Authors: Al Fray
Tags: #murder, #suspense, #crime
Built for Trouble
IT STARTED like a lot of other Sundays at the beach—July and Los Angeles sweltering in smoggy heat and a hell of a crowd expected. We could figure on pulling quite a few tired swimmers out of the six miles of surf stretching from Santa Monica to El Segundo, and I wanted to be ready. I put the paddleboard on the sand down in front, laid out the float, climbed back into the tower, checked in on the phone, and ran up the flag to show that Culver Lifeguard Station was manned. The usual gang, the regulars, were already drifting across the sand. Judy Turner, a trim and graceful ash blonde I’d been dating steady for almost a month, came down with a couple of beach friends and spread a blanket to the left of my tower. We chatted a while. Somebody got out the volleyball.
The morning was quiet and peaceful. Then about noon the dark-haired girl appeared.
I didn’t see her at first; I was too busy watching the water. The surf was alive with splashing youngsters and just beyond the breakers a couple of adults swam easily on gentle swells. Bright blankets and colorful bathing suits dotted the sand on all sides by now, and then I noticed that about ninety per cent of the male contingent seemed to be looking back behind me somewhere. I swung around to my left. The crew of tan body worshipers engaged in a volleyball game had stopped to watch something, and the guy holding the ball was grinning and pawing the sand with one foot like an anxious stallion checking over the filly corral. When I shifted my eyes I added my vote to the silent approval the brunette was getting. It takes a lot of woman to capture the whole beach. Competition is rough, but this entry met all the specifications.
My own girl was looking up at me then, so I turned back for a fast survey of the Pacific. But I eased over to the other side of the tower and when I finished checking the water, I swung around for a second look at the big attraction. There were two girls, really. The freckled redhead lugging a beach umbrella was nice enough in her own way, but what are Calypso pants and a flopping white shirt compared to a black, skin-tight, two-piece bathing suit molded over a shape that would make an Egyptian mummy unwind his linen and start panting. Blue-black hair billowed in easy curls to her smooth white shoulders. She wore beach wedgies with enough lift to shape the calf of her leg, and she moved in that graceful walk you expect to see on the runway at a fashion show instead of on the beach. She was thin waisted and stacked high and she bothered me a little.
Almost like I’d seen her before, it seemed; yet who could forget something like this? The movies? I ruled that out; the flicker girls don’t come to public beaches. A magazine ad or a cover girl? That seemed more reasonable. I turned back to the surf and business, and a few minutes later the dark-haired lovely and her redheaded friend stopped about fifteen feet from my platform, spread out a blanket, and opened their umbrella.
A break for Eddie Baker. I looked down and smiled, drew a quick look of open appraisal from the redhead and got a cool once-over from the brunette—who then turned her attention to dialing in soft music on a portable radio. I looked out over the water again. Later, when I glanced back to the beach, I saw that the stags were still watching her openly and the married stock seemed to be taking it in sneak peeks. A couple of wives were frowning at husbands. I crossed to the other side of the tower and looked down to where my girl Judy was playing penny blackjack with some other people; beyond them I saw the red lifeguard jeep plowing through the sand toward my station, Hank Sawyer at the wheel. He churned to a stop, left the motor running, climbed the six rungs to the platform, and parked on the canvas deck chair behind me.
“Keep a sharp eye on the surf today, Baker,” Hank said curtly. “Big crowd out there.”
I nodded and said nothing. Hank Sawyer was boss of the beach, head lifeguard, and in charge of the twenty stations scattered along the shore, but he wasn’t very popular with the crew.
Maybe it was his way of giving orders, a way that never let you forget who was just a lifeguard and who ran the show. Or maybe it was the fact that, in spite of a balding head and several layers of rippling blubber, he still thought he was God’s gift to every girl on the beach. Maybe he had been once; the guy had obviously been good-looking before he went to pot, but he refused to recognize the effect of the years. He liked to suck that lard up into a chest and parade past the women, and I knew we were going to have a real performance as soon as he spotted the brunette on the other side of the tower.
We did respect Sawyer for one thing, though; he could spot a rip tide the moment the water began to pile up. He knew the beach. And he could guess right where the water would break through, even on those days when he was wearing dark glasses to hide bloodshot eyes and gave off a cheap bourbon exhaust when he issued his orders. I was only six weeks on the job but I knew that most of the beach-happy aquatics pulling lifeguard duty admitted Sawyer’s know-how on the beach even though they hated his insides.
“Phone working, Baker?”
“It was the last time I checked in,” I said dryly. He grunted and filched a few grapes from the bunch near my lunch box. Strictly a mooch. I’d been to his place once, along with the other lifeguards; a beer binge to start the summer season.
brought the beer. He lived over his garage in a beach-type place in Venice, and all I remember was the wall full of pin-ups and Sawyer getting slopped out of shape on our beer. The pin-ups were top grade. A little raw in some of the poses, maybe, and some of them had corny inscriptions with the usual double meanings. Hank was mighty proud of that art collection. And later, when he began to babble a little, he gave us some glowing accounts of the rescues he’d made in the strong rip tides down in Oceanside when he was younger. But outside of that night, Hank Sawyer talked very little about the past.
He stood up now and looked around, and then he saw the brunette on the other side.
He clicked his tongue a time or two, nodded in her direction, and jumped off onto the sand. I waited for him to strut over and give her a break, but he crossed me up. Turning, he went around the tower, climbed into the jeep, slammed her into four-wheel drive, and labored off toward the next station. Before he’d gone fifty yards the beauty in the black, two-piece suit was walking toward the ocean.
She tucked the long hair into a tight white bathing cap and went steadily through the surf, turning sideways as the first wave caught her waist high, knifing cleanly through the next as it broke over her. When the following crest lifted her high I saw that she was swimming smoothly in a well co-ordinated crawl stroke.
And straight out to sea.
I checked the kids running through the surf and then picked up the brunette again. She was about a hundred yards out, and she’d rolled over on her back, kicking some, stroking a little. Then she went back on her tummy, put her face in the water, and made with an easy breast stroke for a while, still going out. I went to the side of the tower and looked down at the redhead. She sat back on the round part of her fanny, knees drawn up and fingers clasped over them.
“Your friend feeling her Wheaties today?” I asked, and thumbed toward the water. The firetop looked up and smiled.
“Nola’s all right. She’s done quite a lot of swimming.”
“This I can see. But she’s a little far out for this early in the season.”
“July is early?” She raised an eyebrow and peered up at me.
“Not for most of the tribe,” I agreed, “but they’re in all the time. Your friend Nola hasn’t even picked up a tan so far this year.”
“I know. She isn’t allowed.”
I turned back to scan the water and wondered who could be stopping her. When I spotted Nola she had just come up from below. She swung in a lazy arc and started in, but before she’d taken three strokes she stopped to rest. I grabbed the binoculars and picked her up at close range. It seemed to me she wasn’t doing very well. A swell hid her momentarily, and when I saw her again she was swimming but her stroke was getting ragged. The white bathing cap bobbed under a couple of times and then panic set in. She began to thrash around and I dropped the glasses, jumped down to the sand, and lit running.
I caught up the paddleboard and plunged through a shallow wave rolling in, slammed through the next with the board above water, then slapped the paddleboard down. Scrambling onto it, I knelt low and began to skim over the surface with fast hard strokes. Rising over the first swell, I caught sight of her momentarily. She was trying to climb right out of the water now. I knew the signs well enough. I rammed the board ahead with every ounce of steam I had. Sliding over the next swell, I saw only empty sea but I had the direction and worked toward it. A hundred yards or more out I straightened up on my knees long enough for a fast survey. The white bathing cap broke water about fifty feet ahead of me. No thrashing arms this time, just the face and white cap, and then she went under again. I covered the distance, slipped into the water, stopped the paddleboard, and poked my head under the surface for a quick look.
A little to one side and a few feet farther on a cloud of muddy water swirled upward from the bottom, sand and silt churned into a brown mass that you couldn’t see into. Then a cluster of bubbles flashed upward. I rested my chin on the paddleboard for a second or two. I was puffing like an overworked steam engine but the girl was down there and time was short. I gulped a big breath, went under again, and kicked down toward the bottom and that big swirl of brown.
Salt water burned my eyes and the pressure built up. I couldn’t see much in the dirty water, and my lungs were about to bust by the time I hit bottom, but I worked my way along with arms sweeping the sand. I searched until I couldn’t hold it any longer, then gathered myself for a push to the surface and a fresh supply of air. But suddenly her arms locked around me from behind, the wrists catching below my ribs.
Her strength was unbelievable. Or maybe it was the supreme effort of that one last chance, but either way the result was the same—a fast, hard squeeze that caught me by surprise and exploded the breath I’d been struggling so hard to hold.
I was in big trouble now. I tried to break free, knew I’d have to get air and come back a second time, but I couldn’t get an arm in position to break the hold. My foot hit bottom and I tried to shove upward, tried to send us both toward the surface. Somehow I couldn’t hold a vertical line, my thrust only sent us along the bottom. I fumbled behind me with both hands in an effort to lever her away, but my strength was gone. I wasn’t in panic but I still couldn’t help doing the one thing I knew should never be done. Air. I had to have air. And now!
I opened my mouth and tried to suck in a breath…
There was no pain. I seemed to be floating free, suspended a foot or so from the bottom, and I wasn’t struggling any more. I couldn’t think. Time had somehow stopped. Then the water and sand and arms holding onto me faded, and there was nothing.
Somebody had a knee in my face. There was a blanket under my cheek, and I could vaguely hear the surf pounding behind me. Strong hands pressed down on my back, then caught my arms near the elbows and pulled me ahead. I coughed and opened my eyes just as the hands came down on my back again.
“He’s coming out of it but stay with him another minute or so.” The voice was Sawyer’s. The red jeep stood a short distance off and a couple of lifeguards in red trunks were bringing the resuscitator.
“We won’t need that,” Hank said. “Get the basket and we’ll run him into the hospital for a check-up.”
And right about then I thought of the black-haired doll.
“The girl,” I gasped. “She’s—” I struggled to turn over and then tried to point toward the water. “She’s—”
The hands pulling on my arms stopped then and the knee moved away from my face. Sawyer put a fat hand on my shoulder.
“What’sa matter, Baker? What the hell happened to you?”
“The girl—” I began again, and then the wire stretcher was put beside me.
“She brought you in, Eddie,” one of the guys said. I looked around and saw Ted Hogan from the next tower down the line. He tossed a blanket over the wire netting and they slid me into the basket. He shook his head.
“This is ridiculous,” I said loudly. “What happened? Who—?.”
“Just roll with the punch,” Hank Sawyer said in my ear. “We’ll get you out of here as fast as we can, Baker. Hell of a note, a dame bringing in a lifeguard. If we don’t ship you down to the hospital before those damn reporters get here, the newspapers are going to have one hell of a gay time of it. Talk about man bitin’ the dog! All right, up he goes.”
They lifted me into the jeep and rumbled across the sand toward Culver Boulevard, and then I heard the siren. At the street they took me out of the basket. I wanted to get up, but Sawyer laid down the law. They loaded me into the ambulance.
“Cart Baker here into the hospital,” he said grimly. “In fact I’m going along, if you don’t mind.”
They didn’t mind. Hank turned the keys to the jeep over to another lifeguard and got into the ambulance. A few fast miles and we rolled into the receiving hospital, and once again Sawyer put in a firm word. He buttonholed the medic and turned on the pitch.
“Baker here has probably got a bad heart. Or he—”
“There’s not a damn thing wrong with my ticker,” I said from the cot.
“—may have fainting spells,” Sawyer went on. “So whatever it is you find wrong, how about putting him to bed here for the rest of the day without any visitors from the press.” Hank went on to say that I’d been hauled out of the water by a girl and all hell was going to pop. He made a couple of pointed references to times he’d rushed over to lend the resuscitation apparatus, and when he left, Hank Sawyer had a pretty good understanding with the doctor.
The doc turned back to me. “Now then, young man, what seems to be the trouble?”
“Look, Doc,” I said quickly, “I don’t know what went wrong but it’s for sure I don’t have a history of any fainting spells. Nor heart trouble.”