myself together and walked back down to the car. I hurt my arm. Man that scared me, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play anymore.”
“What caused the accident?”
A look of perplexity on his face, Ryan raised both hands, then let them drop. “You got me.”
“The police must have reached some conclusions.”
“The police report didn’t really say anything.” Frank knew there was a trial coming up and he knew Ryan was facing manslaughter charges for negligence.
Frank was silent. They watched the fire burn away at the logs for a long minute. Then Frank raised the issue of house security. “Can we meet tomorrow to discuss the security setup? I’ve got a list of suggestions from Mr. Seacole. He felt you needed....”
“I’m certain it was clear to pass. And Sohn just appears in front of me out of nowhere. The Sohns were one of the founding familes. Sohn was so respectable, he wouldn’t even talk to Frank Sinatra. If he were still alive and his family didn’t have all the pull in the world, that son-of-a-bitch would be on his way to jail.”
Frank stayed quiet.
“I mean the man has all the money in the world and he’s driving himself around. Cheapskate.” Ryan stopped and ran his fingers through his hair, his head down. “Why the hell did that old fool turn in front of me? It was such a nice day. Such a nice day.” Ryan’s right hand shaped a curve in the air.
In the silence that followed both men finished their drinks.
“Yeah. We’ll go over the security system tomorrow. Oh, I think Billy is coming down this week. I’m pretty sure I invited him. At least, he says I did. I invite a lot of people down. Billy is just country enough to take an invitation seriously.”
The fire had burnt down to a red glow among the ashes. Ryan sat looking into his empty glass. Frank stood up to stretch. His back to the fire, he looked out into the darkness. He caught a quick, brief movement.
“Go inside now, someone’s out there.”
Frank began moving away from the house to escape its light. Ryan followed him. Frank could feel Ryan behind him. Without looking around, he spoke to him the way you tell a child to do something.
“Go inside now,” said Frank.
Ryan looked past him into the darkness.
“This is dangerous,” Frank added. “I will handle it. You go inside.”
Ryan turned and took two steps toward the house. He turned to ask a question. He saw Frank, hand on the gun at his hip, running into the night. Ryan ran for the house.
Frank stopped in the shadows cast by some Joshua trees and tried to stay perfectly still. A large black shadow of some night predator passed soundlessly overhead. People were moving about in the house, but Frank kept his back to it, letting his night vision adjust. Objects were separating themselves out of the landscape. He stood waiting for the movement. There was nothing. Closing his eyes, he focused on locating the intruder by sound.
There were regular movements slightly to his right. Frank stopped doing the silent warrior bit and broke into a run. The footsteps quickened and Frank heard someone colliding with objects in the landscape. They came to a clear spot. Suddenly a figure scrambled, tumbled and fell up the slope before him, making it to the top. Glancing back quickly, the man raised his left arm to the stars and extended his middle finger.
Frank, stumbling through a stream bed full of rounded river stones, put in an extra burst of speed, and, reaching the top, saw a light-colored Volvo SUV pull onto the highway, the arm and its finger still extended, sticking triumphantly from the driver’s window. Frank started to run after the car, which leisurely rolled toward Palm. Frank decided to stop being a fool and ran to the side of the road to get a handful of stones. When the first rock just skimmed the roof of the car, the driver sped up until he was just a pair of headlights moving away.
The walk back to desert house in the cool night didn’t calm Frank. Several cars blew by him, honking rather unnecessarily. Just before he turned into the drive at Ryan’s, a blue Maserati slowed down. Frank stepped back from the road, watching as the car eased by looking him over. Suddenly the interior lights came on and a blonde man and woman looked out at Frank. It wasn’t a proposition or an offer of help. Frank could feel the hate coming from the car. When they finished examining him and letting him look them over, the woman turned to say something to the man. Then the light went off and the car accelerated away with a low growl.
“I guess I’ve met the Sohns.”
ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.