Monday, June 25, 2018

Beach Body, by C.A. Rowland

The seagulls. They landed near the surf every morning and evening. Anne had thought it was to feed, but they sat so still, as if watching, waiting for some signal, when they were to all take off again. As if they knew when it was the right time to leave the sandy area behind.

If not disturbed, the birds sat for at least thirty minutes. Anne wondered if they were just tired of flying and this was a moment of quiet for them. Or perhaps, they too were calmed by the crashing waves of blue-capped in white that raced to meet the light tan sand on Amelia Island, Florida. She hated raw fish and the slimy taste on her tongue but giggled at the thought of birds gathered to have sushi for breakfast.

She breathed in the salty air, feeling it fill her with the lightness of something so fresh and untouched.

She and James walked almost every morning since they’d moved here two years ago. Rain. Sleet. Sunshine. Only the outer coverings changed. This morning was clear and sunny for late December. A light windbreaker and sweatshirt underneath. Together with thick jogging pants, socks, and tennis shoes, the ensemble was more than enough to protect Anne against the elements.

A heavy rain with thunder and lightning, coupled with wind, had hit with a vengeance in the late-night hours the evening before. The sand was littered with bits of shells, seaweed and other debris brought in by the wind and surge of the tides.

James had worn his regular blue jeans, tennis shoes and a flannel shirt. The man never seemed to get cold. They could be in two feet of snow in Chicago, Illinois, as they had been last year, and he’d have on the same outfit. She wondered how it was men could dress in the same thing every day and be happy, when women constantly needed something new or different.

Anne looked down as James squeezed her hand, the cool breeze slipping between them, almost as if he knew she was thinking about him.

They were a picture of contrasts she knew. She, just over five feet tall, slender, fair with blond hair and freckles. James, with dark hair, eyes and broad shoulders that marked him as a man of strength that worked out regularly. His hand, tanned and leathered one from skiing, hiking and running their construction company. Her hand, a few shades of tan paler and softer, encased in light gloves.

Nearing the birds, Anne angled up the beach onto the rougher, drier area. It was this way each morning, her trying to leave the birds in peace. James walking, unaware he might be disturbing any other creature. She’d pointed it out a few times. James had simply said, “That’s the nature of their lives. If not us, something else will send them soaring.”

Secretly, Anne thought he just liked watching the birds take off. Or dive for fish. James loved hunting and fishing, although it was the hunt and skill rather than the killing of anything. He rarely came home with anything to show for his day in the wild. But always with stories of what he’d seen, or caught and released.

As Anne searched the beach for signs of overnight changes, she focused on a lump of sand ahead. Or at least that was what it looked like until she got a bit closer.

Black peeked through, like a rock or a tarp. Maybe hiding something underneath. “That’s new,” Anne said, pointing ahead. “Want to see what it is?”

James turned towards the mound. These side excursions were frequent, and he seemed happy enough to follow Anne’s lead on these daily walks.

However, as they got closer, he halted and pulled her back. “Let me check this out first. I don’t like the looks of this.”

Anne turned to face him. “Do you think something’s hurt or died? Like a seal?”

“I don’t know. Let me check it out first.”

Anne watched James looked around and picked up a twelve-inch-long piece of driftwood. He approached the lump, covered by what appeared to be a black tarp and sand. Using the stick, he pulled back a small part, exposing a shoe . . . connected to a leg with what looked like a butterfly tattoo.

Anne sucked in her breath, having moved closer but behind him.

“I told you to stay back.” James turned to look up at her with such anger that she took a step back. He pulled his ever-ready cellphone out of his pocket and dialed 911.

***


Anne was still shivering when the police arrived. Not that she was cold, but from the body and James’ attitude. She focused on what the officer was asking. The two cops were from the local town, one tall and blond, looking like he should be a lifeguard with trendy sunglasses, and the other almost as tall but thin, wiry with brown hair and a perpetual frown.

“No, we just happened to be walking by,” she said in answer to the black-haired cop’s question as to how they had discovered the body. “We go one way or the other every morning. Usually starting at the same spot.”

“We may have a few more questions,” the cop said as he moved off.

Anne turned her head, searching for James, only to find him staring at her. She shivered as it hit her.

James knew the dead woman. At least she assumed it was a dead woman from the shape of her slender calf and the pink and white tennis shoe-- too big for a child or even most teenagers.

She knew she was right. Another of his dalliances. Except this one was now dead. And from what she knew of his latest affair, this was not her.

The police had uncovered the body enough for her to see that this one had blonde hair. James’ latest was a brunette.

How long would it take the police to connect the woman to him? Another scandal. No matter if he did anything wrong or not. The shame of another humiliation had landed at her feet. And with that, they’d learn about the current affair. Double the trouble this time.

Anne wasn’t sure if her marriage with him or her reputation could survive another Chicago. Sure, he’d retired from his prestigious job with plans for them to travel and live for years.

But the truth was he was forced out–sexual harassment at the office with a subordinate little tramp who was hurt when he moved on. A minor blip in the news but one that all her friends and societal connections had heard and no doubt continued to laugh and gossip about behind her back. These events happened in the best of families, but most had the decency and ability to do it without getting caught or shamed in public. Or there being evidence shoved in the face of their friends and colleagues.

Not to mention their family. Her mother had lived through her father’s womanizing and survived without a blemish on the family. Anne had realized that she might have to do the same when she married James but had thought he could be discreet. She’d been wrong.

Mortified in Chicago. Leaving and starting a new life further south had seemed the sensible solution. She still wondered how the young woman had not seen that James would never abandon his wife. It was beyond Anne. James loved the prestige of his job, but he loved the money Anne had inherited more. It gave him a lifestyle he craved and Anne the husband that lent her a different kind of respectability, at least in her circles.

His little escapades? A rebellion that left him feeling in charge with the balance of power in his court.

A dead mistress though was quite another thing.

“You can go,” Anne heard the officer say to James.

James caught her hand in his and pulled her back down the beach, toward where they had parked their car. Neither of them saying a word.

***


The knock Anne had been expecting came two days later. Anne had found the cottage. Located a bit back from the beach so they didn’t have to deal with the summer crowds but close enough to a parking area so that they had access within five minutes of their house.

The cottage had three small bedrooms, one with blue walls and nautical figures, one with a green underwater theme, and one with muted yellow sunny tones. A living room with flowery upholstered furniture against the sandy walls and a kitchen overlooking the tiny backyard. All came with the house, which was fine with Anne.

Windows in every room let in lots of light, and breezy curtains floated in the wind. Anne had opted for what her friends would call a beach rental, leaving her furniture and memories in storage in Chicago, just in case they ever decided to return to the north.

This new place was easy to care for and meant their financial needs were smaller. While Anne had a trust fund, she wanted those funds for travel and vacations. They used James’ retirement package for everyday costs. The downsizing allowed them to eat out often although James hated the loss of the two-story walk up they had shared in their toney Chicago neighborhood. While the new start wasn’t exactly how either of them had planned to live out their days, it was a beginning.

Answering the door, Anne found the same officers were back, asking for James. Invited in, they sat drinking a cup of coffee, the aroma melding with the fresh sea air that wandered inland, while they peppered him with new questions.

“Mr. Rochester, we’ve identified the body you found as Charlotte Davis.” The blond officer that had taken the lead paused and getting no response, continued. “You told us you didn’t know the deceased, but that’s not quite true, is it?”

“Officers, I saw the bottom of a leg with a tennis shoe on it. That’s not enough to identify anyone,” James said.

“But you recognized the tattoo, right?”

“I didn’t want to guess. That tattoo seems very common and likely on any number of women’s ankles, here and everywhere. But to answer you, yes, I knew Charlotte.”

“And what was your relationship to her?” the blond cop asked.

“Anne, why don’t I handle these questions alone,” James said.

Both officers’ eyes turned to Anne. She sat for a moment and then said, “I think I’d rather stay.”

James hung his head for a few seconds and then raised it to face the blond officer. “We had a sexual relationship for two months.” Turning to Anne, he said, “But it’s been over for months.”

“And did the sex between you and Miss Davis ever involve erotic asphyxiation?”

“What? No. What are you talking about?”

“Ms. Davis was strangled.”

Anne watched James turn pale.

The bond officer turned to Anne. “And did you know about the affair?”

Anne stared at him. “My husband’s sexual needs are, shall we say, more than I care to provide. I am aware that he has had a number of affairs over the years. We have no secrets. And when we moved here, I assumed that would continue.”

“And what exactly are those needs as you understand them?” the officer asked.

“My husband has a high sex drive. He’d have sex six times a day if I were willing. I’m not. However, if you are asking me if he’s ever indicated he would like to try the erotic act–my answer is no.”

“So, Mr. Rochester, where were you the night before you and your wife discovered the body on the beach?”

“I was home, here with my wife. Tell them, Anne.”

“Is that true, Mrs. Rochester?”

Anne reddened. “As far as I know. Our sleeping preferences over the years have left us sleeping in different rooms. Snoring, his needs. I’d rather not elaborate if you don’t mind. And it is personal and would be embarrassing if this was made public.”

The officer nodded. “So Mr. Rochester could have slipped out while you were sleeping.”

“I don’t know about that. I am a very light sleeper and almost always wake up when James is stirring around the house. I feel certain I would have heard him leave … if he did.”

“And what about you, Mrs. Rochester? Where were you?”

“I was here with my husband, but as I said, I was in my bedroom from about ten o’clock until we got up to walk. There were some heavy storms that woke me about one or so, but I got up for a drink of water, then back to bed.”

“And did you know Miss Davis?”

“How would I know her? She was not in my social circle,” Anne said.

“Okay. I’ll ask that neither of you leaves town. We may need to ask you a few more questions.”

***


James was still not speaking to Anne two days later when the police arrived. Why hadn’t she simply said he was home with her all night? Didn’t she know that it made him a suspect? Or worse, was this her payback for Chicago? And why hadn’t they asked if he had heard her leave? Surely they could see she had a motive as well?

James didn’t seem to understand that the police were going to discover his history in Chicago. And they would then know that she was already the humiliated wife. If they talked to any of her friends, they’d gleefully report on their bedroom situation. Just as she would on them. Right or wrong, it was just the reality of how things worked in her world.

James had stormed out, only to return later in the day. Angry and unwilling to speak to her, just as she’d done when he’d betrayed her. All would blow over. Always did. In many ways, they were the perfect symbiotic pair.

The knock at the door was not unexpected.

This time the cops arrested James on the spot. Anne tried to ask what had changed, but they simply said they were taking him in and something about new evidence. James demanded she called a lawyer. She said she would.

***


Two days later, Anne sat in the office of Peter Keppler, a local attorney, with graying hair, an easy smile and a laid-back attitude that included leaving his plaid shirt unbuttoned. His office was modest as lawyers go. Comfortable chairs and a secretary/receptionist behind a pony wall. Located in an area of town outside of the tourist district, inside an older home, converted into offices.

Peter shared the house with three other lawyers. A large wood desk sat in the middle of the room, and two bookshelves filled with files of what she guessed were open cases dominated one wall. Pictures of old Myrtle Beach clustered on another. She expected a lawyer’s office to reek of old wood and law books, but here, it was a mix of lemon Pledge and seawater.

She’d turned to someone who knew everyone in town rather than a big city lawyer. Her reasoning was that a local might have better access and ability within the system. She still wasn’t sure if that was the right decision but it had made sense.

Anne listened as Peter outlined the case against James.

“It seems they have found some hairs on the victim that match your husband’s. DNA is allowable in court, and they seem to have a very strong case.” Peter had paused and Anne had let that sink in. “How long ago did James stop seeing the victim? Do you know?”

“I have no idea. I knew James had moved on to someone new. But the timing is not something I try to watch for. We have an arrangement. He doesn’t embarrass me, and I don’t ask,” Anne said.

“Got it. And about Chicago. Were they any threats of blackmail or anything like that?”

“No. Only the discrimination charge that we’ve already talked about.”

“And here? Did anyone threaten James that you know of?”

“I don’t know of anything like that, but you’d have to ask him. He and I never discussed his sexual partners and what they said. Can you tell me if that ever happened? Or could it have happened with the young woman who died?”

“All I can say is that he doesn’t understand what is happening or why. I may be able to argue that the hair was on her clothing due to the fact that James had been with her a few months before but that’s not a lot. It would help him if you could confirm that he was home that night.”

“I’m sorry, but as you know, we sleep in separate beds. With the storm, it took me a while to get to sleep, and I’m sure I slept soundly because I was tired. I know he was there when I went to bed and when I woke up.”

Peter sighed and laid his pen down on the yellow pad he’d taken notes on. “All right. That’s it for now. I’ll need to talk to you again but for now, let’s leave it at that.”

***


Anne straightened and laid a hand on her back to massage the ache from lifting boxes and packing. She grabbed the tape and closed the lid, securing it before she marked it for contents.

“This is the last one,” she said to the strapping young man with the muscular arms.

“Yes, ma’am. We’ll lock up the truck and be on our way. I just need you to sign here and initial in three places,” he said as Anne wielded the pen.

After the truck left, Anne locked the door, leaving the key under the mat for her real estate broker, Sherry. The closing would be finalized in the morning, and Anne had already signed the papers in escrow. What she wanted now was one last walk on the beach before she headed back to Chicago.

At the parking lot, she parked and locked the car. Then ventured down to the sand, turning in the same direction she and James had turned that fateful morning.

Everything was really as it should be. Charlotte the tramp was dead. Anne still didn’t understand how Charlotte could have thought she’d leave James for her. Anne had only wanted to experience what James had, maybe come to comprehend what the draw was. It wasn’t like Anne was a lesbian or anything, just curious.

But Charlotte had wanted more. And had threatened to tell James. Most likely she had threatened James too, but James would have told her Anne knew and it didn’t matter.

Telling James about Anne was another matter altogether. Anne could never let him have that kind of power over her, especially after Chicago.

Anne stared down at the area where she’d dropped the body. Really, the storm had been a godsend. Washing away the tracks of the wheelbarrow she’d used after she’d strangled Charlotte.

Anne had stayed for the trial as the dutiful wife, as she was expected to be, just as she’d given their marriage a new start here. Her Chicago friends were sympathetic and supportive. They encouraged her to return when James was sentenced after two years of waiting for a trial date.

She’s argued that she needed to stay while his case was appealed but they’d argued that she could do that from Illinois. And after just the right number of months of discussion, she’d agreed.

Smiling, Anne watched the birds flying, headed off in a new direction. She’d been discreet where James hadn’t, both in Chicago and at the beach.

That was really the issue.

The birds certainly understood there was a time for standing still, waiting, and a time to leave. So did she.

Anne turned and walked back to the car.

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