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 4: MAGGIE
Soaked from her run, Maggie stood bent over, hands on knees. Her sweat evaporated before it could run in trickles. Maggie stood up and began her cool-down routine. Her morning run usually left her in a good place: she felt ready for the day. Today her run had failed her. This morning her run had stirred up the dark feelings that swirled at the bottom of her heart.
Maggie came down the drive limping. She had stepped on a patch of loose gravel and some part of her leg's muscle structure hadn't taken it well. She knew it wasn't a serious injury but she still felt angry at herself. She'd have to take at least a day off.
Frank was prowling along the side of the house. She felt another punch of anger. Why was he here? Ryan had claimed that Seacole thought the threat level had increased. The threat level. Ryan picked up all these phrases from people. They sounded nice when he dropped them into his songs. But did they mean anything? What was the threat? Were they going to put up flashing red lights all over Desert House? Frank could run down the halls shouting "Threat Alert, Threat Alert." Maggie hoped Frank would be enough. "It evokes life in wartime," Ryan had said. She paused on the steps, looked up at the house and hoped it wasn't going to break her heart.
She made herself calm down.
Ryan had kept her in the dark. Well, not completely in the dark, she admitted to herself. He told her about the blackmail, the flow of money that didn't stop. Still she knew Ryan hadn't told her everything. There was something like a shark or a madman. It moved in the bright sunshine, hidden in the light, it lay in wait. Right where everyone could see it. What was it? Maybe that rippling bit of sunlight breaking up the shadow on the steps. That was what scared her. That bright, clear something. It was part of this desert where the light got into everything.
Maggie honest honest-to-God loved Ryan. She told herself that now. And she was his friend. To have both hadn't happened often in her life. Usually friends were the ones she went to in tears for an understanding of the passion that was smashing through her life. This was new. She felt she could spend years just the way things were with Ryan: immersed in this blend of passion and sex and friendship like a warm bath. Kids were a difficult idea, but she could even see herself giving into that to hold Ryan. A child would give her the same power Ryan’s ex-wife Astrid had. She needed that to give her a place here. But what would she be holding on to? Maybe he should be this year's fuck and nothing more. Sometimes she felt like she was drowning, not floating in that warm pool.
She was comfortable here after that little house she grew up in. She no longer had to go into Dr. Wu’s office to spend all day sorting out problems with patient’s insurance. Maggie met Ryan and her world exploded, changing the arc of her life forever. Even though, she still did the import shows and paid into her IRA. If he married her, she could put that all behind her. If he didn’t, she’d have to look for a full-time job with benefits. Of course, if they did marry, she'd have to get him to move back to LA. There was a limit to how much desert she could take. It was like living on a spaceship. Susan and Johns were the only connections that kept her sane. Otherwise she'd live on her phone. She passed Frank's room. Why wasn't he in the wing with the servants, like the rest of the security people? Ryan wanted him close like a guard dog or a lifeguard. It had to be something evil. That's why he had hired Frank. A man capable of holding the desert light at bay, making that thing keep its distance. Maggie wanted to go to Susan and see what she’d found out at breakfast with Frank. But she continued on down the hall to the suite she shared with Ryan.
She went from room to room in the suite. Maggie found him stretched out on the sofa in the sitting room. There were two leather chairs, and a brown leather ottoman that stood in for a coffee table. A tray held silver candlesticks, a crystal vase full of roses, a small barrel cactus in a grey clay pot, Maggie's dog-eared copy of Bleak House and various objects Ryan liked. He took up a bar dice cup and began throwing them. He heard the door open. Maggie's footsteps searched through the rooms for him, coming closer and closer.
“You're limping," said Ryan, "I watched you come down the drive.”
“I tweaked something,” she said. She leaned against the doorframe. “About Frank,” she started.
“This is the guy who's going to set things right?”
“I have confidence in Frank,” said Ryan.
“Not yet, baby. Wait. Find out if you can really trust him. Suppose he finds out something?”
“Finds out what?”
“I don't know,” she said. Tears that had been building as she searched, broke and rolled down her face. “I don't know.”
She put her face in her hands. Ryan sat immobilized. He couldn't think of anything to say. Finally, he got up and went to her. Taking her in his arms, he tried to find something to say that would make things all right.
“Okay. I'll wait. I won't tell him everything until we know.”
“Tell him what, Ryan?”
“Don't worry, I'll handle it,” he said.
“Handle what? Tell Frank what? Tell me. What is it? What is it I'm afraid of? What is it?”
“It's just something that happened," said Ryan. “It's the band.”
“Please,” Maggie said, taking his hands in hers. “Please. Tell me.”
“What if you won't love me anymore?” said Ryan.
Maggie stared at him.
“Why wouldn't I love you?”
“Let me think. We'll talk about it. I need to get myself together for this.”
“Okay. I'm going to take a shower. We'll talk.”
She turned and walked back into the bedroom. She veered toward Ryan's side of the bed. She went to his nightstand, stooped and pulled open the drawer. The gun was still there. The brand new automatic beside the black plastic case it came in. He's still afraid, she thought. She closed the door and walked to the bathroom.
Stripping off her clothes, Maggie turned on the water and adjusted it to a temperature cooler than Ryan's. Instead of one showerhead, there were several mounted on the ceiling and walls. She liked stepping into the center of all the streams. The water hit her and she let her thoughts move on to her website.
As she was drying off, Maggie used her phone to take a photo for her blog. It was one of the new images that ran viral over the internet: girl concealing breast with hand, now referred to as a hand bra, and holding phone in front of her face, takes her picture in the mirror. The slightly blurred photo wasn't composed. The less planned, the more it said reality. Images were now one means of communication. Women posing in front of mirrors in their bathrooms, their bedrooms, some mirrors hanging over a chest of drawers in a living or dining room. Gym mirrors would do, looking fit and fine in workout clothes, the best though was the restroom mirror in a club. Her audience wanted secret, invasive photos. They wanted into her life. They wanted to think she was sending it to them alone.
The bedroom and bathroom, the final private spaces left, now became the most public. The whole world naked, both noticed and anonymous: giving the privacy of a crowd, one in a multitude. Nameless sources posting her photos to thousands of other blogs that were viewed by guys. With so many images, would anyone notice one specific image?
She was a performer. The image wasn't her, it was her performance. She joined billions of people creating and sharing performances. They had created a new form of existence. Photographed so often, she began to exist in a different realm. Her image something separate from her. No guilt, no shame. It was a performance. And later, you could greet your fans and fellow artists, and discuss the life moment you had created.
Maggie's laptop was on the floor by her side of the bed. She decided to blog and upload a few pictures to her website. She picked up the computer, got a bottled water from the little refrigerator and went into Ryan's writing room. She had taken it over as her space. The room was only slightly smaller than his downstairs office. The walls were the grey of a dove's wing. The desk faced the window, giving a view of the mountains. One of Ryan's paintings hung on the wall behind the desk. The painting showed the inside of a circus tent. The background was a dark blue. Yellow beams of light focused on a woman in red tights on a trapeze bar. A Navajo Chief's blanket with a pattern of stripes and diamonds in red and indigo hung on another wall. A pair of red-soled Louboutin pumps, one upright the other on its side, were where she left them under the desk.
Maggie had swept the desk clean of the personal trophies Ryan kept on it: the broken neck of a guitar he’d escaped a London club with, framed tickets from his first concert. The surface was bare. She swept her hand over the smooth wood. She kept it empty like a canvas. She opened the bottled water and took a long drink. Placing her laptop in front of her, Maggie powered up. After the Apple completed its startup ceremonies, she clicked on the browser icon and typed in the URL for her blog. The page opened in the browser. She smiled back at herself. In the photo on the screen, she was grinning at the camera and giving the Hawaiian shaka, the hang loose gesture, against the backdrop of a house party on Maui. She began to write her thoughts for the day. She was trying not to think of reasons that she might stop loving Ryan.
“Hang loose,” she thought, “there will always be an island.”
And then she started typing: A new addition. We just got our own Private Investigator. Magnum is in the house. Marlowe is staying just down the hall. What will happen? She wondered if she could get Frank to pose for a photo. Will he wear khaki shorts?
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She dropped in the photos she had just taken of herself. I'm sitting here drying off from the shower, watching the coyotes roam.
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.