By Lauryn Poynor
Note:With heartfelt apologies to Rick Mittleman, writer of "Sensitive
Thanks to Anne Rose for beta reading. I appreciate her invaluable help and advice.
Rated: R & SPF 45 (Coppertone)
walked through the glass doors of the agency with the lightness of body
and spirit that only the best tailoring could provide. He had recently
made the acquaintance of Gianni, a newly transplanted Milanese and true
man of the cloth, who could work earthly miracles with a needle and thread.
Gianni left school at a very young age to study his craft and to hone his skills under the watchful eye of Domenico Caraceni. Throughout his long career Caraceni had clothed royalty and the elite of Hollywood: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., among others.
Steele considered it a matter of extreme good fortune to have discovered the talents of Caraceni's apprentice and spiritual successor. However, he knew it was too good to last. Once Gianni gained a foothold in Los Angeles (his first showroom was due to open soon), Steele sincerelydoubted he would be able to afford his services much longer. His spending habits would have to be painfully reduced for the next several months to cover the cost of this suit alone, not to mention any future purchases. But that worry was for another day. Nothing could shake his good humor this morning.
Steele glanced around looking for Laura. He wondered if he could steer her to some more elegant than usual restaurant for lunch today. As he walked through the office he could feel the fine fabric of his jacket move with him like a second skin. This suit was definitely not one to waste on the grind of routine business.
"Mildred, where's Miss Holt?"
"Boss, she called just before you came in. She had a little fender bender in the Rabbit this morning. She'll be here as soon as she can."
"Did she have any appointments?"
"Just one. A Mr. George Sommers at 9:30."
"No problem, Mildred. I'll interview Mr. Sommers until she arrives."
Mildred gave him an uneasy glance. Laura had asked her to stall until she was able to get there for the meeting. Mildred knew Laura was supposed to be "in charge" of such things but on the other hand Mr. Steele was the boss. Sometimes, she thought, the nuances of this job could be trickier than an IRS agent on a witness stand. "OK, Mr. Steele, I'll send him through."
"Is there a case file on Mr. Sommers?" Steele inquired.
"Not yet. Just some notes from Miss Holt's phone conversation with him. I've got those right here."
"Excellent Mildred. Let's have them."
Mildred handed him the notes and he disappeared into his office.
Steele looked over the notes on Mr. Sommers Laura had made in her neat handwriting. He was the director of the Paraiso del Sol, an exclusive spa and resort in Palm Springs. A random series of accidents had been happening to resort guests which seemed beyond the bounds of mere coincidence. No one had been killed but several guests had been injured. Sommers wanted the agency to look into the matter as soon as possible.
It didn't sound terribly exciting but the chance to spend some time at an exclusive spa with Laura didn't sound like a bad idea. He was lazily going over the possibilities in his mind when Mildred buzzed him on the intercom.
"Mr. Steele. Mr Sommers is here for his appointment. Should I send him in?"
"By all means, Mildred."
Steele got up from his chair to greet the arriving client. "Mr. Sommers? I'm Remington Steele." They shook hands.
Steele was a bit taken aback by the man's appearance. Admittedly, what passed for proper business attire in these parts often amazed him but Mr. Sommers was casual even for California. He was wearing an open necked Hawaiian shirt and a shell necklace. A pair of Ray Bans hung from the waistband of his khaki shorts. His skin was deeply tanned from his hairline down to his Birkenstock clad feet. He was probably in his mid-fifties, possibly younger. The beginnings of a pot belly were barely covered by his shirt. He looked like an aging surfer.
"Please sit down Mr. Sommers. Now tell me, how can I be of service?"
"Well I spoke with your associate on the phone and she assured me your agency could help us." His tone was businesslike even if his appearance was not.
"Yes, Miss Holt should be arriving shortly. Tied up in traffic. I've been perusing your file Mr. Sommers. Tell me in as much detail as you can about these accidents at your resort. When did all of this start?"
"About two months ago. Someone tampered with the wiring of the hot tub. A guest was almost electrocuted. Would have been, too except a bird skimmed across the water first and got a nasty shock. Burnt to a crisp. Then there was the incident on the riding path. A cinch broke on one of the horse's saddles. It had been cut but not entirely so that it would break several minutes into the ride. There are a lot of steep drop offs along the mountain trail. Mr. Sellers, one of our guests, rolled down one of them, saddle and all."
"Was he hurt badly?"
"A broken rib and a lot of cuts and abrasions. He's threatening me with a lawsuit."
"I see. Any other guests injured?"
"Yeah. Some of our guests do a bit of mountain climbing. Our resort is at the foot of the San Jacintos. One of the more experienced climbers had a bad fall two weeks ago. He's still in the hospital. I know this guy. Fanatic about his equipment. Says he checked everything beforehand. One of the links on his tether had been partially sawn through. It was no accident."
"I'm inclined to agree. Any other incidents I should be aware of?"
"Well, there was one more. We were having a group sing-along and our song leader got a nasty shock at one point when she touched the microphone. But it was outdoors and it was beginning to rain. I'm not sure if it's anything suspicious. We always have our sing-along outdoors. It's part of National Nude Weekend. Our 'Bare Fair' celebration."
Steele's attention had wandered a bit so he wasn't sure if he'd heard correctly. "Wait a minute. Hang on. National Nude Weekend? Bare Fair?"
"Well yes. I thought you knew. It's a naturist resort. We're pretty well known. Television features. Magazines."
"Naturist? You mean - "
"Nudists if you prefer. We use the term 'naturist.' It encompasses the Zen of the whole experience. We believe people should be accepted for who they really are. Not who their clothes say they are." He looked pointedly at Steele's Italian suit.
Steele returned his stare, then looked directly at the man's belly which was straining against his shirt buttons. "I prefer the sentiments of Oscar Wilde. 'One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.' "
Steele continued with more than a trace of annoyance in his tone, "I'm not so sure our agency is the right fit for this job. Perhaps you should look in the yellow pages under 'naked guns for hire.' I'd put in a call to another agency but they'd probably think it was a practical joke."
"I'm sorry you feel that way Mr. Steele. I was counting on you and Miss Holt to help us. For you to investigate would require that you join our club. Be able to blend in and mingle with our guests. But I can see you'll have a difficult time getting into the total mind and body experience. Perhaps your associate would be a bit more open minded -"
At that moment the door opened and Laura walked in to the office. "Mr. Sommers. So sorry I'm late. Couldn't be helped. Someone had an accident on the freeway and tied up traffic."
"Yes. Someone certainly did," Steele remarked with an edge of sarcasm.
Laura ignored him.
"Mr. Steele was just expressing some doubts about accepting our case," Sommers began.
"Was he really?" Laura gave him a glare. "Mr. Sommers, would you mind if Mr. Steele and I caucus for a moment?"
"Of course not."
Steele followed Laura out into the hall. She closed the office door and nearly dragged him to a corner. Being stranded in the heat on the freeway with her wrecked car boiling over had not done wonders for her patience. Neither had a solid hour of horn honking and creative hand gestures from motorists. She'd thought this day couldn't get any worse. Obviously she was wrong.
"Since when do you decide which cases to accept? And what are you doing interviewing Sommers? He was on my schedule. I told Mildred to have him wait until I got here. But no, you can't resist forging ahead without me. We're partners, remember? Sometimes your ego simply overwhelms me." Laura delivered her verbal barrage in rapid fire succession.
"Really, Laura. Don't you think you're overreacting just a touch?"
"I just wish once in your life you could stick to the script. Not make hasty decisions. Let me handle the details."
Steele tried vainly to get a word in. "Laura, it's the details of this case that worry me."
"Mr. Sommers and I have already discussed them."
"Yes, but are you sure you know-"
"I know everything I need to know. Need I remind you that I've been handling clients for a lot longer than you have."
"Yes, but -"
"This discussion is over Mr. Steele," Laura said with finality.
She turned on her heel and strode back into the office, Steele following close behind her.
She extended her hand. "We'll take the case Mr. Sommers."
Sommers shook her hand, looking at her with a mixture of relief and uneasiness. "Are you sure it's, um, your sort of thing?"
"Versatility is our watchword at the Remington Steele agency," Laura replied confidently. Mr. Steele and I will solve this case with every means at our disposal."
"Yes, Well I'm gratified to hear it." I'll expect you both on site by tomorrow morning if possible. Here's a brochure about our resort. Driving directions included. He gave her a sly grin. "Oh, by the way, pack light." He walked out of the office, his sandals making a slapping sound against the carpet.
Laura gave Steele a puzzled look. "What does he mean pack light?"
Steele raised an amused eyebrow at her. He handed her the brochure. "Perhaps you'd better read this, Laura. And see if your versatility is up to the task."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Feeling more than slightly puzzled, Laura took the proffered brochure and began scanning the contents. It was a typically glossy, travelogue foldout with pictures of sun drenched, tanned, and happy people engaged in various leisure activities. Nothing unusual there. Except for one thing. These people were a lot more sun drenched than most - every inch of them in fact. Laura dropped the brochure on to the desk as if it were on fire. She tried to speak but at first no sound emerged. Finally she managed to gasp out, hand to her mouth, "Oh my God. It's a nudist colony."
"Naturist resort," Steele corrected without missing a beat.
Still trying to get her bearings and control the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Laura continued, "Correct me if I'm wrong Mr. Steele, but did we just agree to go undercover on a case in a resort full of people who are completely naked?"
"Yes, Miss Holt, I believe you did." Steele replied, placing strong emphasis the last two syllables. "Although I don't know if I'd use the term 'undercover.' Working under any sort of cover is likely to be outside the rules of the game for this little adventure."
Laura felt a blush begin to creep all over her body. Steele eyed her closely, not bothering to conceal his amusement. He picked up the brochure. "Chin up, Laura. It can't be as bad as all that."
He began to read from the brochure with a theatrical flair. "Enjoy the ultimate in stress free living in a beautiful, clothes free setting for the discerning naturist. The sprawling acreage of our resort, nestled in the scenic and rugged San Jacinto mountains, offers unparalled opportunities for sport and leisure activities."
Still numb with shock, Laura listened to this recitation with a growing sense of dread. Hardly pausing for breath, Steele pressed on, scanning the flyer for bits of inspiration. "Splash in our heated 'fun pool,' practice putting on our velvety putting green, or go for the burn in our state of the art fitness and weight room. Summer never ends at the Paraiso del Sol. Have the vacation of a lifetime - au naturel, all the time."
Laura snatched the brochure from his hand, forcing out her reply through clenched teeth. "That's more than enough, Mr. Steele. I get the picture." Indeed, the picture was becoming agonizingly clear. "I'll just have to call Mr. Sommers. Say it was a mistake, a misunderstanding. He can't honestly expect us to -"
"Actually, Laura, I think he was rather counting on you - not on the both of us. I made it quite clear to him how I felt about it. But my more open minded associate had to rush in where angels fear to tread."
"It doesn't matter. Neither one of us is going to rush anywhere. I'm going to make a phone call." Laura moved toward the phone.
"Don't you think you should delay the phone call for a bit? It will take him two hours to get back to Palm Springs."
"Even a naked businessman must have a secretary. I'll leave a message."
"Laura, you owe the man the courtesy of speaking with him directly. After all, you agreed to take the case."
She hated to admit it, but he was right. "I'll talk to him, OK? Are you satisfied? Whatever it takes to get out of this mess. One phone call, over and done. Then I'm going home." Steele backed off in retreat as Laura pushed past him, furiously striding to her office.
Seven hours and several phone calls later, Laura finally admitted defeat. Sommers's secretary had been expecting him around three o'clock but had not seen him since early that morning. His attorney in Palm Springs had also called the resort to say Sommers had missed an important meeting.
Despite her earlier dismay and anger at the situation, Laura's investigative instincts were beginning to kick in. The fact that Sommers hadn't arrived was not a good sign. His secretary had sounded strained and upset over his failure to return. One could hardly blame her, Laura reasoned, given the fact that several injuries and near deaths had occured recently at the resort.
She was jarred out of her thoughts by a knock on her office door. After agreeing with Steele to call Sommers she had locked herself in for the rest of the day out of sheer frustration. She had only surfaced occasionally to see if any calls had come through the front desk. Feeling somewhat embarrassed by her behavior, she opened the door.
Steele stood uncertainly in the doorway as if unsure if he should try to breach the barricades. "I've sent Mildred home. She manned the phones faithfully but you didn't receive any calls. Are you ever coming out of there, or are you planning to keep a midnight vigil for Mr. Sommers?"
Laura sighed. "I called his secretary several times. She says he was expected back this afternoon but never returned. You don't think something could have happened to him, do you? I know I'm going to regret this, but I think we need to drive over to the resort in the morning and see if we can find out what's going on. He could be in serious trouble and he did ask for our help. It's not likely that anyone else will want to take this case."
"Laura I thought we had decided that we didn't want to take this case either. I agree that the man needs help. I'm just not sure I want to expose our skins to save his. Are you really prepared to run around in the buff, observing suspects and gathering 'bare facts' as long as it takes to solve this thing? Or do you think two fully clothed people will be able to blend in magically amongst a sea of naked flesh? Steele unconsciously straightened his jacket and tie as if armoring himself against invisible forces. "Need I remind you that I never agreed to take this case, Laura. If you're determined to 'go native' so be it. I'll buy you some sunscreen. Just don't ask me to tag along. Remington Steele prefers to conduct the business of the firm fully clothed."
"You're not suggesting I go by myself? I'm just as nervous about this thing as you are. I thought we could work more comfortably as a team. Divide and conquer. I concentrate on the female suspects, you on the males, for example." Steele looked unconvinced.
"Mr. Steele, do you really want me out there alone with a potential murderer on the loose? Wandering around without protection, striking up conversations with strange men who just happen to be completely naked? Who knows what could happen?"
Steele's blue eyes widened as realization slowly dawned. Laura was definitely not playing fair, he decided. "What time shall I pick you up in the morning, Miss Holt?"
"Oh, about six should do it."
Steele pulled her close and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I'll go along on this little nature walk of yours. Just remember, I tried to talk you out of it."
"I knew I could count on you, Mr. Steele. She ran a finger along his lapel and smiled up at him. "Nice suit. Very nice. Pity I won't be seeing more of it for a while."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
After staring fruitlessly at her bedroom ceiling for hours, Laura tried to form a plan of action for the Sommers case. She considered several ideas but all of them seemed only to delay the inevitable. Sooner or later she and Mr. Steele would have to strip down for action. Steele had been dead right, they had no business taking this case. Still, there was something going on there, something potentially deadly. She fell into an uneasy slumber.
Steele showed up on her doorstep promptly at 6:00. Laura had just managed to get dressed and packed before he arrived.
"You're looking a bit pale this morning Laura. Rough night? No matter. I suspect you'll be getting a lot more sun in the next few days. Should bring a glow to your cheeks, eh?" He gave her a sly grin. Laura felt incredibly tired. Steele, on the other hand looked tanned, rested, and ready. Damn him.
"Forgive me Mr. Steele, if I'm not in a sunny mood this morning. I was up all night deciding what not to wear."
"Yes, the agony of choice. Although I do think it may be down to the bare essentials, with perhaps the option of sandals."
Laura blinked at the bright sunlight as they walked out to where the Auburn was parked by the curb. Steele opened the trunk and placed her single piece of luggage inside. Laura noticed Steele had two bags of luggage in the trunk. She lifted one curiously.
"This is awfully heavy. I thought we were supposed to pack light."
"Yes, well I thought we could steal away from the resort and make a few side trips into Palm Springs. It's supposed to be lovely. Just wanted to be prepared in case the opportunity arose."
Laura gave him a suspicious glance. "I hope you're prepared for more than that. I have a feeling you'll need to be."
They got into the Auburn and made their way to I -10, heading southeast to Palm Springs. It was perfect weather to drive with the top down and Laura felt herself begin to relax in spite of her misgivings about the trip. She had no idea what the next few days would bring but she couldn't help feeling intrigued by the situation.
Ever since the recent case in which they had acquired the Auburn, Laura had wanted her relationship with Steele to gradually become more intimate. Of course she never dreamed it might happen in such an unusual way. Then again, nothing ever happened in the usual way with the two of them.
In the not so recent past she hadn't been especially inhibited. She had gone skinny dipping several times in her high school and college years and never given it a second thought. Maybe the time for second thoughts was over. Maybe she and Steele could finally get free of all of the indecisions that had kept them apart. She couldn't help but wonder.
Steele glanced over at Laura, trying to gauge her mood. Neither of them had said much during the drive. After her skittish behavior that morning Steele had deliberately kept the conversation as casual and unspecific as possible. He wanted to know how she planned to proceed once they got to the resort but he'd been reluctant to ask.
He wasn't looking forward to that moment of truth, either. He hadn't wanted to take the case but leaving Laura on her own wasn't safe for any number of reasons. As he had drifted to sleep last night his dreams had been plagued by several disturbing scenarios - mostly involving Laura and other men. Most of the men hadn't had murder on their mind but that wasn't much of a comfort.
He had his own more personal reasons for wanting to avoid this trip. He'd never been shy about nudity. In fact, he'd gone bare on a number of clothing optional beaches in Europe. He recalled being more concerned about sunburn than anything else. It wasn't so much being naked that worried him. It was being naked quite publicly with Laura that was the problem.
He often found it difficult to control his physical reactions to Laura when they were conducting business fully dressed. Sometimes he would become aroused simply by the way she moved or by a certain look in her eye. Not that he didn't look forward to them being skin to skin. He just had hopes for a bit more privacy. Still, a few private moments weren't out of the question. He had to admit this case had possibilities.
They turned onto Highway 111 just outside of Palm Springs. From there it was just a short drive to Paraiso del Sol. Steele watched Laura warily out of the corner of his eye. She seemed relaxed enough. He took a deep breath then plunged in. "I hate to seem unduly curious Laura, but what exactly is our M. O. going to be on this case?"
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
"Excellent question, Mr. Steele. Everything you need to know is right here." She pulled out the brochure from her handbag and tossed it in his lap. "Check out the calendar of events."
Steele fumbled with the brochure with his right hand while steering with the left. He quickly scanned the calendar, sounding out the possibilities. "Relive the Age of Aquarius at our Annual Nudestock Music Festival? Oops, wrong month. That's a relief. Well what's up next, eh? Bare Buns Fun Run. A bit more strenuous than I'd hoped but - "
"Top of the page. This month's events", Laura indicated.
"Oh, sorry. Ah, let's see. Tours and Timeshare Opportunities." Steele raised an approving eyebrow. "Good thinking, Laura."
"Care to hear the details?"
"Love to, Miss Holt."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
A short time later they turned onto the quiet, palm laden drive to the resort. The desert peaks of the San Jacintos provided a rugged backdrop to the tranquil valley floor below. The sprawling Spanish style main complex was constructed in sand colored adobe. It was reminiscent of the casual elegance of 1940's Palm Springs with strong echoes of old Hollywood. The hillsides were dotted with smaller, multi-level villas, each with their own tennis courts, pool, and other amenities.
Steele let out an appreciative whistle. "Well if we're going to doff our clothes at least we'll be doing it in elegant splendor, don't you think."
"I'll say." Laura stared at the flyer. "The pictures don't do it justice, do they."
They drove up to the main building, passing alongside the sparkling pool and mammoth sized hot tub in which several deeply tanned bathers were lounging, drinks in hand.
"Back to nature with a hot tub and margarita close at hand," Steele observed wryly.
"What more could you ask for, Mr. Steele?"
They parked the Auburn in the visitors parking lot and entered the luxuriously appointed lobby. It was furnished in an old world Caribbean style accented with tropical native plants and polished mahogany furnishings. The reception desk was manned by dark skinned brunette wearing a bright orange and yellow patterned sarong. She looked up and smiled at them. "Welcome to Paraiso del Sol. How can I help you?" Her voice was warm and pleasing, with a slight Spanish accent.
Laura spoke first. "I'm Laura Blaine and this is my husband Richard. We have an an appointment to see Mr. Sommers about a timeshare opportunity."
The receptionist checked her desk calendar. "I don't see anything on the schedule. I'll check with his secretary."
"Perhaps he forgot to mention it. We saw him in LA yesterday around 9:30. I'm sure he'll remember our little chat," Laura improvised.
"I'll see if he's available, Mrs. Blaine." She walked down an adjacent hallway.
"She didn't seem nervous when we mentioned Sommers," Laura mused. "That could be good news."
"I hope you're right, Laura. I'd hate to think after agonizing over this excursion of yours, that we no longer have a client. Besides, this charade would certainly be a lot simpler with his cooperation." Steele drummed his fingers nervously on the counter.
They both turned as a harried looking Mr. Sommers came toward them.
"Mr. St-" Sommers began.
"Blaine, Richard Blaine," Steele prompted quickly. "And my wife Laura."
"Yes, uh, Mr. Blaine. I'm sorry I forgot to put our appointment on the schedule. Things have been a little hectic lately. My office is just through here. There are some things we definitely need to discuss." He propelled them swiftly down the hall and into his office, quickly closing the door. He motioned them both to a chair.
"Mr. Steele. Miss Holt. I was afraid you wouldn't come." He began to pace nervously. "My secretary says you asked for me several times yesterday. Well I can tell you I was no where near a telephone for a while."
"Did something happen to delay you?" Laura asked.
"Just the fact that I spent several hours in a ditch after my car flipped over. I didn't get back here until nightfall. I heard from the body shop this morning. One of the mechanics said it looked like my brake line had been cut. I'm having the police check it out."
"Are you all right?" Steele looked him over.
"Just some uncomfortable bumps and bruises. All of these accidents are connected, I'm sure of it. Now no one may be safe, even off the grounds. You've got to find out what's going on before someone gets killed. At first I was just worried that we'd have to close up shop for a while. Now it just keeps getting more serious." He sat down heavily on the edge of his desk.
"We'll do everything we can, Mr. Sommers," Steele said reassuringly.
"Do you have any ideas as to who might be behind this?" Laura inquired. "Have there been any recent confrontations or arguments among staff or guests?"
"Nothing that I can remember, and believe me, I've been trying. Most of the people here are very laid back. They're here because they're committed to the lifestyle. That goes for everyone, staff and residents."
"Try to think back to the beginning, Mr. Sommers. This all had to start somewhere," Laura prompted urgently.
"Well, there was one incident early on. But I didn't connect it to anything. The man had been with us for over a year."
"Exactly what happened?" Steele inquired.
"Our caretaker, Mr. Edwards. We had to let him go last month. We've hired someone else."
"Why was he let go?" Laura asked.
Sommers spoke with obvious reluctance. "There was an incident with one of the female guests. A sexual assault. Charges were filed but later dropped for lack of evidence. There were no witnesses but I believe he was guilty. After the story came out several women came forward and said they'd been harassed but they weren't taken seriously. Naturists often face this sort of prejudice. People think we band together for sexual purposes when in reality it's the opposite."
"In most cases, you mean," Steele interjected.
"Edwards was a special case."
"You say he'd been with you about a year. Did you hire him originally?" Laura asked.
"No. My wife Sonya handles personnel matters. She's been my assistant for several years. She's hired all of our current staff."
Laura jotted down some notes. "We'll need to talk with your wife about the staff as soon as possible."
"I'm sure she can be more helpful in that area than I can, Miss Holt. She'll be glad to assist you with whatever you need."
"Who is your new caretaker, Mr. Sommers? When was he hired?"
"That would be Ethan Deerfield. He's been with us for four weeks. He seems very capable. I have no reason to suspect him," Sommers declared. "All of our other staff members have been here for at least six months."
"What about guests?" Steele asked. "Are many in residence long?"
"We have some, mostly retirees,
that stay for six months or more. The average stay is less than a month.
"Of course," Steele assured him. "Can you think of anyone besides staff or guests who might have a grievance, or simply a strong objection to your lifestyle, perhaps?"
"Well, we've had some long standing opposition from the usual anti-nudity citizens groups. There have been some legislative initiatives over the years to try and shut down our operation, zoning battles and so forth. We've still managed to survive. It's been pretty quiet on that front lately."
Laura rose from her chair. "Well, Mr. Sommers I think 'Mr. Blaine' and I need to settle in so to speak and um, get acclimated to things here. Perhaps if you or your wife would be free later today we could take one of your timeshare tours. It would be excellent cover and give us a chance to meet the staff."
"I'm sure Sonya can handle that for you. I'll arrange things before I go. I have a meeting with my attorney this afternoon that may run a bit late." Sommers moved behind his desk and typed briefly on his computer keyboard. "I've booked both of you under Mr. and Mrs. Blaine in one of our villa suites. It's our most luxurious offering. Private balcony, pool, hot tub, the works. Suite 207. You can pick up the key at the desk."
"I'm sure 'Mrs. Blaine' and I will find everything to be satisfactory. You've been most helpful, Mr. Sommers." They shook hands.
"The sooner you get to the bottom of this thing, Mr. Steele, the sooner I'll rest easy. I hope you're as good as they say you are."
"We do our best." Steele and Laura turned to go then Steele hesitated in the doorway as if puzzled by something. "I know this has nothing to do with the case but I'm curious. Most of the people I've observed on the grounds are au naturel, so to speak, but many of the staff seem to be fully clothed."
"Yes," Sommers explained. "Most of our people go nude but we also have occasional visitors, delivery people and such who don't subscribe to naturism. Sonya and I feel that staff in the reception area should wear clothing, albeit casual. We think it projects a more professional image."
"I see," Steele replied. "Makes perfect sense."
Laura stifled a giggle as she and Steele walked down the hallway. "Well that's a tip I'll bet they don't teach at Harvard Business School."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura and Steele made their way to suite 207, through a series of winding walkways, past the tennis courts, poolside, and outdoor Spanish-tiled shower, all encircled by citrus trees, bougainvillea and desert flowers. Laura turned the key in the lock and they entered the suite. The sun was beaming in through the skylight and the interior was accented with greenery and lush tropical fabrics. There was a whirlpool bath for two and a private balcony with a spectacular view of Mount San Jacinto.
Laura noted that there were two queen size beds rather than one king size. There was a coffee maker and a small refrigerator along with several amenities baskets of fruit, exotic coffees, and various soaps and body oils. She unzipped her suitcase and began to unpack. "You know, this is so plush it's a shame we have to leave this room."
Steele stopped unpacking his suitcase and came up behind her, twining his arms around her waist and pulling her against him. He leaned closer. She could smell the spicy scent of his cologne and feel his warm lips caressing the nape of her neck. "Who says we have to? We could go native in our own private paradise. You show me yours, I'll show you mine." He breathed the words seductively into her ear.
Suddenly Laura realized how her body was molded into his and how one of his hands was beginning to wander teasingly upwards, along her side, then skimming her ribcage. She broke away.
Steele exhaled with annoyance and spit out the words. "Still not mixing business with pleasure, are we? I'm grateful to be once again reminded of the ground rules. No matter what the situation those never change, do they? Forgive me for thinking that there was more to this little jaunt than just your desire to help Mr. Sommers."
"What on earth is that supposed to mean?"
"For heaven's sake, Laura. We knew eventually that we'd both have to get down to the 'naked truth' here. It was obvious from the time you accepted this case. I think you were more than a little curious about what might happen between us. So was I. The difference is I'm willing to admit it."
"Admit what? You know I didn't intend to take this case. Even if I did it wouldn't be because of you."
"Then why were you so insistent that I go along? It wasn't just for protection. You've never asked for that from me before. In fact, you've always refused it. Independent to the last. Isn't that your motto?"
"It still is, Mr. Steele." Her eyes flashed fire. "I should have known better than to ask you to come. I thought, given the difficulties of the situation, that you might show a little concern for my safety, give me your support. I can see this is just another fresh opportunity, just another angle for you to use to get me into bed."
"Laura, that's not fair and you know it."
"If I do get naked on this case, just remember, nothing you do or say will change these ground rules - 'look but don't touch.' " She stormed in a reckless fury to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her and locking it with a sharp click.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura gripped the counter of the sink and took several deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves and get her pulse rate back to normal. It was no use. She wanted to do something violent. Break something or scream. She saw a large plastic bottle of complimentary sunscreen labeled "Barely There - the tanning lotion for the experienced sun bather." She picked it up and flung it with all the strength she could muster toward the tiled wall of the whirlpool bath. It ricocheted wildly off the wall several times before bouncing to a stop at the bottom of the tub.
Breathing hard, she sat down on the edge of the bathtub and stared at the gleaming, Spanish-tiled floor. Damn him, she thought murderously. How could the man manage to make her so angry when they'd been here for less than an hour?
That was just the point, she thought. Why did he always have to push? This whole insane situation was difficult enough. Did he really think she would be ready to hang out the "do not disturb" sign and get naked with him before they had even unpacked? The problem was she had come damned close to doing it. Pressed intoxicatingly close to him as he had said those words, she had wanted nothing more than to strip him completely bare and throw him down on the bed - or let him do the same to her.
Why did he have such an effect on her? It seemed her body, if not her mind, was always itching to give in at the slightest stimulation. What made it even harder to endure was she was sure he was aware of it too. So sure of himself. So sure of her. It would be sweet revenge to make him think twice, to shake him up a little. She smiled slightly and savored the possibilities.
A sharp knock on the bathroom door made her jump to her feet. "Go away, " she called out loudly as she leaned against the door frame. "I don't want to see you or talk to you."
"Laura, it's Mrs. Sommers. She's here for the tour."
"Oh," Laura exclaimed in surprise, quickly unlocking the door and stepping outside. She looked up into the puzzled face of Mrs. Sommers. "I was just freshening up after the drive over," Laura hastily explained, hoping she didn't sound as foolish as she felt. Laura extended her hand. "I'm Laura Holt, Mr. Steele's associate."
"Sonya Sommers." They shook hands. Mrs. Sommers was a slender, athletic looking woman in her early fifties. She had stylish, close cropped auburn hair and a brisk, no nonsense manner. She was wearing white medium length shorts and a crisp sleeveless blouse in pale pink cotton. She looked like a typical, well preserved, country club spouse on holiday.
"I know this whole situation must seem pretty strange to you. Gerald tells me that you're not naturists but that you're both committed to investigating these accidents. That's asking a lot from both of you and I hope I can help to make your progress here as painless as possible. I think you'll find it's not as difficult as you imagine. Clothes free living can be very liberating. I think you'll find it will seem very natural to you after a while."
Mrs. Sommers led them around the grounds, pausing to chat with and introduce several staff members and guests. Most of the conversationalists were pretty much bare, with the exception of the occasional fanny pack or towel around the waist or shoulders. Laura practiced keeping her chin up and eyes front. I didn't always work - there had been this swimming instructor who'd definitely caught her eye, but she thought she done rather well under the circumstances.
Laura noticed that Steele hadn't contributed much to the conversation lately beyond a few basic "hellos." Wondering how he was taking it, she hazarded a glance in his direction. His gaze seemed riveted on several particularly bouncy young ladies playing volleyball on a sandy area by the fitness center. She could almost swear she heard him say the words "nice moves" as they continued along the path.
After they made the circuit of the grounds and facilities, Mrs. Sommers walked with them back to their suite. "I'll get that list of resort guests to you as soon as possible, Miss Holt, or should I say, Mrs. Blaine," she added, smiling.
"We'll need a complete employment history on all of the staff as well," Laura informed her.
"I'll be glad to furnish you with that information, Miss Holt. Perhaps you'll find some clue to this mystery that I've overlooked. There doesn't seem to be any pattern here. I feel like I'm pretty much in the dark. What possible motive could there be for these random acts?"
"Who would stand to gain if the resort were to be shut down?" Laura was almost startled to hear the formerly silent Mr. Steele enter the conversation.
"The property is held in trust by the California Naturist Society. It was given to them by Friedrich Gauss. He was a lifelong naturist and ecological activist. However, there was a codicil in his will that held that if the resort ceased operation, the property would pass out of the Society's hands to the State of California. No one else could touch it. It was a way of ensuring that his legacy outlived him, I suppose. Gerald is just as committed as his mentor was. He's not going to close down the resort without a fight."
Laura looked thoughtful. "We'll see to it that he has a fighting chance, Mrs. Sommers. Let me know when you have gathered all of the information from your files. Perhaps they can tell us something."
"Thank you again, Miss Holt and Mr. Steele. I appreciate everything you've done. Gerald couldn't get any other detective agency to help us."
"He tried others?" Steele looked slightly miffed that they hadn't been first choice.
"Oh, yes. None of them would take him seriously at all. I'm glad your agency was a little more open minded."
Laura chimed in. "We never make snap judgments about clients, Mrs. Sommers. Open-mindedness is one of our watchwords at the agency. Open-mindedness and - "
"Versatility," Steele added with a smirk.
"Yes, versatility," she added, giving him a sour look. "We'll be in touch Mrs. Sommers."
After good-byes were said Laura and Steele entered their suite and tried to unwind after the day's events. Laura sat cross legged on the bed and began dragging out a pencil and notepad from her luggage. She busily jotted down some thoughts. "I wish I had brought this with me. Especially since you didn't seem to be paying much attention - to the conversation, that is."
"Exactly what do you mean by that? Pray enlighten me. Because if you're disturbed by the fact that I noticed a few young lovelies out there, get used to it. A man has to seek his recreation somewhere." He turned his back to her and began to unpack his suitcase with decidedly more energy than was needed.
Laura grabbed his arm as he strode determinedly to the closet with several pairs of shoes. "You're going to have to keep your mind on investigating this case. A professional never lets distractions interfere with the job at hand."
He shook her off. "Professional is it? I saw how you ogled that swimming instructor."
"Well you have to admit he was rather strikingly um - built."
Steele paused in mid stride, still carrying the armload of shoes. His gaze was icy. Laura flinched involuntarily as if she was afraid one of the shoes might come sailing across the room.
She backed off and sat down on the bed. "Look. We're never going to solve this case if we spend the whole time second guessing each other. It's not going to be easy but we can get through it if we keep our emotions in check."
"You're the expert there, Laura. You've been practicing it with me for some time now."
"I refuse to spend this whole day arguing. The cafe is still serving breakfast. After I unpack I'm going down for a bite to eat."
Laura unpacked her suitcase
and began to ponder the inevitable. What should she wear? Or not wear?
"Do you mind if I borrow your sunscreen? she asked him. I think it's a higher SPF than mine."
He gave her the briefest of nods. "Be my guest."
She selected several items from her luggage and moved toward the bathroom. "I'm going to be in here for a while slathering this on. Is that a problem?"
"Not at all. I'm getting rather used to you spending time in there, Laura." He was lounging on the bed staring sulkily at nothing.
"Are you just going to mope in here all day or are you coming down later?"
In answer, he clicked the TV remote and begin surfing through the channels.
"Fine. I'll just go by myself."
Laura closed the bathroom door and began removing her clothes and underwear. She rolled them into a bundle. Laura picked up the bottle of sunscreen. She began to apply it all over her body, paying special attention to usually unexposed areas of skin. She wondered if she was using enough. Oh well, a few more freckles won't hurt, she thought. Except for the hard to reach areas of her back she thought she had done a pretty thorough job.
She tied on the briefest of bandeau style tops and cinched a fanny pack around her waist. She put her smaller bottle of sunscreen in the pack along with some money which she had gotten out of her handbag. She took a medium sized towel and secured it around her waist with the elastic from the fanny pack. She surveyed herself in the mirror. The towel covered all the strategic areas, but just barely. Sitting down was going to be a challenge but she thought she could manage it. She completed her minimalist ensemble with a pair of sandals and some Ray Bans.
She picked up her bundle of clothes and the large bottle of sunscreen and walked out into the suite. Steele didn't seem to notice her presence. He was staring straight ahead at the television screen.
"Could you do my back? I think I missed a few spots."
He looked up and his unprepared gaze fell upon her brief attire and the curves of her athletic form. He swallowed hard. He looked her completely over from head to toe and then once more just because he liked the view. "Peter Sellers used a guitar," he said with more nonchalance than he felt. At her puzzled expression he continued. "A Shot in the Dark. Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, MGM 1964. Peter Sellers as Inspector Clousseau has to investigate a series of murders, one of which takes place in a nudist colony. He uses a guitar to cover himself. He and Elke Sommer end up driving through the street of Paris completely naked."
Laura laughed. "Didn't bring a guitar with me. I hope life doesn't imitate art. That last part would be tricky in the Auburn. It would make a great highlight film for the local news, though."
Steele smiled back and some of the tension between them faded. "Come here. I'll do your back for you." She handed him the bottle of sunscreen and he rubbed her back and shoulder area gently but thoroughly. It was a businesslike rub, strictly confined, with no teasing or lingering touches. Laura wondered if he was still angry. He padded to the bathroom, washed his hands in the sink, walked toward her, then stopped. She looked up and caught him watching her, his expression unreadable.
"Well I guess it's time for the Christians to face the lions. I hope it's safe out there."
Steele didn't think it was safe at all. "Don't worry, Miss Holt. Your backup will be along shortly. I just have a touch more unpacking to do."
"See you later, then." She leaned down and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Then she took several strides and a deep breath and walked out into the sunlight of the brave new world.
Steele crossed to the bed, gave a heavy sigh and fell back against the pillows. He closed his eyes, trying to erase the fresh images of Laura crowding into his mind. Her long, tanned legs, the way the towel clung to her hips and thighs, the graceful line of her back and shoulders. His visceral response to these things unsettled him. He had always suspected, or perhaps hoped that Laura would respond as strongly to him. But the barriers were always up, the ground rules always in effect.
What was it she had said? "Look but don't touch." Well she certainly had him looking. And he doubted that he would be the only one. Who knew what the ground rules were in a place like this? The thought jolted him into action. He sprang up and began to undress, leaving a trail of discarded clothing in his wake.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
His mind racing, Steele paced distractedly around the confines of the suite. He had stripped down to his briefs and was searching for the large bottle of sunscreen. After several frantic minutes he found it back inside of his suitcase, partially covered by some socks and underwear. He dug through the clothing and unearthed several pairs of boxer style swim trunks. He spread the choices out on the bed and surveyed them unhappily. His sartorial options seemed decidedly limited. At Paraiso del Sol, no doubt, the only sin against fashion was to be over-dressed.
He was struck with a deep pang of nostalgia for his new, silver-grey three piece suit. It was hanging securely on a solid wooden hanger in the capacious closet back in his apartment. It felt strange to him that such a feather light and sublime creation could in hindsight seem as substantial as a suit of armor. Well, he thought. On this battlefield one had to think like a native.
Steele stripped off his briefs and moved with a smoothly determined stride to the bathroom. He pulled a large and medium bath towel down from the rack and twisted each in turn experimentally around his waist. The medium was definitely out of bounds but the large was serviceable, though a bit short. Not ideal for chasing down a taxi or engaging in calisthenics, but he hoped those weren't on the day's agenda. He secured the towel as tightly as he could around his waist and fished out a pair of sandals from the closet.
He slapped his forehead in irritation as he realized that he'd forgotten to apply the sunscreen. Well, all of the most sensitive areas were covered, he reasoned. He didn't want to waste any more time away from Laura. After all, hadn't he agreed to be her backup, her defender? Something more was called for on this assignment, he thought grimly. He was going to be her shadow.
Steele quickly moved toward the door. He knew he was forgetting something but whatever it was he didn't have any place to carry it anyway. He stepped outside the suite and closed the door behind him. As soon as he heard the door latch, he realized what he had forgotten. Both room keys were still inside the suite, on top of the dresser. Out of pure reflex, he bent down to try to pick the door lock, then realized that he didn't have any lock picks.
"Lose something?" he heard a feminine voice behind him say. He turned around and looked up in surprise. He found himself just below eye level to a tanned and bountiful pair of breasts. They belonged to a twenty-something blonde wearing nothing but a sports headband and a friendly smile. She was joined by a lovely, slightly paler skinned red head equally bare except for some dangling earrings.
Steele scrambled desperately for an explanation. "Contact lens. Always losing them." He straightened suddenly and realized he was losing his towel as well. He made a valiant grab for it and missed. The blonde caught it on the way down. "Let me help you. You'd better spread this towel out. The contact lens could be caught in it." She got down on her hands and knees and smoothed out the towel over the carpet. The red head joined her and both began to run their hands over the towel and surrounding carpet.
Feeling incredibly foolish, not to mention exposed, Steele kneeled down and joined them in the hunt. It was distracting work in very close quarters. He forced himself to concentrate on the tiny sunburst pattern in the carpet during each incidental brush up with nearby flesh. After several minutes of searching, he was beginning to lose the battle of mind over matter. Affecting an air of casual unconcern, he picked up the towel and stood up, replacing it snugly around his waist.
"It's quite all right, really. Don't go to any more trouble. I just use them for reading."
Both women stood up and gave him apologetic smiles. "Well I guess it's a lost cause. I'm sorry we weren't much help", said the blonde. "I'm Britney and this is Heather."
"We're from across the hall," added the redhead. "We saw you earlier with Mrs. Sommers. We were playing volleyball this morning." Steele had a flash of deja vu.
"Yes, my wife and I arrived this morning. Richard Blaine. It's our first time at a resort like this. We're recent converts I guess you'd say."
"Yeah. I could tell," said Britney. Steele looked uneasy. "Your tan line," she explained.
"Ah, yes. A bit more sun should do the trick," Steele rattled on nervously.
"You know I could help you with that," Britney offered. Steele's blue eyes widened. "Your tan. I was Miss Nude Tanning Queen for 'Barely There' suntan lotion last year. Heather was second runner up."
"I'll, um, keep that in mind."
"Well, we better be going. We're in training for the volleyball tournament at New Eden Sun Club. It's another resort near San Diego."
"Hope to see more of you soon," said Heather with a flirtatious smile. They waved in farewell and continued chattering together down the hall. They rounded a corner and both grinned at each other conspiratorially. "Ooh, la la," said Britney, fanning her face. "Where's he been hiding? I'd give anything for an hour alone with him and a bottle of sunscreen
"Who needs an hour," said her companion. "Even fifteen minutes would be long enough."
"Yeah," Britney grinned. "It's long enough, all right." They hugged each other in a fit of girlish laughter.
Steele watched their bare bottoms disappear around the corner. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, grateful for a few moments of relative privacy. If anyone had told him 48 hours ago that he would end up naked on all fours with two nude tanning queens while searching for a nonexistent contact lens, he would have thought they were stark raving bonkers. As it was, he had a strange premonition that this sort of thing would seem quite normal after a few more days.
He walked down the path until he found the restaurant. It was marked by a sign with a smiling naked chef wearing a tiny apron under the words "Del Sol 'Bare' and Grill." Steele scanned the crowd of breakfasters for Laura, but she was nowhere in sight. He saw the recreation activities director Lars Johanssen sitting at a table near the juice bar and tapped him on the shoulder. Johanssen turned around and greeted him. "Mr. Blaine. Good morning. Enjoying your stay so far?"
"Oh, yes. I've just been, ah, mingling with some of the guests, getting to know everyone."
"Great. Glad to see you're making some new friends. You'll find that our guest do a lot of things together at Paraiso del Sol. We like to have a friendly atmosphere here, where people can be themselves and just enjoy what we have to offer. Actually, I have our current group activities schedule right here. He pulled a copy of the schedule out of a leather binder that was on the table. It should have been in your orientation packet. Did you get one of those when you checked in? I have one here." He handed the papers to Steele.
"We were a bit rushed, really. Problem with our reservation."
"Oh, I hope everything was taken care of."
"Yes, the staff has been most accommodating. There is one thing you can tell me, not having yet been apprised of the club rules and so forth. I'm hesitant to ask, it's, ah, rather personal.." Steele stopped, temporarily at a loss for words.
"I've been at this gig for a long time, Mr. Blaine. There's nothin' I haven't heard before, believe me."
Steele glanced apprehensively around the table at the other diners. He lowered his voice, hoping no one was listening in. "Mr. Johanssen, I'm rather new at this naturist thing, really." He paused and leaned closer to Johanssen's ear. "With all of the rather bare young women around a place like this, do you..I mean, do the men here ever get, um.."
Steele winced, motioning Johanssen to turn down the volume. "Well, yes. In a word."
"Listen, don't be embarrassed. It's the number one question new guys ask."
Steele let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "What's the um, proper etiquette in those situations?"
"It's nothing the women here haven't seen before. Most people come here as couples. There are a lot of secluded areas around. You can just excuse yourself for a while. When I first started out I always carried a towel."
"What if there's no towel handy?"
Johanssen gave him a wink. "Well there's always Plan B."
Steele was afraid to ask.
"Mrs. Greenburg. One of our retirees. One look at her is better than a cold shower. Ya know, it's a crime what 72 years of gravity can do to a woman's breasts."
Steele made a mental note to carry a towel as often as possible.
"Don't worry. You'll get used to it. We're all friends here. After you've been around the life for a while, you get more turned on by a chick with clothes on."
Steele couldn't argue with that. "I wonder if you may have seen my wife Laura. She was heading this way for breakfast."
"Yeah, she was here. Ordered some juice and bagged a couple of croissants. I think she was headed for the pool."
"Thanks for the advice, Mr. Johanssen. And the information." Steele folded the schedule and orientation pages into a small square and tucked them inside the towel at his waist.
"Any time. Always glad to help."
Steele hurriedly shook hands with him and made a beeline for the pool area, visions of Laura and naked swimming instructors dancing in his head.
He found her sunning pool side in a lounge chair, eyes closed, looking relaxed and dozy. He touched her bare arm. "Mr. Steele." she said, her eyes starting open at the sudden contact. "I see you finally decided to make an entrance." She glanced amusedly at the towel around his waist and gave it a gentle tug. "It's not up to your usual GQ standards but it has a certain cheek."
"I'm getting rather attached to it. So, what have you been doing with your morning thus far? I don't see your favorite lifeguard around." Steele scanned the area for the swimming instructor.
"If you mean Brad, he's probably getting ready for his water aerobics class. It starts at 11:00."
"Checked into his schedule, did you?"
"It's posted right there in front of your nose." Laura pointed to a sign by the outdoor shower. Actually, I spent the morning getting some work done." She pulled out a thick sheaf of pages from her croissant bag. "Mrs. Sommers brought me the guest list and employee records we asked for. She promised to FedEx copies to Mildred at the office. Speaking of which, I need to check in and make sure things are going OK. Now that we have something to go on, we need to devise a plan of action on this case. Why don't we go back to the suite, call Mildred, and then start working on this?"
"You might want to pick up a spare room key at the desk first."
"You locked them in the room? Why didn't you..?" She pantomimed a lock picking motion.
"Don't ask. Believe me. You don't want to know."
After getting a key from the desk, they went back to the suite and Laura dialed Mildred on the phone. "Hello, Mildred. How are things? Holding down the fort? Listen we're FedExing a list of hotel guests and employees for you to check. Concentrate on all of the staff and guests who have been here at least two months. Look for criminal records, anything suspicious. Start with these two names. Jonathan Edwards and Ethan Deerfield. They'll be on the employee list.
"What's that? What am I wearing? Let's see. Rapture red nail polish. Mr. Steele?" She looked down at his feet. "A pair of Birkenstocks. Gotta run. Have to put on some more sunscreen."
Steele could faintly hear Mildred's disembodied voice talking a mile a minute before Laura hung up. "I'm not sure you want to rattle her cage like that."
"A girl's gotta have a little fun."
"Yes, well you may have a lot of explaining to do when we get back to LA. I must say it will be entertaining to watch."
Laura opted for a change of subject. "It's time both of us did some leg work, Mr. Steele. We need to find out who was on the scene at the mountain climbing accident, the hot tub, and the riding trail. Why don't I check out the hot tub and the horses and you handle the climbing? After all, second story work used to be a specialty of yours. Assuming you haven't lost your touch."
"I regret to say I haven't done any climbing of the wilderness variety. Although I suppose some of the principles are the same, save the lack of a convenient window ledge or balcony."
"I'm sure you'll get the hang of it in no time, Mr. Steele." Laura picked up several items and disappeared into the bathroom.
Steele discarded the towel. He rummaged through the dresser and found some underwear and a pair of cargo shorts. He quickly put them on along with a heavy weight cavalry twill shirt and thick socks. He kicked off his sandals and dug out some LL Bean hiking boots from the closet, lacing them securely on his feet.
Laura popped out of the bathroom, hair in a pony tail, wearing a sleeveless V-necked midriff blouse and medium length denim shorts, fanny pack around her waist. As she walked past Steele deftly grabbed the elastic of the fanny pack and reeled her in. He kissed the hollow of her throat and continued to trail warm kisses down to her collarbone. "Have I ever told you you look lovely in the mornings? Especially wrapped in a towel." He gave her a brilliant smile.
Laura smiled back at him. "A last minute inspiration. Your towel had it's charms, too."
"All too brief I'm afraid." He tightened his hold on her waist and pulled her fully against him, continuing to explore her exposed skin with his lips. Laura's earlier resolve was edging dangerously close to collapse. She forced herself to break contact. "Legwork, remember. It's going to be long, hard, climb. You'll need your strength."
"I was hoping to save it for better things." He raised a salacious eyebrow at her.
Laura didn't look his way, forcing herself to remain businesslike. "I'll check out the hot tub first and then go to the stables. Why don't we regroup back here in about four hours?" Laura tossed him a door key. Don't forget this, Mr. Steele."
Steele patted the set of lock picks in his shirt pocket. "Always prepared Miss Holt." Well, almost always, he thought.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Laura walked along the pool and over to the hot tub area. The tub was filled with bathers although they didn't seem to notice her. She located the electrical panel box nearby, noticing that it was locked with a padlock. The padlock looked new. She made a mental note to ask Mr. Sommers whether it had been in place at the time of the accident. She turned to make her way back to the path and almost ran into Ethan Deerfield. He was carrying a box of pool cleaning supplies. He was a strongly built man in his mid forties, ruggedly handsome, with a full mustache. He was shirtless, wearing just jean shorts and a tool belt around his waist. Laura noticed a large wad of keys attached to the belt.
"You might want to adjust the water temperature. It wasn't terribly warm earlier. I wondered if there was a control switch back here."
Ethan gave her a look that said he wasn't buying any of it. "I haven't heard any complaints. Nobody touches this equipment but me. We keep everything locked up. It can be really dangerous - if you don't know what you're doing."
"So I've heard. Wasn't a guest almost electrocuted here a couple of months ago? We were talking about it this morning."
"Before my time. Wouldn't have happened on my watch." He turned away from her and walked in the direction of a storage shed. Laura watched him open the shed with one of the keys. Jotting down some notes, Laura walked the winding series of paths to the stables and riding trail.
She entered the stable area and looked around for the riding instructor, Jaimie Thomas. She felt something push hard against her and turned around. One of the horses, a chestnut with a star shaped blaze, had given her an experimental nudge with his nose. "Hello, there," said a cheerful looking blonde carrying a water pail. "Aren't you Mrs. Blaine? I'm Jaimie and that's Sonny Boy. He likes to follow his nose."
Laura laughed. "I can see that. Can a girl hitch a ride on one of these?"
"Sonny Boy can take you wherever you want to go. He's not much of a looker but he can step lively and he's smooth as glass. He's a Tennessee Walker. So's his neighbor there." She pointed to a bay with a handsome head and small, well set ears. That's Macaroni. We just call him Mac for short. I don't have any riders on my schedule this morning so we'll be a twosome. I'll have them saddled up in a tick."
Laura followed Jaimie to the tack room and helped her carry the saddles and bridles. Laura noted that the tack seemed in excellent condition and the tack room and stables were nearly spotless. Jaimie had needed a key to get into the tack room. The lock on the door appeared to be recently installed.
Jill cinched Sonny Boy's saddle carefully several times. "You've got to watch this character. He hates a tight cinch. Always tries to puff up big as a toad. But I'm on to him."
They mounted their horses and started down the path. Laura found Jaimie easy to like. She kept up a steady stream of chatter about ex-husbands, boyfriends and horses she had known. She'd only really loved the horses, she said.
Laura spent a blissful two hours with Sonny Boy, lulled by the mountain scenery, his long reaching stride and the rhythmic bob of his head. Jaimie pulled up Mac when they reached a small clear lake. "Would you like to go for a dip Mrs. Blaine?"
"It's Laura. And yes, I'd love to."
Jaimie pulled off her top and boots and stepped out of her jeans. Bra less, she shimmied out of her underwear. Laura stripped off her own clothes and rolled them into a tight bundle.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure what I should or shouldn't wear this morning. I'm just getting started with this." Laura began to put on some extra sunscreen.
"Yeah, you could use more sun. Actually I tell my riders to wear jeans and boots. What ever's comfortable is how we work it. If you go bare you can get some saddle sores in places you don't want to think about." Jaimie waded out into the water and swam several strokes, ending up floating on her back. Laura joined her. The water felt wonderfully refreshing lapping over her skin.
"You know, my schedule's been kind of empty lately. Since Mr. Sellers had his accident I get the feeling people don't trust me."
"What accident?" Laura feigned surprise.
"Sellers took a tumble over that steep drop off we passed a mile ago. Someone had cut the horse's cinch. I still dream about it at night. I don't know how I missed it. I'm usually pretty careful. Still, we do make some stops along the path. Anybody could have done it I guess."
"Were there a lot of people riding that day?"
"We had thirteen. I remember it because it was an unlucky number, you know. Most horse people are superstitious."
This case had no definite pattern, Laura thought. Just lots of people with access and seemingly random victims. And no apparent motive to tie them together.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele hiked down to the log cabin that served as base camp for several of the wilderness activities. He spotted the climbing instructor, Les Gilroy, showing a pair of harnessed climbers how to secure a backpack.
He approached the group. "Do you have room for one more?" he asked Gilroy.
"Sure. Join the party. We're going up to Suicide Rock. I'll find you some gear." Gilroy disappeared into the cabin and returned with a helmet, ropes, and harness and backpack. He looked down at Steele's feet. "Those hiking boots are too heavy. You need to get yourself some proper climbing shoes for the mountain. I guess they'll do for today, though."
He handed Steele a harness and watched as he slipped into the leg loops, adjusting and buckling himself in with a minimum of fuss.
"Done this before?"
"A little. The terrain was definitely different, though." Steele put on the helmet and Gilroy filled the light backpack with rope and various climbing and trail supplies and helped Steele secure it .
Before they began, Gilroy lectured them on various essentials of belayers, carabiners, protection (bolts/chocks), harnesses, and rope and knot techniques. He explained that part of the climb would be a "pre-protected" route where bolts would already be set into the rock. The climbers would clip on to the protection. They would work in teams of two, a lead climber and a belayer. The lead climber would be responsible for placing bolts (if there were none) at safe intervals and hooking on while the belayer would be responsible for safety and handling the rope through the belaying device. At the summit, the lead climber would anchor themselves and belay their partner.
It was a three mile hike through a cool pine forest to get to the start of the climb. Suicide Rock was nestled in the flanks of Mount San Jacinto at an elevation of 7,000 feet. It's granite face offered a wide variety of climbs of various lengths.
After a breather following the hike, the four men paired off. Steele started as lead climber and Gilroy as belayer. Then as they reached the top of the first climb or "pitch" they switched positions. It required concentration, balance, and leg strength but the essentials were similar enough to Steele's previous experience that it wasn't difficult. In fact he was rather enjoying it. At the top of the final pitch the men stopped to rest and relax.
The top of the climb was relatively flat. Two of the climbers removed their gear and clothes and stood under the spray from a narrow waterfall above them. Steele and Gilroy did the same. They replenished their water and then stretched out on blankets and munched trail mix.
One of the climbers, a swimsuit salesman from LA, spoke up. "I can tell you one thing. I don't miss having Grizzly Adams along."
"Who's Grizzly Adams?" Steele asked.
"Ken Adams. We call him Grizzly. The wilderness geek. I know I shouldn't feel good about it because he's still in the hospital but things sure are more peaceful when he's not around."
"Why is he in the hospital?" Steele asked, even though he knew the answer.
"Took a fall two weeks ago. One of his links on his tether had been cut. You know, there were five of us guys there that day. All of us and Jackson, and Hankins. I don't think any of us were too sorry to see him take a fall."
Steele made a mental note of the names. "I take it he wasn't a popular member of the group." None of the men jumped in to disagree. In fact they made some rather rude noises.
"He drove all of us crazy," the salesman continued. "Always complaining about our lousy equipment, our climbing technique. Running off on his own. When he fell he said he checked his equipment before the climb but there was a major argument before we started out. I don't even remember what it was about. Everybody was tired of his attitude and he was pretty upset. Who knows if he really checked it. Maybe someone did want to help him over the side or maybe he did it himself and just wanted to blame us for it."
"That would be pretty extreme. To put yourself in the hospital over a grudge."
"Yeah. Well he's what I call an extreme guy."
The sound of a helicopter overhead caused the men to look up. As it passed, a flurry of green paper blew wildly through the air. Several pieces floated down on the group below.
Steele picked up one of the pages and looked at it. It was a political leaflet of some sort. As he read through it he remembered Sommers' warning regarding anti-nudity groups. This was apparently the work of one of them, filled with large-type, screaming headlines and fervent prose. Steele began to read it aloud.
"FOOT SOLDIERS ARE NEEDED TO FIGHT FOR MORALITY. JOIN US FOR PSALM '83. THE ANNUAL PALM SPRINGS ANTI LEWDNESS MARCH! THE BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN. THE CAUSE IS JUST. WE ARE THE SOLUTION - NUDITY OPPOSITION ORGANIZATION NETWORK EMERGENCY RESPONSE!"
"NOONER?" Steele said with disbelief.
"Yeah." Gilroy chuckled. "Someone in the group wasn't too handy with the acronyms. They've been a nuisance for years. Locals call 'em NOONIES. They're a pretty loopy bunch. They demonstrate outside the grounds about once a month. Keep the peace for the most part. Sometimes we watch through the fences. A lot of the residents here are veterans of the peace movement. Aging hippies. They're pretty tolerant of civil disobedience, even when it's directed at them. I guess it's kind of a nostalgia thing, watching protesters linking arms, shouting slogans."
"Have they ever done anything violent? Steele asked.
"Not that I can recall. One time they strung a giant clothesline around the fence and hung choir robes on it. This gonzo guy in the helicopter drops leaflets. I don't think they're anything to worry about. To tell you the truth, I don't think they could organize a piss-up in a brewery."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele arrived back at the resort somewhat tired, but pleasantly alert. He imagined he would feel the full effects of his exertions in the morning. Living the soft life in LA had dulled his body and his senses, he realized. He wondered if Laura might be persuaded to join him on a climb. She was always after him to exercise. Maybe she wouldn't be averse to a soothing mutual rubdown afterwards.
Steele located the main fitness building and headed for the shower area. There were a few people on exercise equipment but the shower area was deserted. Steele looked at his watch. It was around five o'clock. He knew he was supposed to meet Laura before then but the climb had taken more time than he had expected. All he wanted to do now was to take a cool shower and maybe recline comfortably in the steam room for a while.
He stripped off his clothes and rolled them into a bundle. Finding a towel on a rack by the shower, he rolled everything up in the towel and put it back on the rack. He turned on the shower and gratefully let the water massage the tension from his overworked muscles. Hot water at first and then a cool rinse had him feeling almost blissful.
He dried off with the towel and rolled his clothes back inside of it. The steam room was adjacent to the shower area. He entered the steam room and was immediately enveloped in its dense, almost foggy atmosphere. The steam was so thick that it was difficult to see more than a few feet in front of him. He moved toward the near wall, feeling for the long slatted benches that were set in an L shape around the room.
He found the part of the wall closest to the ventilation system where the steam dispersed more rapidly. After a few moments his vision became clearer. It was then that he discovered that he wasn't alone. Someone was lying on the bench next to him. He felt his heart skip as he realized it was Laura.
She appeared to be asleep, completely prone, and totally relaxed. She was also completely naked. Minutes ticked by as Steele's eyes roamed hungrily over her form, memorizing every curve, every inch of her sweat-slicked skin. He longed to touch her. To traverse her body with hands and lips, from the soft roundness of her breasts and firm peaks of her nipples, to the depression of her navel and downwards, to the secret folds of flesh between her thighs.
In the close atmosphere of the room all of the primal functions of his body seemed magnified - breathing, heartbeat, arousal. She was so near surely she had the same awareness. Couldn't she sense his presence? How would she react if she found him like this? He groped around for the towel. Where was it? He twisted his body, feeling around awkwardly on the floor.
Suddenly Steele felt her fingers brush the skin of his arm. He turned toward her and found her sitting upright. Slowly Laura reached for him, her soft brown eyes and features hazy in the mist. It was but the work of a moment that found them tumbling to the floor, scrambling in a tangle of arms and legs across the slick surface. She rolled with him, cradled in his arms, her palms sliding downward over his skin, between his legs. For the briefest of moments he wondered if he should get up and try to lock the door. Then suddenly she was on top, riding every inch of him - and he forgot to wonder.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele and Laura remained twined together in a slippery heap on the floor, gasping for breath in the thick, overheated air. Both of them lay nearly unmoving, adrift on a lingering wave of pleasure, and in a state of near shock. Waiting for the insistent pounding of his heart to subside, Steele grasped Laura's hips and held her tightly to him, wanting to remain still sheathed inside her body.
Without warning, Laura separated almost violently from him and twisted out of his grasp. She ran blindly toward the wall, grabbing her towel and clothes from under the bench. She hastily wrapped the towel around her and pulled open the door.
"Laura, wait." Steele pulled himself up from the floor, and onto his feet, but he wasn't quite fast enough to catch her before she made it through the door. He peered through the clouds of steam, searching vainly for his towel and clothes. He finally felt the bundle under his fingertips and unrolled it, swearing with impatience. He hurriedly pulled on his shorts, grabbed the remaining bundle, and ran after her. He looked frantically around the shower and exercise areas but she was no where to be found. He ran outside the fitness center and down the sidewalk.
Steele found her huddled on a bench, her clothes in her lap, the damp towel clinging to her body. She looked up uneasily when he approached. He stood inches away from her and waited for her to respond. When she didn't he spoke harshly into the silence, his tone a mixture of hurt and anger. "What was that all about? Why did you leave?"
Laura eyes darted nervously past him as though she felt cornered. "Anyone could have seen us, found us together."
"I don't recall you caring about that a few moments ago."
"That's what scares me. No, I didn't care. I didn't care about anything. Not the fact that we could have compromised this case, that Sommers or anyone could have walked in there, including our culprit. We could have easily been the next victims. But it's not just that. We're not ready for this. Not yet. What's going to happen to us, to our relationship? God knows where it's going now."
"Perhaps where it needed to go all along," Steele shot back with a hint of defiance.
"You couldn't be more wrong. Can't you see that it only makes things worse? Even more confusing. What we are to each other is a mystery isn't it? You still don't have a clue about my expectations, my needs - God I don't even know them myself. I still don't have a clue about how you feel, about whether you're going to be here a year from now - or even six months from now."
He started to respond, to reassure her, but something about her doubtful, almost wounded expression stopped him. "So that's it then," he said curtly. "We just pretend it never happened. That nothing has changed? Are you going to deny what we feel?"
A flash of memory and sensation caused her cheeks to flush. Laura wrapped the towel more tightly around her, trying to forget that she was still wet from him between her thighs, and that her body still remembered the feel of him inside her. Even now she wanted to touch him. He was so close, only inches away from her fingertips. She clasped her hands in her lap, fighting the impulse.
Laura drew an uneven breath. "Are things really different now? Because I'm not sure they are," she said sharply. "Did those few moments, however pleasurable, really change anything that counts?"
He recoiled as though she had slapped him. "Would it change things if I gave you commitments, guarantees? Would you trust them? Would that make things safe for you?"
There was only one way she could answer him honestly. "I don't know." Her reply was almost inaudible. She looked down, away from him. Her bare foot began to trace a shallow pattern in the dirt.
Steele sat down next to her on the bench and gripped her shoulders. His voice was raw with emotion. "Laura, look at me. Don't turn away." He stared at her intently for a moment then his expression softened. "If it wasn't safe, for either of us, would that be so terrible?"
Her reply was halting and uncertain. "Maybe it wouldn't matter. I don't know how I feel. I just know I can't do this."
Steele disengaged himself slowly and stood up, weary of fighting her. "You're right Laura. Nothing has changed, has it." He turned decisively and walked away without looking back.
Laura watched his retreating
form stride down the path and grow ever smaller in the distance. Their
earlier intimacy now seemed incredibly reckless. She had wanted to blame
him but she knew better. She had done something she had sworn she never
would, especially not with him. She had lost control and now they would
both have to live with the
What was it about this case that had turned everything upside down? She had to admit, she had found going without clothes to be surprisingly enjoyable. After her morning on horseback, she had worked out nude in the exercise room with only a towel nearby. By the time she had showered and gone to the steam room she'd felt incredibly relaxed, almost sensual. When she awoke and somehow found him completely naked and obviously aroused by her, it seemed foolish and impossible to deny she felt the same.
Somehow in this charmed environment it had all seemed strangely uncomplicated. But what would happen after this case was over? Could they regain the comforting equilibrium of the agency routine? Before this happened, everything had been humming smoothly, mysteries were solvable, interactions were businesslike and buttoned down. But now that she and Steele had crossed the line, let their passions surface, even the office would never be the same. Everything she had worked for now seemed as breakable as glass. Part of her wondered if he would even stay around to pick up the pieces. Hadn't she just given him what he had waited for?
She shivered slightly as a freshening breeze blew past her. She longed to get out of this wet, skimpy towel, take a shower, and get back to the suite and into some dry clothes. She started for the shower room of the fitness center.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
She turned the key in the lock and entered the suite. She found Steele wearing shoes, shirt and trousers, rapidly knotting his tie. He removed his suit jacket from the hanger and quickly shrugged into it. Turning his back to her, he checked his tie in the mirror.
"Going somewhere?" Laura noticed the tense set of his neck and shoulders.
"Just into the city for a while," he replied, with an edge of anger to his voice.
She wanted to explain herself, to make amends. She knew she had hurt him. "I'm sorry about running off like that. I didn't mean to. I just panicked."
He didn't answer or turn to her. Laura stepped toward him and touched him on the shoulder. Almost flinching from the contact, he faced her and said in clipped tones, "Laura, let's not make this any more difficult than it is. I just need some time by myself, OK?"
She stepped back and watched him walk toward the dresser, pick up his wallet and keys and put them in his pocket. He walked toward the door and grasped the knob, then looked back as though he wanted to say something more. He moved unexpectedly toward her in a few long strides and pulled her into his arms. When he kissed her, swiftly and passionately, she didn't resist. She began to respond but he pulled away as if unsure of her feelings, or afraid of his own.
"Laura, be careful."
"Aren't I always, Mr. Steele."
"Almost never, but I admit, it's part of your charm." He gave her a half smile. "I'll be back." he promised. Then he was gone.
After Steele left Laura changed out of her damp clothes quickly, pulling on some shorts and a sweatshirt. She perched on the bed and pulled out her case file. Part of her was relieved to see him go. She could concentrate on the case and not think about the future or how much she still wanted him. With an effort she pushed everything to the back of her mind, organized her notes, and set to work.
Several questions regarding the case nagged at her. It was obvious that the resort caretakers had easy access to equipment and their duties allowed them to move freely about the resort. Accidents had occurred during the tenures of both Edwards and Deerfield. Did one absolve the other? Or was there some sort of connection between them? She wondered what Mildred had come up with about their backgrounds.
She called the office and was inundated by a barrage of uncomfortably personal questions from Mildred. "Mildred, we'll talk about that later. I need to know what you've found out about Edwards and Deerfield."
Mildred detailed the already known facts about Jonathan Edwards' sexual assault arrest and eventual release. Other than that, his one-year record showed him to be an exemplary employee. Ethan Deerfield's past was more of a mystery. In fact, he didn't seem to have one. At least no past life more than about six months long. His job application listed several previous employers, all of whom were no longer in business. He had a bank account but no credit history. Laura wondered how someone with such a sketchy background came to be hired in the first place. She needed to find out.
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. She opened it to find Mr. Sommers standing there. He seemed nervous and upset. "Miss Holt. Something's happened that I need to talk to you about right away."
"I'm listening, Mr. Sommers."
"I just received word that the state of California has revoked our license to operate. They had assured me we had until the end of the month. Then I got this in the morning mail." He waved some papers in the air.
"Isn't the resort a private club?" Laura asked.
"Yes, but we still have to be licensed and bonded by the state. So do all of our employees."
"I'm curious about that Mr. Sommers. I've done some checking. For instance, Ethan Deerfield doesn't seem to have a verifiable employment history. How does someone like that get bonded?"
Sommers suddenly looked uneasy. "Do you mind if I sit down Miss Holt?"
Laura motioned him to a chair.
"I'm afraid I haven't been entirely honest with you. Ethan Deerfield doesn't have a history because he's really someone else."
"Who is he?"
"Ethan's real name is Phil Trudeau. You may have heard of him but I doubt you travel in the same circles. Phil Trudeau is, or was, probably the most famous advocate for naturism in the country. As far as most people know, he's still underground. He has been in the thick of the fight for twenty years. Demonstrating for nude beaches and resorts, fighting all sorts of harassment. Some have called him a hero and some a militant. The FBI has been trying to silence him for years."
"Does he have a history of violence?"
"Regrettably, it's happened on occasion. When he felt the cause was just."
"Forgive me if that doesn't make me feel better, Mr. Sommers."
"I had to help him out. He had no place to go. He was tired of running. You have to realize Phil would never do anything to harm us. It would be a betrayal of everything he's lived by. Besides, the accidents began before he came here."
"I agree, a lot of things don't add up. There are a lot of people with access but what's the motive? That's the key to solving this mystery. Speaking of keys, I noticed that a lot of equipment seems to be under lock and key now - the electrical panel to the hot tub, the tack room at the stables. Were they locked at the time of the accidents?"
"I'm afraid not. We just never had a reason to do so."
"Mr. Sommers, I can't promise you that I can get your license restored but I'm going to find out who's behind this. There's more to this than meets the eye. If I find anything you'll be the first to know."
"Thank you, Miss Holt." He got up from the chair with an air of weariness. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of unfinished business to complete. I'll need to inform the guests and staff of the state's decision."
"I'd appreciate it if you could delay that for another 48 hours. Otherwise, the guilty party may fly the coop."
"I'll try, Miss Holt. But I can't promise it." He squared his shoulders and walked away down the path.
Laura decided to take a walk to clear her head. As she walked past several of the villa suites she saw Deerfield/Trudeau unloading some hanging plants from the back of a van. Mrs. Sommers was standing on a chair hanging one of the ferns when she suddenly lost her balance. Deerfield was just in time to catch her before she fell. Laura watched them curiously for a moment. There was something odd about them, something she couldn't quite figure out. Their contact had seemed almost intimate.
Laura walked along the path to the hot tub and pool. Inexplicably, it seemed that someone had thrown a giant green blanket over the whole area. She looked down at her feet and picked up one of the bits of green. It was a fig leaf. There was a multitude of them in various sizes covering the path and floating in the pool. The hot tub was completely submerged.
"What's going on?" she asked a bearded bather who was staring at the hot tub.
"NOONIES. They've really outdone themselves this time."
"NOONIES?" Laura asked, completely mystified.
"Local nutjobs. Morality police." He picked up a piece of paper from the ground and handed it to Laura.
Laura scanned it. It only had a few simple headlines. OPERATION FIG LEAF - OUR OPERATIVES WILL NOT FAIL. VICTORY IS AT HAND. If news that the resort was closing got out, things would only get uglier. She suddenly felt very sorry for Mr. Sommers. It certainly seemed like the vultures were circling.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele turned on to Palm
Canyon Drive from Highway 111 and entered Palm Springs. He drove past streets
named for Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Autry. The city was a time
capsule of old Hollywood nostalgia. In the '20's and '30's the elite of
the silver screen had come in droves, and what was called "the Springs"
became a desert playground of the
It was a retreat from the fishbowl of Hollywood. A hideaway for celebs who worked hard and played hard, a place of three martini lunches and clandestine rendezvous, where Sinatra and the Rat Pack once prowled the streets and watering holes. Even now it looked frozen somewhere at mid-century. Dramatically angled, low roofed buildings in Fifties modern designed by architects such as John Lautner and Albert Frey still dotted the landscape.
As Steele drove through the
"village" or main shopping district, the signs of charming indolence began
to give way to near decay. Many of the shop windows were boarded up and
the sidewalk traffic was dead quiet, populated mostly with retirees and
golfers. The famous quote of Oscar Levant, "Strip away the phony tinsel
of Hollywood and you'll find
Steele turned on to Indian Canyon Drive and headed for the Racquet Club. He parked by the curb and handed his keys to the waiting attendant. The lobby seemed haunted by the ghosts of long dead movie stars whose photos lined its walls. He walked into the dark, wood paneled intimacy of the Bamboo Lounge where barstools were reserved with plaques for Clark Gable, William Powell, and Spencer Tracy. He was tempted for a moment to choose one but resisted the presumption.
He found a quiet table near the back of the bar and ordered a vodka martini. It wasn't his usual drink, but somehow it seemed de riguer. The waiter brought his drink and offered him a selection of cigars. He chose a Davidoff Havana and settled back in his chair. The martini was excellent. Clean and crisp, with just the right touch of vermouth. He had a feeling the martini wouldn't be his last.
He nursed his drink and tried to forget the past few hours. There were parts of it, though - incredibly wonderful parts - that he didn't want to forget. He still found it hard to believe, almost unreal.
In his wishful imagination their first time together had been completely different. He'd pictured a simmering seduction, a passion's progress that would build slowly and still leave them hungry for more. The reality of their lovemaking had been even more intense, yet he never would have dreamed that only a heartbeat after it was over she would twist out of his embrace and run from him as though he were cursed. It had struck him like a knife to the heart.
As close as they had become, he doubted he would ever understand her. In his experience, sex usually uncomplicated matters rather than the reverse. But things were never simple with Laura Holt. What was it she said that night in Acapulco? "Wouldn't it be nice if we could get there together?" Did she really mean that? How were they ever going to get there if she kept pushing him away?
He knew she had her reasons. She was risking a lot. Not just herself, but everything in her life that mattered. The agency, her career - all of it could disappear tomorrow because of one misstep, one unwelcome ghost from his past. There were any number of people who wanted things from him or wished him harm. Any of them could show up like a wolf at the door. He was almost convinced, if a crisis came, he could leave her for her own good - but she would still be left.
Steele ordered another martini and removed his cigar from its silver cylinder. He carefully cut and lit the Havana and drew on it slowly. He idly watched the bandstand where the pianist and a Sinatra sound-alike were checking sound levels. Then the lights dimmed. The piano began to play the intro and the singer stepped into the spotlight and began the first verse.
The night is bitter
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
And suddenly you're older...
When Steele heard it he almost flinched. It was that most regretful of Gershwin torch songs, "The Gal That Got Away." It was not a refrain he wanted to hear. He started to get up from his chair but then he remembered he had just lit his cigar. When one lights a fine cigar one has to finish it, he thought resignedly.
The gal who won you
has run off and undone you
That great beginning
Has seen it's final inning
I don't know what happened
It's all a crazy game...
Steele leaned back, martini in hand, surrounded by the haze of cigar smoke, and let the blackness of his mood wash over him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Steele drove around aimlessly
through the city streets for what seemed like hours trying to clear his
thoughts. He noticed a folded green flyer lying on the car seat next to
him. He had removed it earlier from the windshield without looking at it.
He opened the flyer as he pulled up to a stoplight, recognizing it easily
as another bulletin from
What were they on about this time? Apparently something called "Operation Figleaf." He knew it had not been on the windshield when he left the resort. They certainly were out in full force lately. He flipped the page over to the back and noticed that there was a P O Box and street address. Perhaps he should pay them a visit. Their rhetoric didn't impress him but could they be more of a danger than he thought?
He drove along Palm Canyon Drive looking for street numbers. He finally located the headquarters in a small shopping strip, which looked as if it had seen better days. There were a only few cars parked out front and a familiar looking Chevy Blazer.
Steele went around to the back entrance and picked the lock. He stepped in and moved quietly down a hallway, stopping when he heard voices coming from a small conference room.
"I told you that you would get your money, Deerfield. It's already been wired to your account."
"I just want to make sure I get my share. The job's done. I just have to take care of a few loose ends. Then you and your buddies can pop the champagne corks at the statehouse."
"I've got to hand it to you Deerfield. Your plan worked better than we ever expected. All of those years we wasted going through the courts to shut them down and now it's finally going to happen. This was a real sweet deal."
Steele ducked behind a water cooler as three men left the room. He recognized two of them. One was Ethan Deerfield and the other was state senator Trent McConnell. The third man was not familiar to him but he looked like a political type. The three men exited the building and Ethan locked the front door.
Steele stayed behind. He was thankful he had parked the Auburn behind the building in case Deerfield recognized it.
He searched through various office files, not finding anything useful. Then again, he thought, it wasn't likely that they would keep something like this out in the open. He paced around the office looking for possible hiding places. As he traversed the carpet he felt a slight roughness under his feet. He lifted up a carpet covered panel to what appeared at first to be an electrical outlet. He smiled slightly when he saw the floor safe underneath. The combination gave him no trouble and he soon had the contents spread out for inspection.
He began with a large black
ledger. He scanned several pages, wishing he had Mildred there to make
sense of them. He noticed one page marked "Fig Leaf Accounts." There was
a column of several substantial debits from this account, all within the
last month. He quickly added the figures. He realized with a shock that
they came to about half a million
Surely some of that cash was Deerfield's payoff. Steele wished he had followed him. He wondered if Laura could be in danger. He had said he wanted to take care of a "few loose ends."
Steele located a nearby copy machine and dug into his pockets for some change. He came up empty. Damn, he thought. Change is so bulky. He searched through several desk drawers for a bypass key, breathing a sigh of relief when he found one. He quickly copied the pages for the "Fig Leaf Accounts" and put the ledger back into the safe.
The remaining contents of the safe were a small reserve of cash and what appeared to be a task force list for "Operation Figleaf." He made a copy of the list and placed all of the items back into the safe. He shut it and carefully replaced the carpet panel. He replaced the copier bypass key in the desk drawer, picked up the copies and left the building through the back door.
When he arrived back at the
resort he looked for Deerfield's truck but didn't see it anywhere. He looked
down at his watch. It was 11:30. He made his way back to the suite and
opened the door. The interior was dark. He could make out Laura's sleeping
form stretched out on one of the beds. He sat down on the edge of the other
bed and wondered if he
The exertions of the day had begun to tell on him. All of his muscles ached from climbing and he felt vaguely fuzzy from drink. He managed to find the energy to strip down to his briefs and drape his suit over the back of a chair. Then he climbed under the covers and fell to sleep, exhausted.
The next morning Laura awoke to find him in the bed next to hers. He was lying on his left side, his face pressed into the pillow. His lips were slightly parted, his breathing deep and even. A comma of black hair had fallen over his right eye and his chin was covered with morning stubble. He looked so peaceful and unaware that she hated to wake him.
She got out of her pajamas and quietly slipped into the bathroom. She turned on the shower and stepped under the force of the spray, letting it invigorate her body.
She came out of the bathroom draped in a towel, her hair wet, but combed out. She went to the dresser and found some underwear and a pair of shorts. As she was putting them on she heard a sleepy moan behind her and turned to find Steele pulling back the bedcovers. He straightened up slowly and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Laura's thoughts were taking a detour into X-rated territory as she stared at his nearly naked body. She gave herself a mental shake and greeted him. "Lovely day, isn't it? How was your evening?"
He just stared at her without answering. She wondered why until she realized he was staring directly at her breasts. She had forgotten that she had taken off the towel to put on her panties and shorts. This case was making her very absentminded.
"Hmm?" He continued to stare.
"Would it be less distracting if I put something on?"
"No doubt. But certainly less fun."
She rummaged through the dresser and found a sleeveless T-shirt. She quickly pulled it down over her bare skin.
"Now. Maybe we can start this conversation again," she said in an attempt at a businesslike tone.
"I rather like the way the first one was going. Allowed one to kept abreast of the situation." He winked at her.
She rolled her eyes in response. "Can't you be serious? We have a lot to talk about."
"I have something to tell you. It's about the case." They both spoke in unison.
Steele raised an eyebrow. "Is there an echo in here?"
"OK, Miss Holt, you first."
"I had an enlightening conversation with Mr. Sommers yesterday. It seems that Ethan Deerfield is not what he appears to be. He's a naturism activist named Phil Trudeau. He was on the run until Sommers hired him."
"If he's a naturism activist, he's gone over to the side of the enemy. I saw him at NOONER headquarters last night." Steele went to his suit jacket and pulled out the photocopies.
"Deerfield is a NOONIE? Well that would explain a lot. Mildred reported back on the other staff and guests. She found nothing suspicious. I just can't prove Deerfield was on the scene before each accident."
"We may never be able to prove that but I have proof of something." Steele handed her the account statement. "He's been getting payoffs from a NOONER account. I got this out of the headquarters safe. He met with two gentlemen last night. One of them I recognized. Senator Trent McConnell. McConnell wired some money to Deerfield yesterday."
"A state senator? It makes sense. Mr. Sommers came to me yesterday and told me that the state had revoked the operating license for the resort. I'll bet McConnell and the NOONIES are behind it." She paced the room, lost in thought. Suddenly it came to her.
"Don't you see. If the resort is closed the property reverts to the state of California. Remember the terms of Gauss's will? They can keep the resort shut down and millions of dollars worth of acreage will be theirs."
Steele scanned the list of names for Operation Fig Leaf. He noted Jonathan Edwards's name at the top of the list. He handed the list to Laura. "Edwards, the maintenance guy who was fired is on this list. He probably rigged the first accident at the hot tub to get the operation underway."
"The NOONIES probably didn't count on Edwards being arrested, Laura continued. "That's when they put Ethan in place. They knew Sommers would hire him because he was a hero to the naturist movement. He was the perfect plant." Laura grabbed up the papers hurriedly. "Get dressed. We've got to warn Mr. Sommers."
Steele quickly dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and followed Laura toward the door. They opened it to find Ethan Deerfield blocking the path. He smiled as he leveled a .38 at Laura's chest. "I see you found the accounts. Someone used the copy machine at headquarters last night. I knew you and Steele were getting too close. I don't have much time to chat. Sonya and I have a plane to catch."
"You and Mrs. Sommers? I
saw the two of you together yesterday. I thought there was something between
"Yeah. Sonya warned me about you two. Said Gerald was going to hire a couple of hotshot detectives. Before he left LA to find you I cut his brake line but the brakes didn't fail until the return trip." Ethan glanced behind her. "No heroics, Steele. Miss Holt will be dead and Sonya and I will still get on that plane. We're going to round up Gerald and all of you are going to take a soak in the hot tub."
"In broad daylight? With a gun pointed at us?" Steele said doubtfully.
"Don't you read the activities schedule? It's our 'Summer Sunday' Brunch. Everyone will be at the restaurant. Attendance required. Just one big happy family."
"Where's Sommers?" Laura asked, dreading the answer.
"He's already down at the hot tub. He's still trying to get the fig leaves out. How thoughtful of him." Ethan gave a small malicious smile.
He marched them down to the hot tub area. Laura hoped fervently that someone would see them but the paths were deserted.
Sommers was at the hot tub, his back to them, scooping up leaves with a net. Mrs. Sommers was standing next to him.
"Sommers," Deerfield called out.
Both of them turned to find the group standing there. Mr. Sommers' jaw dropped open in surprise when he saw the gun.
"Deerfield what are you doing?"
Sonya smiled and touched Sommers on the shoulder. " We're just tying up a few things before we go. Now that the place is closed we're free of it all. Phil and I can be together."
"Sonya, what are you talking about? You're having an affair?"
"We have been for months. He's taking me away from here so I can get on with my life."
"What about the resort? I need you here."
"Wake up Gerald. The resort is finished. It belongs to the state of California now, or it will soon. They can make millions with this property. Sell it to the highest bidder. All that money from real estate developers was being spread around like confetti. We hatched a plan, Phil and I, to close this place and give everyone what they wanted. Just as long as we got our share."
"You arranged these accidents - for money? What about us? We had something together, a good way of life."
"Look at me Gerald. I'm fifty-three. Do you really expect me to be a beach bunny for the rest of my life? We didn't have anything here. We were just the hired help."
Gerald stared at Deerfield who was still calmly pointing the gun at Steele and Laura. "How could you turn your back on everything you stood for? You were a hero to a lot of people. It doesn't make sense."
"Where were all of those people I fought for when I was hiding from the FBI? They ran from me like I had the plague. Said I was too extreme. Too violent. No one lifted a finger to help me. I had to help myself. Sonya was the one who showed me how it could be done. She got Operation Figleaf bankrolled and convinced Edwards to rig the hot tub. Poor Edwards. Couldn't keep his hands to himself. But then she convinced Gerald to hire me and the rest , as they say, is history. We tied Pariaso del Sol up with a ribbon and handed it over to the great state of California - for a hefty sum, of course."
He motioned with the gun. "All three of you strip down. You're going to take a nice, long soak - permanently. I have a remote wired to the electrical panel. When Sonya triggers the switch it's going to get very hot in there. Scorching in fact. Now get those clothes off."
The three of them began to remove their clothes. Steele had been trying to think of some way to get the gun but he was afraid Laura would get hurt. Still, he was damned if he was going to let Deerfield march the three of them to their own execution. As Laura stripped down Steele noticed Deerfield staring at her. The bastard was getting an eyeful. Maybe that distraction would suffice.
Steele made a sudden lunge at Deerfield and both of them struggled for the gun. As Steele wrested the gun from Deerfield's grasp it went off, a bullet striking Mr. Sommers in the shoulder. Deerfield and Sonya made a dash for the parking lot, trying to get to Deerfield's truck.
"Mr. Sommers, are you all right?" Laura asked with concern.
"I'll be fine, Miss Holt. Just get after them, OK?"
Steele and Laura sprinted down the path.
"Wait, Mr. Steele. What about our clothes?"
"No time. We'll never catch them."
They reached the parking lot just in time to see Deerfield's Chevy Blazer peel away with a screech of tires. The Auburn was parked about fifty feet away. They ran for it and clambered in, then realized they had no keys. Steele hot-wired the ignition and they were off.
"Head for the airport, Mr. Steele. Maybe we can still catch them."
They could barely see Deerfield's truck in the distance when they pulled onto the road. As they turned onto Hwy 111 they gained some ground but it was going to be difficult to catch them. The Blazer zigzagged insanely through the traffic, narrowly avoiding a collision with an eighteen wheeler and a cherry-red Corvette.
Steele couldn't help but notice that traffic hazards of a different sort were being created by their lack of attire, as rubbernecking motorists swerved out of their lanes or slowed down for a better look.
"Laura, could you scrunch down a bit? You're creating a traffic jam."
"I am scrunched," she screamed at him. Damned convertible, she fumed silently. If only they could have taken the limo.
Suddenly she noticed blue lights flashing in the rear view mirror. A motorcycle cop was motioning frantically for them to stop. He came alongside them staring in disbelief. "Pull over," he yelled out over the noise of the traffic.
"Love to, Officer but were a little busy right now. We're private investigators. Remington Steele and Laura Holt. We have to catch that Blazer up ahead before the fugitives get to the airport. "Laura get the car registration out of the glovebox." Steele grabbed it and held it up. "Sorry, It's the only ID I have on me at the moment. Look, just help us follow that Blazer. I'll have to explain later."
"OK," the cop agreed. But this better be good." He called for backup over his radio and sped toward the Blazer, siren blaring and lights flashing. The Auburn was close behind. Laura heard a noise above her head and looked up to see a news helicopter hovering overhead. A photographer with a videocam was leaning over the side. "Oh my God. I think we're on Candid Camera. How did they get here so fast? If my mother sees this on the newswires I'll never hear the end of it."
Steele dodged a BMW and floored the accelerator, trying to get maximum speed out of the Auburn's V-8. They closed on the Blazer and finally overtook it. The Blazer was now sandwiched in the left lane, the Auburn in front of it and the motorcycle behind it.
A Mustang convertible with
three teenaged boys in it pulled even with the Auburn in the right hand
lane. One of the boys touched the driver on the shoulder and pointed. The
driver did a double take at the sight of a totally naked Laura giving him
a nervous smile. The Mustang slowed slightly and the distracted driver
swerved hard into the Blazer, running
Steele pulled over to the side of the road and parked the Auburn next to the other vehicles. He gave Laura an approving glance. "Excellent work, Laura. You did Claudette Colbert one better."
"We'll they'd better be satisfied, they're not getting a repeat performance."
The cop pulled his gun and went over to the Blazer. He handcuffed an unconscious Ethan Deerfield to the steering wheel and assisted a dazed Mrs. Sommers. He dispatched an ambulance to the scene and checked on the teenagers who appeared to have only minor injuries.
The cop strolled over to the Auburn and eyed the two somewhat sheepish and exposed passengers. The corners of his mouth twitched in a smile he couldn't quite suppress. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Cleaners wouldn't take a check?"
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~
Remington Steele leaned back in his office chair with a sigh of immense satisfaction. Reassuringly garbed in his new suit, he felt ready to take on the world. Laura strolled in looking uncommonly businesslike in a tailored gray pinstripe suit.
"Well, Miss Holt. I think we wrapped things up rather nicely. Deerfield and Sonya Sommers are in jail facing attempted murder and conspiracy charges and several politicians and real estate developers are expected to be indicted. The resort is back in business and so are we. Now that we've left the naked city behind, what's next, eh?"
Laura smiled down at him. "I've had to keep Mildred at bay all morning. She's been dying to know what we've been doing for the past two days. Speaking of which, I couldn't sleep last night so I spent a lot of time thinking." She paused and took a deep breath. "I'm still not sure where our relationship is going and I know it won't always be easy for us. But now that we've finally turned that corner and become lovers I'm not sure things can go back like they were before. What I'm really trying to say is, I don't want to go back."
Steele searched her face, still feeling somewhat uncertain. "Are you sure, Laura? I don't know if I can give you the sort of guarantees you need. I've learned that life never quite works out according to plan. But I'm not planning on going anywhere, Laura. I have everything I want right here." He grasped her waist and pulled her down into his lap.
Laura slowly drew her fingers across his cheek. "I'm sorry I walked out like that. What happened in the steam room was kind of a shock. I was really more angry with myself. I practically attacked you in there, you know."
"I didn't struggle."
"No. Well you did thrash around a bit."
They both smiled, remembering.
"It was a trifle steamy wasn't it? You know, Laura, if you ever feel the urge to attack me again I promise I won't resist. I'm all yours, love."
"I'll remember that, Mr. Steele."
She snaked her arms around his neck and drew his lips to hers. Their kiss was long and deep, and soon their hands began to stray into once forbidden territory.
Their progress was interrupted by a knock on the door.
"It's probably Mildred," Laura sighed. "You'd better answer the door."
"You said she wanted to know what we'd been doing the past few days."
"True, Mr. Steele, but I thought I'd break it to her gently."
Laura reluctantly disentangled herself from his grasp and opened the door.
"Miss Holt." Mildred waved a copy of the LA Tribune in the air. "Your case made front page news."
Laura snatched the newspaper from Mildred's grasp. She stared at a slightly grainy photograph of a naked twosome standing next to a police motorcycle. Heavy black bars labeled "censored" covered strategic body parts. It was topped with the headline "NAKED DETECTIVES NAB NUDISTS."
"Thank God my mother went on that cruise to the Bahamas. Maybe this will all blow over before she gets back. I hope our reputations will survive the strain."
"I take it you don't want to see this photo-op hanging on the office wall, Miss Holt."
Laura tossed the newspaper
into the trash with a resounding thud. "As far as I'm concerned Mr. Steele,
no nudes is good news."
September - October 2000
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]