A Susan Chase Mystery
 
Color Her Dead
 
Chapter 1
 
     I was guarding the beach one afternoon, a steady breeze cooling off a hot and humid day, when Pick stopped by and told me Mrs. Rogers wanted to see me. She wanted me to find her daughter. Now that's pretty weird in itself. Jenny never goes anywhere without parental consent. She's totally under the thumb of her mother who's a real bitch anyone would be wise to stay away from. 
     Easy for me to say. I haven't hung with Jenny for quite a while. She used to dig up information to help me find runaways until I got my own computer, so I was kind of committed to stopping by. Kinda.
      "But I'm not putting on any damn dress," I told Pick from my lifeguard stand.
      Pick squinted up at me, the glare off the ocean making it hard for me to see him. The boy's face was blank, as it usually is. Pick's a retarded kid who hangs around the marina and picks up odd jobs, hence the name. He seems to know where to find me, or perhaps looks longer than most. A good-looking kid, Pick's mind stopped growing somewhere along the line, but his heart never did.
     "She didn't say anything about a dress, Susan."
     Being a lifeguard I couldn't make extended eye contact. Some idiot was bringing a speedboat ashore. Not that it wasn't a hot-looking gunboat, but this is a bathing beach.
     Dropping from the stand and taking my buoy with me, I walked to the water's edge with Pick tagging along. The beach was about as lively as possible: Boomers lying in the sun and complaining about how much more crowded Myrtle Beach is now than when they'd come here as children. What'd they expect? Back then, dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
      A slender but muscular guy was at the wheel and I strode over to where they rent jet skis, sailboats, and other shit to meet him as he stepped out of the boat. Along with him came a girl, bent over, suffering the dry heaves. She wore a yellow bikini.
     "What's your problem, fella?" He was a real hottie with a nice-looking bod, a strong line in a tanned jaw, but he needed someone to brush back his unruly brown hair.
     "She's seasick. I had to bring her in." And before I could chew his ass properly, he apologized for coming ashore among the bathers.
      "You gonna need EMS?" I asked.
     The girl was dark-haired, skinny, and would've been helped by any kind of a boob job. She shook her head as she bent over, clearing her throat as she waved off the suggestion. When she straightened up her face was white and she held onto the cute guy's arm.
     "Can you watch the boat?" he asked. "I'll send someone for it."
     "Sorry, fella," I said, scanning the beach in the opposite direction, "But I'm on the job."
     "Look, I'll pay you." When I turned back to him he was taking a checkbook from a fanny pack. "Will you take a check? It's good at any bank along the Grand Strand?"
     Right away I was intrigued. "Any?"
     "Sure." He gestured at the speedboat. "And you've got the boat."
     The guy was simply too cute to be taking his money. "Keep your check. I'll watch the boat, but I leave at four." When his girlfriend shot me a look I didn't care for, I added, "If you want to be righteous about this, you could be here and help me stack the chairs and take down the umbrellas."
       He nodded with that strong chin of his. "I'll be here."
       "Chad, just because I'm a little sick doesn't mean I can't go out again." The girl glanced at me. "Later." 
      "Let's get you out of the sun and find something to settle your stomach. To me he said "thanks" before helping the girl off the beach. "There's the cab," he said encouragingly.
     When I looked at the public access area, I saw a yellow cab. I was impressed. I'd never even seen a phone.
     "What do I tell Mrs. Rogers?"
     "What?" I turned back to Pick. I'd forgotten all about him.
     "Mrs. Rogers wants to see you."
     "Tell her I'll drop by after my shift's over."
     Then again maybe not. The cute guy was waving at me over the top of the cab. I flushed and returned my attention to the beach.

      By 4:30 I had the umbrellas and chairs stored away and started out for Mrs. Rogers' neighborhood. The good-looking guy hadn't returned, but he did send two guys in a sport-utility vehicle. They hustled out to where the boat was beached and examined the craft as if no one had been responsible for it.
     What you talking about? I'd skipped lunch to watch that frigging thing. Oh, well, if the guy wanted to find me, he knew where to find my stand. Or I could call him. The name of the sport-ute read: Rivers Water Crafts and they could be found in Conway, South Carolina.

     Along the coast of South Carolina there's a strip of beach called the Grand Strand. Myrtle Beach believes it's the Grand Strand, but everyone along that strip has his hand out.
     You know the drill.
     Yes, sir, that'll be ten dollars. Five dollars here,
twelve-fifty there; fifty for the two of you.
     Even I have my hand out, if you want me to find your runaway and if I don't turn your kid over to Child Protective services. With CPS looking over their shoulders most parents are eager to talk. Even listen. Sometimes for the first time.

     The Rogers lived in the Second Row that's anything off the beach. The place was concrete block and stucco, built when Myrtle Beach exploded. In other words, when the Snowbirds got tired of driving all the way to Florida and began stopping here.
     Near the street was a set of date palms, then a walkway up to an empty porch and shrubbery cut back to a skeleton of its former self. The windows were protected by bars, even the one overlooking the street from a peekaboo attic. 
     In the adjoining yard two Chicanos relined brakes on an old Ford, and behind them, on the porch, a gray-headed woman rocked back and forth, her lap full of brown babies. Across the street a young man strummed a guitar. When I stepped down from my jeep, the guitar player broke into song, something along the lines of the Anglo girl with the blue cutoffs on.
     As I walked around the vehicle, he sang of how he wanted to love me, to treasure me, as only a man such as he could do.
     His only complaint: my legs. They were too skinny.
     The mechanics stopped their work and gave my legs the eye as I went up their neighbor's walk, but the baby-sitting grandma ignored me as if she knew what became of a woman who let herself be seduced by a man's tender words. I'm taller than most gals, with gray-blue eyes, wear the shoulders of a lifeguard, and have a larger than normal chest. When you're sun-bleached blonde, that means you have to dress down or you attract the type of guys you won't be able to talk to afterwards.
     One of the mechanics took issue with the balladeer's song, using his hands to argue in favor of my legs.
      I appreciated that and said so. " ¡Si, Senor. Usted tiene muy gusto!" Spanish wasn't the only language I'd learned growing up along any number of waterfronts.
     The Chicanos returned to their work, clanking metal on metal and muttering things I didn't want to hear. Across the street the balladeer dropped a chord or two. On the Rogers' porch I rang the doorbell.
     "Who is it?" demanded a shrill voice.
     "Susan Chase."
     "Who?"
     "Susan Chase. You wanted me to drop by."
     "Come to the window where I can see you."
     I did.
     From a window overlooking the porch, Mrs. Rogers pulled back the curtain enough for her to see me, not enough for me to see much of her.
     "Do you have any identification?" When I hesitated, she
raised her voice again. "Miss Chase, a person my age we
have to be certain about these things."
     So I took out my license South Carolina requires me to be licensed as a private investigator, even if all I do is look for runaways and held it up to the window. That wasn't good enough and not because the picture sucked.
     "Can't see that, Miss Chase. Pass it through the little door."
     "The little . . . door?"
     I heard locks and bolts being thrown, then a tiny door opened, cut from the base of the larger one. Something that might be used by cats or dogs or people who didn't want to have contact with the outside world but still liked to eat.
     I stooped down and held out my ID. When I did a
liver-spotted hand snatched the Photostat away, then slammed the little door almost on my hand. I stood up and gritted my teeth.
     "Is there anyone with you?" asked Mrs. Rogers.
     I glanced around, and as I did, realized whatever the old lady had was catching. "I don't think so."
     "No, ma'am, don't you mean, young lady?"
     Taking a breath, I reminded myself that this was the mother of a girl who'd listened bunches of times to problems with my so-called love life.
     "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am." The old bitch was worse than Jenny had said. Best to go in there, all business, and get out even faster.
     More locks were turned, bolts thrown, and chains dropped; finally the door opened. Mrs. Rogers stood there in a dress that hung on her like a sack. Around her neck were pearls, on her feet a pair of scuffs. Her hair was gray and hung in a long braid down her back. Wrinkles creased her face and flesh sagged under her chin.
     "Come in," she said, returning my ID and scanning beyond me. "A woman can't be too careful these days. One of those people could jump up on my porch and force his way in here."
     I glanced at the street. The mechanics were busy with
their work, the grandmother with her babies, and the
balladeer with his song, this one likening insanity to an
undertow that sucks you down and pulls you under.
     "I see what you mean." I dropped the Photostat into my
fanny pack and stepped into the living room.
     Rogers shut the door behind me. Firmly. Locks, bolts, and chains were refastened; but I gave up after counting as many as seven.
     Coming inside from the afternoon sun, the house seemed to be in permanent dusk, drawn curtains blocking out most of the light. Behind the curtains hummed a pair of air conditioners, one in the living room, one in the dining room. The dining room table was dominated by an empty pewter bowl; it's floor was bare. In the living room an Oriental rug covered most of the wood and against the street-side windows sat a red velvet sofa.
     The sofa was flanked by slender tables with marble tops  and legs that ended in lion's feet. Lamps gave the room its only light. Across from the sofa sat a Queen Anne chair and an intricately carved rocker. A too-tall table displayed a couple of framed photographs: a middle-aged man and a doe-eyed young woman. Jenny.
     "I was expecting someone a bit older, Miss Chase."
     "Older than who?" slipped out before I could stop it or
wanted to.
     She looked me over. "You could be any number of girls on the beach with that outfit you're wearing." Meaning the one-piece swimsuit, covered by a tank top and cutoffs, along with running shoes and the fanny pack.
     "When I go looking for someone, Mrs. Rogers, it's best I don't look like her mother."
     She nodded as if agreeing, or accepting whatever the
hell it meant, then pointed at the red velvet sofa. "Please
have a seat."
      I sat down and the firmness of the stuffing made the sofa as comfortable as sitting on a park bench.
     "Would you like some tea?"
     "If it's no trouble." Actually, I was dying for something, a beer, a wine cooler, anything; I'd even drink water. It had been damn hot out there today.
     "No trouble at all, but you'll have to take decaf. The
other stuff keeps me awake at night."
     "Decaf will be just fine, Mrs. Rogers."
     "Very well."
      After she disappeared through a swinging door on the far side of the dining room I got up to take a better look at the photographs.
     Mr. Rogers wore slacks and a business shirt open at the
neck. He was overweight, going gray, and laughed at the
camera. He held a cigar and on the table in front of him
he, too, sat on the red velvet sofa sat an ashtray full of
ash, a glass filled with drink.
     Jenny had been photographed in the same spot, wearing her brown hair straight to her shoulders, a dress with few frills and little color, granny glasses, and no makeup. Around her  neck hung a tiny gold cross and her hands held each other across her lap. No cigarettes or drink at hand for Jenny, but the girl had something neither parent had: large, round, brown eyes. Those eyes gripped you, like the kids in the paintings sold at Wal-Mart, begging you to take them home.
     Question was: What had given this mouse the nerve to break with her mother? Someone told me Jenny had taken a leave of absence from her job at the library to paint. To paint? Last I'd heard, Mrs. Rogers had been ill and Jenny had been spending too much time hanging around the hospital.
      I returned to the sofa before Mrs. Rogers pushed her way through the swinging door with tea in china cups. Oh, jeez! 
     She placed my cup on the coffee table, then took a seat in the Queen Anne chair and sipped from her own. I stared at the drink. Perhaps it was time to test the theory that hot liquids were good for you when you're hot not!
     "I called you, Miss Chase . . . ."
     I looked up to see her staring at the photographs, the
ones I'd picked up. "Yes?"
     She shifted the position, ever so slightly, of Jenny's
photograph, canting it around to face her father. That still
didn't make the girl smile.
     "I called you, Miss Chase, because the police won't lift
a finger to help me find my daughter."
     "You may not want my help either. I charge a hundred
dollars a day, plus mileage and expenses."
     "But I thought you did this in your spare time."
     "I do."
     "But a hundred dollars a day . . .?" Her cup was put
down.
     "If I worked full-time, Mrs. Rogers, my fee would be
three hundred. A day. Plus expenses."
     "That much? Really. But I thought Jenny did things for
you . . . sometimes."
     "And I paid her. Besides, I agree with SLED. Jenny will
come home when she's good and ready."
     SLED (State Law Enforcement Division): Grand Strand was a coordinated effort between law enforcement agencies along the Grand Strand and staffed by those forced on the locals: a middle-aged guy pensioned off after being shot in the line of duty and one of the few black men on SLED's staff. Kind of tells you what SLED thought of their operation at the beach.
     "You've already talked with Lt. Warden?"
     "Before I came over. Consider it a freebie." Warden's
exact words had been: "Thank heavens for small blessings" and "get that woman off my back." Warden was the cop who'd been shot in the line of duty, then pensioned off by NYPD.
     "But you don't understand. My baby could be lying in some alley, mugged or worse!"
     "Probably not."
     "How can you be so sure?"
     "This time of the year SLED runs a daily printout. Jenny's name hasn't appeared in any morgue, hospital, or jail along the Grand Strand. And there are no Jane Does her age or description "
     "You don't believe me anymore than that man does!"
     "Oh, we believe you, Mrs. Rogers, we just interpret your daughter's disappearance differently. Jenny's simply run away from home "
     "And I want you to find her and bring her back."
     "You're willing to pay my fee? Plus mileage and
expenses?"
     The old lady sat there considering my offer, and I sat
there wondering what was in it for her. A beginning artist
couldn't be selling all that much.
     "Yes," Rogers said finally.
     "Fine consider yourself a client."
     "Er Miss Chase, what about these expenses you
mentioned?"
     "Anything necessary to find your daughter. You'll receive an itemized statement of all money's spent and you can challenge anything that doesn't meet with your approval." I learned this line of bull from hanging around fishing boat captains. In any service business you firm up the terms by being as specific as possible and using legalese.
     "Miss Chase, do you offer a senior citizen's discount?"
     I crossed my legs instead of digging out my cigarettes.
"Never thought about it."
     "Well, you should. We seniors could use a little help. I
know I could. All I have is the money from my husband's
insurance."
     "I'll consider it."
     "You do that, Miss Chase." She squinted at me. "You don't smoke, do you?"
     I uncrossed my legs. "I won't around you or your
daughter."
     "Well, I hope that goes for any drinking, too."
     "Would a little wine be okay? For medicinal purposes?"
     She considered this, then said, "Well, you look like a nice enough young lady, though I would've thought you'd wear a dress to meet a prospective client . . ." She paused, giving time for the idea to sink in. It didn't. "So I think I'll take a chance on you."
     "Thank you. Did Jenny leave a note?"
     "A note?"
     "Yes, like in 'Goodbye, Mom. I'm off with Ralph.'"
     "Ralph?"
     "A boyfriend."
     "Certainly not one named 'Ralph.'"
     "Did Jenny have a boyfriend?"
     "Absolutely not."
     "Mrs. Rogers, how old is Jenny?"
     "Twenty-six." When I said nothing, she asked, "Does Jenny have to have a boyfriend for you to find her?"
     "Not at all. It just makes things easier and might save
you some money."
     "Oh," then very quickly, "Jenny didn't leave a note, but
she has been seeing the wrong crowd. Those hippies down at Pawleys Island. Maybe you could start there."
     Pawleys Island is twenty miles to the south and allows
working artists to live there at discounted rates another attempt at heightening the mystique. Perhaps you've seen their bumper sticker: "Arrogantly Shabby, Pawleys Island."
     "Did Jenny hang with anyone in particular?"
     "Hang? Oh, yes, with Kristy O'Key."
     "The painter?"
     "Do you know her?"
     "Only by her work." One of my friends had tried to get me to appreciate O'Key's work in black and white. A painter working at the beach and not using colors? I don't think so.
     "Kristy O'Key's the one who put the notion in Jenny's
head that she could paint."
     "Could she?"
     "Of course not," said Mrs. Rogers, dismissing her
daughter's efforts with a wave of the hand. "All Jenny's
paintings were horrible things; made no sense at all."
     "She does abstracts?" 
     Rogers gave me a blank stare.
     "Where forms flow together and aren't always
recognizable?"
     "Absolutely not," said Rogers, shaking her head. "Jenny
painted landscapes, people, bowls of fruit the usual
things. It's how they turned out that was so strange."
     "Do you have a sample, something I could look at?"
     "Not a single one. I threw them out. All of them. They
were too disturbing to look at." She sniffed. "We didn't have any trouble in this family until that Kristy O'Key came
along."
     "You're speaking of Jenny's painting again?"
     "Worse than that, Miss Chase. Kristy told my daughter to turn her back on her family. Turn her back on me. Turn her back on her mother imagine that! That's what Kristy O'Key did to this family."
     "You didn't encourage Jenny to paint?"
     "Of course not! It was a terrible waste of time, locking
herself in her room and working all hours, sometimes not
coming out to eat, going days without bathing. Jenny had a
good job and she could've had as much overtime as she wanted.  There's always someone who wants off, someone who won't put in her hours. Painting was such a waste of time, and that leave of absence . . ." She shook her head. "you know, Miss Chase, the library doesn't pay you when you take a leave of absence."
     "When did Jenny take hers?"
     "About six months ago."
     "And she continued to paint? Here? At home?"
     "Absolutely not. I wasn't going to encourage such
foolishness." She shuddered. "Absolutely dreadful, some of the ideas she came up with."
     "Such as?"
     "Miss Chase, I'd rather not discuss my daughter's
painting. I'd rather discuss finding her."
     "All right, then while she was working "
     "She wasn't working. She'd taken that leave of absence, like I told you."
     "What I mean was: While Jenny continued to paint, while she was on her leave, she lived here? With you?"
     "What'd you think I'd do? Throw her out? No, sirree, I
stood by my daughter while she was going through this . . .
phase." Her chin elevated. "It's a mother's duty."
     "When did Jenny disappear?"
     "A month ago yesterday."
     "And you immediately contacted the police?"
     "That very night."
     "And they said?"
     "That Jenny would turn up when she wanted to. Can you
imagine? And from a public servant."
     "Does Jenny own a car?"
     "Yes it's locked up in the garage behind the house."
     So much for that line of investigation. "Have you tried
contacting O'Key?"
     "I couldn't locate her, but I did reach her
mother, actually her stepmother, and told her I was hiring a private investigator to find my daughter."
     That must've been a real treat for the new Mrs. O'Key. "And she said . . . ?"
     "She said to do what I thought was best."
     "And?"
     Rogers looked like she'd bitten into something that
didn't taste so good. "And let her know if there was anything she could do to help."
     "Was there anyone else Jenny might've contacted? Friends?
     A priest, a minister perhaps?"
     "No there's no one else. I'm all Jenny has." She
glanced in the direction of the street. "We stopped going to church when the neighborhood began to change. I told Lieutenant Warden he was shirking his job, that I was a taxpayer, too. I even wrote the mayor, but what good will that do? This time of year he's only interested in the tourists."
     "May I take a look at her room?"
     "Jenny's room what in the world for?"
     "For some clue as to where she's gone."
     "No," she said, shaking her head, "you won't find
anything in her room."
     But I did. Not a clue to where she was, but why Jenny
felt she had to leave.

Copyright Steve Brown 1999
All Rights Reserved
Order from your local bookstore with ISBN 0-967027314 
 

   
First Chapters of the Susan Chase Mysteries
 
Color Her Dead
Stripped to Kill
Dead Kids Tell No Tales
When Dead Is Not Enough
Hurricane Party
Sanctuary of Evil
 
Susan Chase Mysteries (Set at Myrtle Beach)
The Charleston Ripper