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Authors: Nathan Field

Nocturnal

BOOK: Nocturnal
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1. “We both know you’d never call the cops”

 

It was a quiet night in October when the trouble started again. I’d just returned to the office after pigging out at a late-night sushi train, a final indulgence before tackling the project I’d been avoiding for weeks. But despite multiple shots of caffeine and a healthy dose of omega-3, my brain still refused to focus, overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead.

I worked as a freelance writer, specializing in script consultancy and original comedy material. My clientele consisted of regulars on the local stand-up circuit, and a revolving cast of amateur screenwriters, desperate for more feedback than a “not suitable for our needs” rejection letter. I was typically a writer’s last resort – they turned to me when their initial confidence had been shattered, but they were too emotionally invested in the dream to throw in the towel.

After charging $295.95 for an initial two-page evaluation, I might then offer editing services to scripts that showed genuine potential. Only a few scripts made it through my culling process. Even though I was effectively turning down good business, I couldn’t bring myself to lend false hope to hopeless talent. And besides, once I’d struggled through a second-rate screenplay, I usually felt like setting the pages on fire, not reliving the experience in agonizing detail.

Which was why I couldn’t believe I’d agreed to edit
Sensible
Shoes,
a tepid romantic comedy
by a first time writer in her sixties. Eleanor Cook had written such a disarming introduction letter that I’d approached her screenplay with interest, thinking her homespun charm might shine through in her characters. But while the premise was intriguing enough (a widow finds a new lease of life
when her sensible shoes are mixed up with a pair of sexy red pumps at the local bowling alley), the pacing fell short of the mark, blunted by too many static scenes and drawn-out conversations. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve sent her an honest but tactful assessment, highlighting her strong points (the original premise, the likable characters), but regretting that the stilted dialogue and shortage of belly laughs were serious flaws in a screenplay pitched as a romantic comedy. But Eleanor called me at the office before I could write anything up, nervously requesting an update because the wait was driving her crazy. She was every bit as sweet and charming as her cover letter implied. Before I could stop my lips moving, I’d assured her that
Sensible Shoes
was a highly promising screenplay, just in need of a little polish, and if she consented, I’d be happy to edit her work.

Naturally she said yes, and after feeling warm and fuzzy for a few minutes, the extent of the undertaking quickly dawned on me when I re-opened the word document. To maintain my self-imposed standards, the script required a major overhaul – new lines, new scenes, maybe even a whole new second act. I could work on nothing else for a week and I’d still need binoculars to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Staring dumbly while Eleanor’s words began to blur and dance on screen, I decided there was only one thing for it.

Quit moaning and get the damn thing done.

I was struggling to squeeze a much-needed joke into the opening scene when the phone rang, its piercing stammer sounding like it was rooted between my ears. I pushed my chair back from the desk, cursing loudly even though I was secretly grateful for the distraction. It had been a long fifteen minutes.

Given my unusual business hours, phone calls on the office line were a rarity, especially at 1.05am. I waited patiently for the caller to notice the time, or realize they’d misdialed, but they hung on grimly, right up until the call diverted to voice-mail. There was no follow-up peep to signal a message had been left, and with a reluctant sigh, I turned back to page two of Eleanor’s script, cursor poised. 

A few minutes later the phone rang again, and this time I
was
genuinely annoyed. A neat one-liner had been on the tip of my tongue, just waiting to drip onto the keyboard. I ignored the din and closed my eyes, desperate to recapture the nuance that had briefly filled my head with inspiration. But I was now too distracted to function effectively, and by the time the ringing stopped, I realized the funniest line I’d ever dreamt up was lost forever.

Furious, I reached over to take the cursed phone off the hook when my eyes fell on the family photos lining the second desk in the room, pricking my conscience. The office line was shared and there was a chance, a tiny but perceptible chance, that the calls were related to some kind of legal emergency. And if anyone needed the business, I figured it was Ralph T Emerson. 

For the past six months I’d been time-sharing my office with a personal injury lawyer who worked the day shift. Ralph T Emerson had contacted me out of the blue after noticing my habit of pulling into the basement parking lot at 8pm and disappearing before sunrise. After I explained my unique condition, he said it was wasteful for us both to be leasing office and car spaces when we were never in the building at the same time. How did I feel about splitting the costs?

The offer couldn’t have come at a better time. Prior to Ralph’s call, the freelance jobs had dried up, and I was seriously considering giving up my downtown office to stay afloat. Working from home was something I’d hoped to avoid. I liked the peace and quiet of Potrero Hill, but it was very much a nine-to-five community. Coming into the Tenderloin at night was my only opportunity for human contact, even if it were only passing glances at the crackheads, hookers and booze-addled crazies who wandered the streets after dark. For my own sanity, I needed a reason to be downtown, where the other night people lived.

Ralph T Emerson had emerged as an unlikely savior. Halving my parking and office rental costs made a huge difference to my overall budget and, better yet, he wanted to pay in cash.  

“This is a win-win situation, Sam,” Ralph had enthused during our deal-sealing conversation. Over the phone, his manner was slick, courteous and faintly bullying – exactly what you’d expect from an ambulance-chasing attorney. “You know, I’ve always wanted a secretary.”

“Excuse me?”

“The spare desk, I’ll tell clients it belongs to my secretary. It’s better than admitting I share an office. Perception is everything in my business.”

“People might wonder why she’s always out to lunch,” I pointed out.

“Hmm, you’re right. Maybe I’ll throw a silk scarf over your chair. Give her a bit of substance.”

“Or you could just spray perfume around the room.”

“Yeah, I like it,” he chuckled. “You’re a devious man, Sam.”

The following day I arrived at work to find a second, virtually identical desk in the office. I was yet to meet Ralph T Emerson in the flesh, but the collection of personal effects on his side of the office gave him the qualities and quirks of a regular colleague. From the proudly framed certificates on the wall, I knew he’d graduated from Santa Clara in 2002 – a surprisingly reputable law school – and obtained a license to practice law in California in 2003. From the oil paintings of the French Riviera and Venetian canals above his computer, I knew he had sentimental taste in art, and had probably backpacked through Europe after college. And assuming the family photographs lining his desk were recent, I knew he was in his late thirties or early forties, had plump, apple-red cheeks, was losing his wispy blonde hair, and liked to show off his professionally whitened teeth when he smiled.

If I was feeling less charitable, I guessed his stunning brunette wife had married Ralph when he was fifty pounds lighter, or when she believed his fancy law degree would be a ticket to Pacific Heights. Judging by the size of the rock on her finger, she must’ve had high hopes at one stage. Ralph also had two children: a toddler-aged daughter who was extremely lucky to have inherited Mom’s good looks, and a chubby preschool son who would no doubt grow up to resent taking after Dad.

Ralph kept a clean desk, and the wastepaper basket was always empty, but I knew he turned up for work every day given the unpleasant smell that greeted me in the evenings. Musky aftershave, with a hint of strong body odor underneath. I’d started leaving the air freshener on when I left in the morning, but he never got the hint.

I sometimes wondered what Ralph thought of me, given the only personal items on my side of the office were a 49’ers season calendar and a pair of well-worn stress balls. Most likely he didn’t think of me at all. From the high maintenance look of his family, he had enough on his plate.

In sympathy of my office partner’s imagined struggles, I resisted the urge to throw the phone out the window the third time it rang. I answered with a gruff hello.

“Hi Johnny,” a strange voice greeted.

I closed my eyes, summoning patience. “No. You’ve got the wrong number.”

“You’re not Johnny?” the man persisted. His voice was nasal; aggressive.

“Look, there’s no Johnny here. And it’s one-thirty in the morning.”

“I know the time, pal. I always keep an eye on the time.”

I stared down at the receiver, my thoughts shifting. “Who is this?”

The man chuckled, his laughter eerily deeper than his speaking voice. “I should be asking you the same question.”

An old fear began to stir from deep inside me, tightening my grip on the receiver. But before I got carried away, I told myself the caller was probably like a cheap carnival psychic, throwing out names at random and hoping for a lucky bite. I straightened in my chair; regaining control. “Right, I get it. You’re just an everyday whack job working his way through the phone book. Listen, I’m hanging up now, but why don’t you call back in a few minutes. The cops should’ve traced your number by then.”

Silence. For a moment I thought he was about to hang up, realizing I was no fun to play with. But then the menacing laughter returned, low and confident. “Don’t be like that, Johnny,” he taunted. “We both know you’d never call the cops.”

“Just fuck off,” I snapped, cutting the line and immediately dialing *69.

The response was a busy signal. The asshole had blocked his number, like any crank caller worth his salt.

Instinctively, my hand rose to my face, stroking the smooth cellophane surface of the scar down my right cheek. My heart was beating like a jungle drum, and I almost leapt through the ceiling when the phone screamed again. This time I ripped the cord from the wall, handing the caller a cheap victory. 

The room fell silent, and I returned to my chair, pressing my fingertips to my temples. The caller hadn’t asked for Johnny by accident – the knowing reference to the cops proved that. He’d counted on me being in the office. Knew the strange hours I kept. And that nasal accent: sinister yet vaguely contrived. Like he was disguising his real voice. Thinking back, there was something familiar about the man’s speech pattern. Where had I heard that peculiar inflection before?

A name popped into my head, but I continued scouring my memory banks, unconvinced. I replayed every male voice I’d heard since high school, but I kept coming back to the same person. Even with a disguised voice, the similarity was undeniable.

The mystery caller had sounded just like Ralph T Emerson.

2. “I think Johnny suits you much better”

 

The seeds of my dark existence were sown eight years earlier, when I was a smooth-faced reporter for the Sacramento Daily Tribune. I sometimes found it hard to remember the old days, when I went by my given name of
Peter
Samuel Carney. It was like looking back on a different person, an old friend I’d lost touch with over the years. Only the broadest of brush strokes remained.

The memories sharpened in focus during the months leading up to my departure from Sacramento, when my life veered off the gently undulating road it had been cruising along and began spinning wildly out of control. In other words, I remembered everything in perfect clarity from the day I first met
her
.

It was early fall, stubbornly hot, and I’d been dispatched to an elementary school in Granite Bay that was hosting a chili cook-off to raise money for a new swimming pool. It promised to be another lame assignment – the type where you took your own photos – but news was thin on the ground, and my editor desperately needed to fill the paper’s inflated lifestyle section for the weekend. Like always, I took the indignity on the chin. As the newsroom rookie, I was the go-to guy for human-interest fodder. That’s how the system worked: you only got hold of the juicy stories after serving a few years in the suburban trenches, reporting feel-good fluff.

I knew of Granite Bay by reputation – the lakefront neighborhood where rich people lived – but I’d never driven out there before. It was only twenty miles from the city, but when I turned off the I-80 and began winding towards Lake Folsom, it felt like I was entering a different world. Enormous oak trees shaded the widened sidewalks and gated cul-de-sacs. Suburban tract homes gave way to sprawling, horse-and-stable style properties with semicircular driveways and park-like grounds. I turned off the radio and wound down my window, breathing in the warm, refined air. Given my history of subsidized housing blocks, college dorm rooms and cramped studio apartments, I wasn’t used to seeing such overt displays of wealth up close. The residents of Granite Bay weren’t just white-collar workers with four-bedroom houses and enough yard for the dog. They were
landowners
, in the feudal sense of the word.

The tree-lined entrance to the school was like a gateway to a swanky country club, the driveway opening out to a large turning area and flowering bushes. When I parked my banged-up Corolla between an Aston Martin and a Maserati, I couldn’t help thinking – why the hell did these people need a chili cook-off to raise money? The collective change from their glove boxes could probably fund an Olympic-sized pool.

The chili cook-off was taking place on the school’s immaculately mown soccer field. It looked like any other community fundraiser: colorful banners, crowded stalls, and off-key music from a local covers’ band. The motivation for the fundraiser suddenly became clear. The residents of Granite Bay might have belonged to the one percent, but they were determined to carry on as if every nickel counted, to raise money from homemade chili and meat raffles like regular middle-class folk. For them, it was a chance to be normal for a day.

I gritted my teeth as I weaved through a sea of hyperactive kids, their brightly painted faces melting in the afternoon sun. News of my arrival traveled quickly, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of pushy parents and teachers, eager to see their picture in the paper. I must’ve rattled off twenty preening headshots before I even made it to a chili stand.

She probably thought the first time I saw her was when I approached her table and asked if she needed help. But the truth was, I’d noticed her well before that. She was tall and full-hipped, with cropped, buttery blonde hair, wearing a white keyhole dress that set off her late summer tan. Her stand was at the extreme end of the line-up, furthest away from the school building, but even from a distance, I knew she was someone I had to meet. I felt a light-headed thrill every time I glanced over.

I made a beeline for the last stand on the left, ignoring the gauntlet of parents shoving chili under my nose.
Her table was conspicuously devoid of people, and I already suspected she wasn’t the most popular mom in Granite Bay. I imagined the wives scowling at her eye-catching appearance; the husbands being held on a tight leash.

When I reached her stand, she’d just bent over to adjust a wonky table leg, her ass straining against the fabric of her figure-hugging dress.

“You need a hand?” I asked.

She stood up and set her hands on her hips. She was a similar age to the other moms, maybe early thirties, but there was barely a line on her. Only a light brush of make-up to accentuate her high cheekbones, a wide, perfectly balanced mouth, and dark blue eyes that hinted at a full bag of tricks. For a moment I must’ve forgotten to breathe, because I suddenly found myself gulping for air, playing catch-up with my heartbeat.

Her expression remained cool – either my goldfish impersonation wasn’t as bad as I imagined, or she was used to men losing oxygen in her presence. “You can help by sampling my chili,” she said. “I made three whole gallons, and I’ve only had two customers so far.”

“Okay. I’ll have a taste.”

“Good. It’s white bean chicken, and it’s really good.”

She ladled a portion into a Styrofoam cup and handed it to me. The sun beat down on my neck as I slurped the chili with a plastic spoon. “It
is
good,” I confirmed, relieved I didn’t have to lie. “Really good.”

“Thank you,” she said, her eyes fixed on the cup. Clearly I was expected to finish in her presence. Sweat marched through my temples as I continued eating.

“Are you from the local paper?” she asked.

I shook my head. “The Tribune.”

“Oh, a real
city
newspaper.”

There was an exaggerated tone to her voice, and I guessed she was mocking me, through I couldn’t be certain. “People get bored with state politics,” I explained. “They like fluffy stories, too.”

“Well, I’m honored the Tribune sent such a senior reporter to cover our little event.”

I glared at her, unable to hide my resentment. She was mocking me, all right. Passing judgment on my three-hundred-buck suit and shit-kicking assignment. But maybe she already sensed I couldn’t pry myself away if I tried. “Everyone has to pay their dues,” I mumbled.

She reached out and touched my forearm, her features softening. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I can be such a bitch sometimes. It’s these people, you know? They put me on the defensive.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? They can’t stand me.” She nodded at the neighboring table where a homely woman in a peasant blouse was collecting used cups from two sets of couples. One of the women glanced over at us and scowled. The couples then walked off, boycotting the last table in the line-up.

“I see what you mean,” I said. “But hey, you should be flattered. They’re obviously jealous.”

“Jealous of what?” she asked playfully, fishing for the tacky compliment. Seeing if I was stupid enough.

But I wasn’t about to bite. “Of your delicious chili, obviously.”

She shot me a reproachful
‘Oh, you!’
look and took the empty cup from my hand, her fingers brushing my knuckles. “I think someone just earned seconds.”

Another full helping of chili was the last thing I needed, but I accepted anyway, grateful for an excuse to linger.

She studied my perspiring face as I worked through a second tongue-roasting cup, her lips twisting to the side. “
That’s
who you remind me of,” she said decisively. “Johnny Roberts. He was my first real boyfriend, back in tenth grade.” She tilted her head slightly. “You’re not related, are you?”

“Nope.”

“I thought you might’ve been a younger brother or something. My God, Johnny Roberts. I haven’t thought about him in years.”

“Good memories, I hope.”

She laughed. “Bad ones, I’m afraid. Johnny was a sweetheart and a heartbreaker, all wrapped up in one. We’d been going out two months when he dumped me for our English teacher. Can you believe that? It was the biggest scandal our town had ever seen. I couldn’t turn on the TV for months – I was sure they were going to pop up on Jerry Springer.”

I sniggered with my mouth full, and a thick glob of chili suddenly went shooting up my nose, launching me into a raucous coughing fit. I backed away from the stand, bending over to clutch my thighs while I rode out the convulsions, all the time thinking –
so much for playing it cool
. But she only saw the funny side of my abrupt loss of composure, giggling as she circled the table to hand me a bottle of water. Even with my eyes watering and nostrils dripping, I loved being the focus of her attention.

“Well, thank you Mister Reporter,” she teased as my spluttering drew to a close. “Who’s going to try my chili now?”

I held up my hand, warning her not to make me laugh again. “Sorry, it was no reflection on your cooking.”

“Oh well,” she sighed, moving back behind her table. “It’s not like I had a chance, anyway.”

I righted myself and grabbed a wad of paper napkins from the table, wiping my hands and mouth. “Let me make it up to you,” I said, retrieving my camera from its satchel. “How would you like your picture in the paper?”

She grinned wickedly. “I would
love
my picture in the paper. Do you know how much that would tick off the people round here?”

She didn’t wait for direction, taking a proud stance beside her chili pot and flashing her best Suzy Homemaker smile. Watching her from behind the camera lens, I realized it wasn’t just her breathtaking appearance giving me goose bumps – it was the slow, deliberate way she moved, the mischievous lilt to her voice, and the hint of intimacy behind every subtle gesture. There was definitely an element of theater about her, like she was playing up to her sensual good looks, but I didn’t mind. Performance or not, she was completely captivating.

“I should take your name,” I said, pulling out a pen and notepad even though there was zero chance I’d forget it.

“Lucy. Lucy Piper.”

“Thanks, Lucy,” I said, scribbling down her name. “I’m Peter, by the way.”

She screwed up her nose. “
Peter?
No, you don’t look like a Peter. I think Johnny suits you much better.”

“I’m not sure if that’s an insult or a compliment.”

“I guess it’s an insult to your name but a compliment to you.” Her eyes drifted into the meandering crowd and she sighed softly, perhaps thinking of the hours ahead. “Thanks for coming over, by the way. It can get pretty lonely out here.” 

“No, thank
you
. My taste buds are still tingling. Honestly, that was some of the best chili I’ve tasted.”

“Then you really should get out more,” she laughed.

I shrugged, half turning. “Don’t forget tomorrow’s paper. It’ll be in the lifestyle section, next to the recipes.”

“I’ll look out for it, Johnny.”

I forced myself to leave, heading to the judges table to see if I could get an early word on their decision. I was already looking forward to driving straight home, locking my bedroom door, and fantasizing about Lucy Piper in her white keyhole dress. The fact she was probably married with young children crossed my mind, but only briefly. Instead, I chose to believe she was a bored, restless divorcee on the lookout for adventure – whether it was skydiving, a romantic weekend in Paris, or a long, passionate affair with a younger man.

The wedding ring, I decided, was just to ward off the sleazebags.

BOOK: Nocturnal
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