Authors: Anisa Claire West
Anisa Claire West
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and events depicted in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual people, either living or deceased, is purely coincidental.
Santa Barbara, California
Pacific Coast Worldwide Hotel
California sunshine bathed my skin in a golden glow as I smoothed another layer of Banana Boat lotion onto my shoulders. Next to me, Charles was fast asleep, exhausted from the grueling, traffic-laden drive from Seattle on Friday. We had taken turns driving for more than 18 straight hours, stubbornly refusing to stop overnight in Oregon or northern California. We had finally arrived in Santa Barbara in the wee hours of the morning and collapsed into bed without so much as a good night kiss. Sigh. Our honeymoon wasn’t exactly off to a romantic start.
I blushed and glanced around as a snore escaped Charles’ mouth. “Honey,” I nudged him a little harder than I should have. “Honey!” I smacked his muscular arm as he groaned into consciousness.
“Huh?” He grunted as his ocean blue eyes opened and tried to focus. “Did I fall asleep?” He mumbled, slipping on a pair of black sunglasses.
“Yes and you were snoring,” I informed pertly.
He grinned and shrugged but made no apology. “Are we ready for some lunch?”
I hesitated to answer his seemingly simple question, afraid that our honeymoon would turn into a working vacation if I said yes. In Seattle, Charles and I worked in the catering department of one of the hotels in the Pacific Coast Worldwide chain. We had snagged a 40% deluxe employee discount for accommodations in Santa Barbara but with a big catch: we would be required to test out recipes for the hotel and add at least five new items to their seafood restaurant’s menu before the end of our trip.
“Remind me why we came here again,” I sighed. “We should have gone on an Alaskan cruise where no one could find us.”
Charles chuckled. “Babe, they’re not going to ask us to start creating recipes on our first day at the resort.”
“I hope not,” I muttered, covering up my orchid-toned bikini with a white cotton sarong and matching tank top as Charles threw on a tee-shirt.
“As long as we stay away from the seafood restaurant, what’s it called? Oyster Palace? Then we should be safe,” Charles squeezed my hand and led me away from the hotel’s sparkling Olympic size pool.
Giggling as we dashed past Oyster Palace, we slipped into a bright, airy restaurant that served nouveau California cuisine. “This place should have something healthy after all that oily pizza we ate on the road,” I said hopefully as a hostess seated us by a window.
No sooner had we peeled open our plastic-covered menus than a party of four chatting old ladies was seated at the table next to us. I peered around the restaurant at the dozens of empty tables, miffed that the hostess had seated the blabbering gals so close. But after 11 years in the catering business, I knew that restaurants always try to fill up sections first to make the waiters’ jobs easier. So I bit my lip and refrained from complaining.
“The avocado and sun dried tomato wrap looks good for you,” Charles commented as I smiled. After almost two years as a couple and just a few days as husband and wife, Charles knew all the little things about me, like my unusual affection for sun dried tomatoes and vegetarian wrap sandwiches.
“I think I’ll order that. And the lime-marinated chicken on a sesame roll looks like something you might like,” I stroked my husband’s arm, hoping to ignite a spark and make our trip actually feel like a honeymoon.
His eyes were luminous as he whispered, “Maybe we should just skip lunch…”
, I thought as our eyes locked. “Lunch first,” I cooed sweetly as one of the chattering women cackled and hurled me back to reality.
Frowning, I surveyed the women at the loudest table on earth and noted that two were flaming redheads while the other pair had silver tresses. The redheads were doing most of the yapping and cackling while the silver haired ladies appeared more demure.
“You think they heard that laugh down in San Diego?” Charles joked as I rolled my eyes.
For the next hour, my husband and I struggled to hear each other speak over the raucous banter of our neighbors. The restaurant had quickly filled up, making it impossible for us to request another table. Setting my fork down as soon as I had swallowed the last bite of side salad with my wrap, I stood up eagerly and gestured to Charles to join me.
“We’ll charge this to our room,” I called to the waiter as I left a five dollar tip on the table.
I let out a powerful exhale as we exited the restaurant and strolled down the long marble corridor to the elevator. My heart raced uncontrollably as though I had never left the chaos of interstate traffic. Something about those women made me feel unsettled, but I couldn’t pinpoint a logical reason. Sure they were rowdy, but they had given me no other reason to feel uncomfortable about them.
Perceiving my nervousness, Charles wrapped his arm around my waist and asked in his deep, soothing voice, “Are you okay, babe?”
“Just a little overtired from being on the road,” I fibbed.
“You should have taken a siesta under the sun like me,” he teased as I forced a laugh.
“But then we’d both be sizzling out there like two fried eggs right now,” I retorted as he laughed in earnest.
The elevator stopped at the 9
floor and we strode down the carpeted hallway to our room. With our 40% employee discount, we hadn’t been permitted to book the hotel’s official honeymoon suite, but we did get an ocean view room with a heart-shaped hot tub and fully appointed wet bar. Feeling queasy, I poured myself a cold glass of Seltzer water and led Charles to the king size bed for a cuddle session. Within moments, I had drifted off to sleep in my husband’s arms, lulled by his presence and gently lapping Pacific waves from our open window.
Hours later, I awoke to the muffled sound of snoring. Half amused, half horrified, I stared at my husband’s sleeping face, realizing that I would need to get used to his irritating sounds. Yes, for better or for worse…and for obnoxious and even more obnoxious!
Within moments, Charles was awake as well, gazing at me with a sensual sparkle in his eyes. Leaning into his touch, I became lost as the sun dipped beneath the horizon and the ocean waves became more volatile. By the time we emerged from bed, the sun had disappeared for the night and the ocean appeared eerily black in the distance.
“I’ve always wanted to lie on the beach at night,” I said, picking up a room service menu.
“Then let’s do it,” Charles said lazily, glancing over my shoulder at the menu. “Right after we order dinner.”
We shared a delicious meal of grilled swordfish, steakhouse fries, and a Caesar salad, followed by a rich dessert of chocolate mousse pie. I could have fallen asleep right after the last spoonful of mousse, but the night was too magical to stay inside. A wild wind blew through the window, beckoning me to a nearly invisible dark shore. In my single days, I never would have done anything as daring…or perhaps reckless…as walking along the beach at night. But being with Charles, with all his 6”2” steel-bodied strength, made me feel emboldened.
Zipping up a light jacket, I channeled a burst of energy and raced him to the elevator. As we laughed together, the bothersome women from lunch were a distant memory. Outside, the air felt chillier than I had anticipated and I crossed my arms over my chest with a shiver. Linking his arm with mine, Charles led me onto the sugar white sand until we were just a few steps from the water.
“We better stop here,” Charles said cautiously. “The water is very rough. It could easily drag someone in.”
I nodded as a cold rush of water slapped my legs, soaking me up to my knees. “It’s f-f-freezing!” I stammered.
“Had enough adventure for one night?” Charles asked wryly as a staggering wave crested high and crashed against my abdomen.
“Maybe we should just get a couple of lounge chairs and admire Mother Nature from a distance,” I suggested as salt water sprayed my body.
We plodded over the lumpy sand until we reached a dimly lit row of reclining chairs. “Looks like it’s just us,” I commented huskily, noting how every chair was empty.
“Except for that person over there,” Charles pointed to the last chair in the row where a shadowy figure was reclining.
In the sliver of moonlight, I couldn’t even tell whether the person was male or female. All I could see was that they appeared to be in a deep sleep, completely motionless in the chair. “Maybe we should wake that person up,” I suggested. “It could be dangerous for them to be out here alone all night.”
“How do you know they’re going to stay out here all night?” Charles countered.
“Well, they seem to be asleep and if no one wakes them up, they could get robbed…or worse.”
Charles, always one to stay out of other people’s affairs, sighed heavily. He knew that I was the complete opposite and would go miles out of my way to help someone who I perceived to be in need. “I don’t think there’s much risk of crime around here, but let’s go ahead and force that stranger up from a peaceful nap.”
“You make it sound like a foolish idea,” I grumbled as Charles chuckled with sarcasm.
But he followed me as I approached the lounge chair and began to decipher some details about the slumbering stranger. Wearing a pink one-piece bathing suit and with long hair flowing in the wind, it was definitely a woman. Moonlight beamed down on the woman’s hair, casting it in a strange silver glow as I immediately recognized one of the ladies from lunch. As I reached out a hand to tentatively tap her on the shoulder, I gasped, discerning a ghoulish blue tone to her face.
Grabbing my hand, Charles urged, “Don’t touch her! She’s dead!”
Milliseconds away from fainting, I struggled to catch my breath in the wake of our terrifying discovery. The woman’s body was stiff, her face was blue, and she was not breathing. Yes, she was most certainly dead. Aghast, I retreated from the lounge chair, stepping backwards and falling onto another chair. Charles swiftly lifted me up and made powerful strides towards the hotel. Neither of us looked back as we ran into the lobby and made the stunning announcement to a front desk clerk.
“There’s a dead woman on one of the lounge chairs!” I blurted out as the mousy young woman looked spooked.
As soon as I uttered the appalling words, I doubted their veracity. Perhaps the woman’s bluish-purple complexion had just been a facial bruise? Maybe I had overreacted and she had been merely sleeping. Charles placed a firm hand on my shoulder in a wordless gesture to reassure me.
“You should call 911,” Charles advised the speechless clerk. “Although I don’t think it will do any good. The woman looked as though she had been dead for some time. Rigor mortis had already begun to set in from what I could see.”
I repressed a shiver at the nightmarish memory of the woman’s frozen body. “Yes, she was dead,” I admitted, shivering more violently. I hadn’t even gone for a swim, but I felt as cold as someone who had just emerged from the punishing waters of the Black Sea.
The clerk’s fingers trembled as she reached for the phone and dialed for help. Instead of speaking, she shoved the phone in my husband’s face and he communicated the distressing news. Within minutes, a full crew of police officers, ambulance volunteers, and even a fire truck had arrived on the scene. Charles and I led them to the row of lounge chairs where the woman’s body lay. A howl of Pacific wind made me gather my cover-up more closely to my body as I nervously answered the cops’ questions.
“What were you doing on the beach so late at night? A little dangerous, don’t you think?” Asked a short, stubby officer whose badge read Lieutenant Forrest.
“We’re on our honeymoon,” I explained, feeling foolish.
“And my wife thought it would be romantic to take a moonlit stroll on the beach,” Charles finished as Lieutenant Forrest chuckled derisively.
“Women and their romantic notions,” he scoffed. “Well, it’s a good thing you were out here tonight. Otherwise, the body may not have been found until morning.”
“How do you think she died?” I asked, turning away as paramedics snapped a series of photos, then covered her body from head to toe. “She didn’t seem to have any injuries, at least none that I could see.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars with you, ma’am,” Lieutenant Forrest said vaguely.
“Maybe she had a heart attack or stroke,” Charles hypothesized. “She did look old.”
The woman’s smooth skin haunted me as I shook my head. “No, she didn’t look that old. It’s only her gray hair that makes you think that. I think she was around 50 or so.”
“Even so, a woman that age could have a fatal heart attack or stroke,” Charles reasoned.
Lieutenant Forrest wrapped up his questioning and took down our contact information. “I’ll be in touch if there are any other questions. Good night folks.”
A piercing wind whistled eerily as the police officer conferred with paramedics before heading towards the hotel entrance. “Why do you think he’s going in the hotel?” I whispered.
“They need to identify the woman. I overheard one of the EMT’s say that she didn’t have a wallet or any ID on her.”
“Really? I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe we can help them identify her.”
“How? We don’t know her name,” Charles arched an eyebrow.
“No, but we know who she was traveling with. Don’t you remember those squawking hens sitting next to us at lunch?!” I plastered a semi grin on my face.
“Oh, she was one of the women at that table? Are you sure?” Charles asked as I nodded my certainty and rushed towards the hotel to share the information.
“Lieutenant Forrest!” I called as my voice echoed in the hollowness of the spacious lobby.
“Yes?” He stepped away from the front desk and approached me.
“We saw that woman earlier today. She was having lunch with a few ladies. I don’t know if they were friends or relatives, but there were four of them,” I said in a conspicuously loud voice.
“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about!” The clerk said frantically. “There were some redheads in the bunch, weren’t there?”
“Yes, if I recall, two of them had red hair and two of them had gray hair,” I clarified as the young woman’s eyes shone with recognition.
“Oh that’s sad that one of them died! They were so sweet. I checked them in yesterday. They were so excited to be on vacation. I think one of them said they were traveling here from…”
“Miss, why don’t you and I have a
conversation?” Lieutenant Forrest interrupted as the girl immediately fell silent.
“Sorry, that’s all confidential now, isn’t it?” She said sheepishly.
As Charles and I headed towards the elevator, I wondered what other information the front desk girl had about the four travelers. Where had they been traveling from and why? An uncomfortable knot in my gut told me that the lovely middle aged woman on the lounge chair had a story that needed to be exposed. And nowhere in that story was a death by natural causes…
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” I announced as the elevator doors shut us in.
“Huh?” Charles muttered, rubbing his weary eyes.
“I just have a hunch…”
“Oh babe, not one of your hunches again, please,” Charles looked at me pleadingly.
“I just have a feeling that something isn’t right,” I said urgently as his lips tightened.
“Honey, we’re catering managers, not private investigators,” Charles said on a sigh of frustration.
“We’re catering managers for
hotel chain,” I said slowly. “Which means that we can get access to the guest database and find out all the information we need to about those four women…”
“No, no way!” Charles hissed as the elevator doors opened on our floor.
“It’s okay, I can work alone,” I shrugged, unwilling to let my husband dissuade me.
“Chelsea, this is our honeymoon. Let’s just enjoy it. The police know what they’re doing and I still say the poor lady had a coronary or something. Simple as that.”
“No, I don’t think it’s that simple. Why was she all alone on the beach late at night? Where were the other ladies and why did they let her go by herself?” I posed the questions to a wall of indifference.
“Those are questions the police are equipped to answer,” Charles sulked.
I couldn’t blame my husband for being irritated with me. You know your vacation is a disaster when the best part of the trip was driving in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway. But this wasn’t just any old vacation; this was a once in a lifetime honeymoon on the American Riviera. Plus, it wasn’t the first time I had poked my nose where he thought it didn’t belong. When I got my “hunches,” I was unstoppable…and I was also always right. And Charles knew it.
“Remember when I got a hunch that you were throwing me a surprise birthday party?” I reminisced sweetly as he frowned.
“That was different! How can you compare a surprise party to a police investigation?” Charles thundered, slamming the door behind us as we stepped into our room.
“Let’s not talk about this tonight. It’s been a long day. Our heads are foggy right now. We’ll be thinking more clearly after a good night’s rest,” I soothed, leading him to the bed.
Nightmares punctuated my sleep as I tossed in the unfamiliar bed. My husband’s snoring was the least of my problems as I couldn’t shake the image of the dead woman’s discolored face from my memory. Her eyes had been closed and she indeed appeared to be sleeping…or comatose. I thrashed in the bed before awaking with a jolt that left me breathless. Charles was still snoring away as I jumped out of bed and took refuge in the bathroom.
A splash of cold water on my face did nothing to calm my nerves. And the morning light gleaming against the white tile didn’t set me at ease either. If anything, the arrival of morning only made me more certain of my mission to identify the dead woman and investigate what might have happened to her. The word “murder” surfaced in my mind like a punch to the gut and I intuitively felt this was the only explanation.
Against my better judgment, I got dressed and crept out of the room, leaving my husband in bed alone. He had made it crystal clear that he had no intention in assisting my rogue investigation, so I would be forced to snoop without him.
Downstairs in the lobby, a new shift of workers had taken over and the young woman from last night was nowhere to be seen. Before I could hack into the guest records, I needed to know the name of the deceased victim. A stack of newspapers on a bellboy cart beckoned to me. Surely, the woman’s death would be reported in the morning news…