Camera Obscura

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Chapter Five

Few overhead lights glowed over the quiet newsroom. Most of the illumination came from individual desk lights for the few people who were still there. An Asian woman—probably Chinese given that they were in San Francisco, Larry surmised—sat in a nearby cubical, eyes closed, head propped on elbow, waiting for her phone to ring.

Larry sat on the edge of a desk, talking with Mike Casey, a tall gangly man with rumpled ginger hair and a scraggly beard. Jill sat quietly listening in a chair nearby.

“So, you want me to find out who owns this car,” he stated after Larry finished talking. It wasn’t a question. He yawned widely and rubbed his eyes for emphasis. “This is what you got me out of bed for. What I came across the Bay in the middle of the night for. A car license.”

“First off, it’s not the middle of the night, Mike, old buddy. It’s ten P.M. Second, you’re the one who suggested we meet here because it’s quicker than if we traveled all the way to Berkley. And third, it’s me. Remember me? Your college roommate, the guy that helped you pass European Civ so you could graduate cum laude? Besides, when I tell you the whole story, you’ll want to find out who owns the car.”

It was amazing to Larry that when he made the conscious decision to contact his college roommate, all the memories surrounding him bubbled up to awareness and stayed, unlike those of the past few week that would surface, teasing him for a tantalizing moment, and then vanish, leaving no imprint on his consciousness. And when he spoke with Mike, it was as if he had never been out of Larry’s mind. He was real instead of the phantom Larry had been afraid he would find.

“Ten is the middle of the night for me, old buddy. I get up at four to get to work by six. I’m sure your story is fascinating, but we could have done this in the morning, couldn’t we?”

“Believe me, Mike, it’s too important to wait till morning. If I’m right, and I am, you’re gonna love me,” he paused for effect, “How would like an exclusive, old son?”

Mike sighed, “Okay. What’s this about? Or, for that matter, who?”

“I don’t know,” Larry admitted.

“You. Don’t. Know.” Mike shook his head, disbelief in his eyes.

“Right.”

“But you want my help.” He looked at Jill for confirmation to which she nodded.

“Look, Mikey, I saw a woman kidnapped at Cliff House, and I had a witness who saw the license plate.”

“Who is the witness?”

“A kid on a bicycle.”

“Of course. A kid on a bicycle,” Mike said sarcastically. “What was I thinking?”

“Okay,” Larry agreed. “It sounds fishy, I know. But this kid described the same thing I saw. He came to me, not the other way around.”

“But why would anyone choose such a public place? Especially when it’s still light enough for people to see their faces? It doesn’t make any sense, Larry.”

“I never said it made sense. But I’m not the only one who saw it happen.”

Larry’s voice grew louder as he tried to make his point. The Chinese woman opened her eyes and lifted her head to see where the noise was coming from.

Larry dropped his voice again. “The kid saw it too.”

Jill spoke up for the first time, “Well, actually, Larry, he didn’t say he saw her pushed into the car. He just said she didn’t look like she wanted to get in. It still could be something innocent.”

He turned on her furiously, “He thought something was fishy, remember? He said the guy hit her, and he said the guy’s eyes looked dead.” He turned back to his friend, “Mike, he wouldn’t have waited for the cops to talk to him if he hadn’t thought something was wrong.”

Jill nodded, “Well, yes. That’s true.”

Mike, who was not as sleepy as he had pretended to Larry, said brightly, “Okay. Something happened and the kid got the plate. What was it?”

“Just a number, Mike. The number ‘thirty’’, the numerals three and zero. Think you can help us?”

“Hell, Larry, I know who that plate belongs to.”

Larry and Jill both sat up straight and stared at him as they exclaimed in unison.

“You what?”

“How could you possible know that?”

“No mystery. That little number belongs to the publisher of this paper.” He turned to Jill to explain, “The number ‘thirty’ is newspaper shorthand for ‘the end.’ Kind of appropriate for a news man, don’t you think?”

“Of course!” Larry said excitedly, “Why didn’t I think of that? Jesus, Mike! Where does he live? We have to check this out.”

Mike put up his hands, defensively, “Whoa there, friend. Slow down a minute.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t you know what this means?”

“It means you’ve got rocks in your head. J. Winston Wainwright the third doesn’t kidnap women. And you’re crazy if you think I’m going to help you embarrass my boss, one of San Francisco’s leading citizens.”

“Then how do you explain his car being there, Mike? The kid saw it. He saw those guys. What more do you want?”

“There could be a dozen reasons that car was there.”

Trying to be the voice of reason, Jill said, “You’re probably right, Mike. But isn’t it just possible that Wainwright’s driver might be involved in something? If it wasn’t just an innocent coincidence, don’t you think your boss would want to know?”

Mike shook his head. “I still think it’s risky. This isn’t just some small town reporter, you know. Winston Wainwright is something of a crusader against crime in this town. He has been given every civic award that exists.”

“Even more reason to find out. If one of his employees is mixed up in something shady, or worse, it would be very uncomfortable for your boss when the news gets out. And believe me, Mike, it will get out. It always does.”

“This could cost me my job, Larry.”

“You worry too much. He’ll probably pin a ribbon on you himself. Now, where do we find him?”

Dark sidewalks along the residential street lined with large Victorian homes were punctuated like ellipses marks by pools of amber under widely spaced streetlights. Occasionally, the lonely bark of a wandering stray punctured the stillness, which then resealed itself against muffled city noises murmuring in the distance.

The car gently slid to a stop against the curb in a dark spot between the light posts. Inside at the wheel, Larry carefully set the brake against any pull of gravity on the incline.

“Glasses,” he said quietly, not turning his eyes from the beautiful three-storied Victorian mid-way down the block. Jill opened her purse containing the binoculars borrowed from Mike and handed them to him. He immediately put them to his eyes and slowly scanned the house, noting that the only lights that glowed were one in the back of the main floor, probably the kitchen area, and one in a turret section of the second floor, away from the car.

Jill looked up and down the street. The houses were large but set relatively close to each other. This neighborhood was expensive, to be sure, but this was hardly the mansion one would expect a man of such wealth to live in. Mike had explained that the Wainwright family had a large compound out of town that the wife and grown children called home, but Wainwright, himself, liked the bustle of the City and preferred to be near the many facets of his financial and business empire, so he had many years ago purchased this Victorian to act as the family’s pied-à-terre and his residence of choice. It was also more convenient for his frequent dalliances. Mike said it was an open secret that Mrs. Wainwright didn’t care what Winston did or with whom he did it, as long as he was discreet.

“What do we do now?” Jill asked.

“We watch for a while.”

“Okay. What are we watching for?”

Never taking his eyes from the house, he answered, “I know this sounds like every cop show you’ve ever seen, but we’ll know it when we see it.”

Jill sighed, “Then, we might as well get comfortable.” She retrieved a thermos and two Styrofoam cups from bag at her feet, poured a cup for Larry, then one for herself, and settled into the seat for a long wait.

The stillness of the night and the quiet in the car slowly overcame the caffeine in Jill’s coffee, and her head resting against the window, she slipped into an uneasy sleep. Now and then, she stirred and shifted into a more comfortable position. Each time she woke, she refreshed Larry’s coffee, once handing him a candy bar along with it, another time a bag of trail mix, each time slipping back into sleep almost without realizing she had been awake. Slowly, the detritus of their surveillance littered the front seat and dashboard of the car.

“Do you find it strange,” Jill asked once during what seemed to her to be an endless night, “that you remembered Mike, even his telephone number?
“I told you,” he answered taking a bite of a Snickers bar, “I remember almost everything except the last few years, but it’s all mixed up in my mind. Mike has been my friend for a long time. He was my best man.”

“You’re married?” She looked stunned.

Larry looked as stunned as she. “I. . .er. . .I don’t know,” he replied slowly. “I don’t know where that came from. I don’t remember getting married.”

“Maybe that’s something you should talk to him about. It might clear up some things. You know, you might be divorced.”

Larry shook his head. “I will, but not yet. It’s just one more thing to worry about and this is enough for now.”

Jill shrugged and closed her eyes, but it was some time before she fell asleep again.

Larry had lost track of time when a town car drew to the front of the house and disgorged two men, one with a wrestler’s build and one taller and more slender. As they climbed the stairs to the house, the taller of the two turned briefly to say something to the driver of the car. As he did so, light from the newly risen moon illuminated his face. Cold, cruel eyes, magnified by the field glasses, seemed to look directly at Larry.

The face bent over Larry as he lay on a hard surface. He struggled, but his hands and feet were restrained. He tried to scream, but no sound came from his mouth. The man bending over him was dressed in doctors’ greens and had a stethoscope around his neck. He opened his mouth and spoke, but Larry heard nothing but the buzzing in his ears. His eyes were focused on the hypodermic needle in the man’s hand. The man smiled, but the pale blue eyes remained icy cold as he raised the hand to give the injection.

The binoculars fell from Larry’s fingers. He sat frozen for a moment, his eyes wide with terror, and then not realizing that he was doing it, he threw himself sideways across the console between Jill and him. He lay there shaking like an aspen leaf caught in a windstorm.

It was the face of the man he had seen on the cliff.

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