| 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.
not putting on any damn dress," I told Pick from my lifeguard stand.
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
"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
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.
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.
I had to bring her in." And before I could chew his ass properly, he apologized
for coming ashore among the bathers.
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
"Can you watch
the boat?" he asked. "I'll send someone for it."
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
"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."
nodded with that strong chin of his. "I'll be here."
just because I'm a little sick doesn't mean I can't go out again." The
girl glanced at me. "Later."
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
"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
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.
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. You
wanted me to drop by."
"Come to the window
where I can see you."
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 —
have to be certain about these things."
So I took out my
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
"Can't see that,
Miss Chase. Pass it through the little door."
"The little . .
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
"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,
balladeer with his song, this one likening
insanity to an
undertow that sucks you down and pulls you
"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
"I was expecting
someone a bit older, Miss Chase."
"Older than who?"
slipped out before I could stop it or
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 —
hell it meant, then pointed at the red velvet
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
"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."
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.
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 —
"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."
"But a hundred
dollars a day . . .?" Her cup was put
"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.
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!"
"How can you be
"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."
to pay my fee? Plus mileage and
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
consider yourself a client."
Miss Chase, what about these expenses you
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
"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
"Well, I hope that
goes for any drinking, too."
"Would a little
wine be okay? For medicinal purposes?"
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?"
"Yes, like in 'Goodbye,
Mom. I'm off with Ralph.'"
one named 'Ralph.'"
"Did Jenny have
"Mrs. Rogers, how
old is Jenny?"
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."
is twenty miles to the south and allows
working artists to live there at discounted
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."
"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.
the one who put the notion in Jenny's
head that she could paint."
"Of course not,"
said Mrs. Rogers, dismissing her
daughter's efforts with a wave of the hand.
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
said Rogers, shaking her head. "Jenny
painted landscapes, people, bowls of fruit
things. It's how they turned out that was
"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
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,
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
"About six months
"And she continued
to paint? Here? At home?"
I wasn't going to encourage such
foolishness." She shuddered. "Absolutely
dreadful, some of the ideas she came up with."
"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?
"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
"When did Jenny
"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
it's locked up in the garage behind the house."
So much for that
line of investigation. "Have you tried
"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."
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
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