Camera Obscura

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Chapter Eighteen

Jill Thornton was terribly afraid, afraid she had gotten herself embroiled in something sinister, though she couldn’t imagine what is was, afraid she would never see Larry again, afraid, in fact, for her very life. She lay bound, gagged and blindfolded on a bed, the mattress of which was undeniably comfortable. It was the only positive thing she could think of at the moment.

When she was pulled into the town car, the tall blond man with the cold blue eyes had held her firmly until the beefy one with the gun had climbed in and pointed the thing at her. She had seen Larry looking out the window at her. She had heard, or thought she heard, his voice calling her. Perhaps it had only been wishful thinking.

“Who are you? What do you want?” she had asked, frightened out of her wits but trying to be brave. “Let me out of here.”

“Shut up!” the blue-eyed man growled at her. To his cohort he said, “I don’t want to hear one more syllable from Miss Thornton. If she opens her mouth again, close it for her.”

She had not opened her mouth.

Jill recognized the two men from her short time at the hospital. One night when she was first hired, she had opened the wrong door and had walked in on the blond one as he was fixing a hypodermic needle. She had apologized and backed out of the room immediately. The head nurse Mrs. Fulton, a short, jolly African American woman with dyed, bright yellow hair, had said he was one of the doctors. Jill had thought it odd that a doctor was preparing medication rather than one of the nurses, but she hadn’t said anything. She was new, after all, and didn’t know all of this hospital’s procedures.

She hadn’t seen him again, but the large one, the one Mrs. Fulton called Mr. Smith, had sat outside room two-oh-eight every time she was there, never cracking a smile, hardly ever uttering a word, and then only a grunt in answer to questions directed at him by Mrs. Fulton or Dr. Wang. She herself had never been in room two-oh-eight. Only Mrs. Fulton and the doctor were allowed in. Everyone else had to get by Mr. Smith, and that was impossible.

She had been blindfolded before being roughly removed from the automobile, and now she was inside a house, barn, warehouse, she had no idea which it was, not to mention where. It had been several hours since she was trussed up like a chicken and thrown on this bed. She had been too frightened to sleep. Instead, she had lain frantic with fear, listening for something, anything that would tell her she hadn’t been left to die alone. Now she was thirsty, and she needed to pee. There was no one to ask for help, even if she had been able to. She was terribly afraid that unless someone came to help her soon, she would soil herself and then eventually die of thirst. Despair was not even close to what she felt.

She heard a sound. What was it? A door being opened. Soft footfalls meant there was carpet or at least something soft on the floor. What should she do? Thrash around like a fish out of water, make all the sound she could to get someone’s attention? No. Best to remain still and quiet until she had more idea of who was here and what was happening to her.

“Why didn’t you kill her?” The voice was deep, resonant, obviously cultured, and it was close to her. She imagined a large man looking down at her as he spoke. The voice reminded her of the late actor Orson Wells. In her mind, she gave the physical attributes of Wells to the voice.

“We were on the street in broad daylight.” The voice of the man with cold, blue eyes was also deep but with a trace of an accent. Jill listened intently but couldn’t place it. “Don’t forget, we were in your car. It could have been traced back to you.”

“Idiot! Why did you use my car?”

“It was the only one available.”

“But did you have to bring her here? What if someone saw you?”

“No one did.” The voice retreated to several feet away by the sound of it. “Now, I suggest you have dinner, read a book, call one of your little. . .friends.”

“What are you going to do?” The Orson Wells voice asked.

“First, I’m going to make a call to our friend to find out if everything is still proceeding as planned. Then, I will be back for a serious talk with Ms. Thornton. I have to find out what they know and who they told.”

“Well, I suppo. . .” The voice was cut off by the sound of a door being opened, footsteps approaching.

The steely-eyed voice said, “Go back to the hotel. If he’s out, wait. You know what to do.”

The door opened and closed again. Jill was alone and now terrified at the prospect of the cold-eyed man’s return. She struggled against the ropes, but there was no give in them. She tried to rub the gag off her mouth by rubbing it against a pillow. She had tried all these things before, but it was imperative that she find a way out of this place before the he came back. Somehow she knew she wouldn’t like what came after.

It was only a short time later that she heard the door open again. She had had no more luck loosening her bonds than before. She heard the soft footfalls approach the bed. She felt hands removing the gag from her mouth. It felt wonderful to have the nasty thing out of her mouth. She worked her tongue back and forth trying to get the saliva to start moistening her mouth once again. Suddenly, her head was rocked by a blow that rattled her teeth and seared her cheek. She screamed in pain.

“Now that we have the preliminaries over,” said the man with the icy blue eyes, “there are a few things I want to know.”

“Welcome to Los Angeles.” The sign over the descending escalator inside Los Angeles International Airport, LAX to those who live there, should have been familiar to Larry. This was, after all, his home. At least, that’s what the driver’s license in his wallet said. Home. A word that makes one think of security, comfort, and well-being. Unfortunately, it meant none of those things to Larry. He took out his wallet to look at the license once again. One-one-three- six-five Maple Leaf Drive. The address meant nothing to him. He hadn’t the vaguest idea where it was.

People churned around Larry, people of all sizes, shapes, and colors, everyone going somewhere, quickly. He let the people-carrier move him down the long passage to the baggage claim area. As he stepped off the long moving belt, he was almost run over by an Asian family with three small children, moving quickly toward the carousels where they would wait impatiently with several hundred other incoming passengers for their luggage that had yet to be unloaded from a jumbo jet from Hong Kong, rushing to their spot along the moving belt as if that would make their luggage arrive sooner. Larry had nothing but the small satchel containing his shaving gear and some underwear, so he avoided the carousel area and found a payphone.

He checked for a telephone directory and found a tattered one attached beneath the phone. He looked in the W pages for the name Wheeler and was almost surprised to find his name, no address listed. He hesitantly picked up the receiver and dialed the number. An automated voice came on the line and told him how much money to deposit. He felt in his pocket, pulled out a handful of change, and plugged quarters into the slot of the machine. What would he say if someone answered? The phone rang one time and was answered.

“Sorry, I can’t take your call. Just leave your name and number at the beep. I’ll get back to you ASAP.”

The voice sounded strange to Larry, but he knew it was his own. At least something checked out. He examined the directory for a map of the area, but there was none. Several car rental booths were nearby. He stepped to the first one where a pretty young woman smiled at him.

“I need to rent a car,” he said to her. He hoped he knew the answers to whatever questions she would ask.

“For how long will you need it?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve been out of town and my wife took the kids to visit her mother,” he lied. “So, probably a week will do it. Depends on how long she decides to stay.”

“What size car? Luxury or mid-size?”

The woman asked several more questions, took a look a Larry driver’s license, made an imprint of his credit card and filled out the papers. She gave him directions to catch the shuttle to the company’s car lot to pick up his rental. It was all easier than he had expected. Encouraged by the encounter, Larry made his way outside to find the shuttle.

LA, as it’s known, is definitely a melting pot, professing to have residents from almost every country in the world. It is a cosmopolitan city, covering over four hundred and sixty-four square miles, with over three and one-half million people, over seven thousand miles of streets and God knows how many vehicles. Too damn many, that’s for sure was Larry’s opinion as he stood beneath the departure roadway above and watched vehicles of all sizes maneuvering to find the best spot to pick up passengers and then, once loaded, to find a way back into the streaming traffic on the inner circle that carried vehicles around the U shaped airport and back onto city streets.

He picked his way through cars picking up travelers to an island in the middle of the traffic and stood with the group under the “shuttles” sign. Shortly, a green and pink minibus with the name of the rental car company on the front approached and slid to a stop. Larry and several other people boarded leaving a handful to wait for another company’s shuttle. Larry and his fellow riders settled themselves for the ride to the car lot.

When he entered the office, he saw several lines of people. He picked what looked to be the shortest and stood waiting his turn. The harried customer service representative was short with him when he asked for directions.

“You should buy a Thomas Guide,” was his abrupt suggestion.

“What’s that?” Larry asked.

The man behind the counter looked at Larry as if he were from outer space. “You know, maps of the area.”

“Oh.” Larry waited until the man handed him the keys to his rental and then he casually asked, “And where can I find one of those Thompson Guides?”

“Thomas. I don’t know. Ask anyone.”

“I just asked you,” Larry reminded him. He knew the man behind the counter was being rushed and was probably tired of questions, stupid or otherwise, but this was his job and Larry wasn’t in the mood to make it easy for him. “Or would you rather I ask your supervisor?” he asked in a rather louder than normal voice.

A plain but well coifed Latina in the back room had apparently overheard the exchange because she came out of the room and walked to where Larry and the company employee were standing. The badge on her jacket read Consuela Gonzales, Manager. She first glared at the employee with a just-wait-until-he’s-gone look and then turned to Larry with a pleasant smile, “I happen to have a Thomas Guide that we aren’t using. You are more than welcome to have it.”

Larry smiled at her in response. “Well, thank you, Ms. Gonzales. I appreciate that.” He couldn’t use the excuse that he was new in town because they had a picture of his driver’s license with an LA address on it. “I’m afraid I’m not good with directions,” he vamped, “and I don’t know this part of town very well. My wife told me I should get around more, but with work. . .”

“That’s quite all right,” Consuela assured him. “LA’s a big place. I know natives that can’t find their way except in their own section of town.”

Larry took the keys and the Thomas Guide and with a smile turned to leave.

“Good luck,” the woman called after him.

As Larry left the building, he heard her voice raised as she began, “I want to see you in my office.” Somebody was going to get an ass-chewing, he thought with a satisfied smile.

He found the automobile he was to use, settled into the driver’s seat, and consulted his new Thomas Guide. He checked the index and found the coordinates and page on which Maple Leaf Drive would be found. After finally finding the line that indicated the street he was looking for, he plotted his course from the airport to Maple Leaf.

An hour later Larry found himself in the Santa Monica Mountains, a range of mountains that bisect Los Angeles from east to west, separating the city into the San Fernando Valley and the “basin” where two-thirds of the city reside. Maple Leaf Drive was a narrow road, winding up the mountain in a wooded area where most of the houses were hidden behind trees and shrubs. In spite of being in the middle of the city, it appeared almost rural with postal and newspaper boxes for the hidden houses clustered along the road.

After consulting the map several times and making several mistakes, he finally found the house where he was supposed to live. Nervously, he parked in the driveway, got out of the car, and approached the front door, which was framed by two casement windows that proved to be locked. He checked around the house looking for an unlocked window or for a hidden key, but finding none, he picked up a big rock and was about to break in when he heard a woman’s shrill voice coming from an almost invisible house sitting nearby in the midst of huge bushes and trees.

“Is that you, Larry?” the voice asked. “Wait a minute, dear. I’ll be right over.”

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