Kiss of Life
by Doug Allyn
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
What could be sweeter than a day at the beach? Lounging with my ladylove on a king-size terry towel in the Vale Dunes, mid July, mid eighties, midsummer breeze riffling the whitecaps on Lake Michigan. And just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better—
“Maybe I should go topless,” Marcy said.
Which captured my attention for a split second—but then reality set in. We’ve been dating a year, and Marcy is a walking contradiction, a CPA who got through college on a gymnastics scholarship, cute as a bug, tough as a combat boot, with wiry swimmer’s muscles on a squared-off frame. A tight cap of brown curls, and grey eyes that constantly glitter with mischief . . .
Which meant . . . Damn. Her offer was too good to be true.
“I’d second the motion,” I offered, “but this isn’t a nude beach, babe. You’d get busted (pun intended) and hauled off to jail. As your lawyer, I’d happily bail you out, but . . . Where’s this coming from?”
“A hundred young hot-bodies are scampering around the beach, practically starkers, and you’re paying no attention to any of them, or to me. You keep staring off down the shore.”
“Guilty,” I admitted. “There’s a woman down there, maybe a hundred and fifty yards? The tall brunette, just beyond the park on one of the private beaches.”
“The one wading out into the surf in the see-through bikini?”
“That’s her, “ I said. “She’s been sitting on a sand dune in street clothes for some time, staring out over the water, and—something seems off about her.”
“I don’t know. It’s a beautiful day, but she seems to be under her own personal dark cloud. She was staring out at nothing for a long time, then suddenly stood up and started shucking her duds, down to what she’s wearing now. Then she waded out into the surf.”
“It’s called swimming, Ray—”
A kid screamed, snapping our attention back to our beach. A kid, four or five years old, was being dunked by his older sister.
“Hey, you little twerp!” Marcy yelled at the girl, shaking her finger at them. “Knock it off!” And when I glanced back down the shore, the dark-haired woman was gone. Underwater, I guessed. Had to be. She was too far out to have made it back to shore, so I watched, idly waiting for her to surface . . . Only she didn’t freaking surface. And she’d already been underwater for too long and—holy crap!
“Call nine-one-one!” I yelled at Marcy.
I was already up and sprinting down the beach, trying to keep my eyes fixed on the area where the woman vanished. And as I ran, the detail that bothered me in the first place suddenly registered. Her suit definitely wasn’t one. I grew up in Valhalla, on Michigan’s north shore, and spent every summer day of my childhood on this beach. I’ve seen a million suits, from grandma prim to teenybopper outrageous, but her bra and bottom looked odd, because they weren’t a suit at all. She’d stripped to her lingerie and—damn it! The window for her air supply was already closing fast when I veered out across the shallows, splashing through the surf, driving hard for the area where I’d last seen her—there!
For just a moment, I glimpsed a pale white disturbance between two swells. A body? Maybe. It had to be. Her time was almost up when I began my sprint and she hadn’t surfaced since. If the shape wasn’t her—
Plunging into the surf, I knifed through the waves, swimming as hard as I could toward the ghostly outline—and slammed into her body, head first! I was stroking so fiercely I slid clear across her form, pushing her under. Not that it mattered. She was drifting with the waves, already beginning to sink. Which meant she’d inhaled water, and could be dead already. I didn’t see any air bubbles around her nose or her mouth, her eyes were open and unresponsive—damn it!
Squirming around behind her, I hooked my left arm under hers, lifting her head above the surface, just in time to catch a breaker full in the face. I shook it off, but the woman didn’t react at all. She was inert, dead weight now. Shifting her body around to get my left arm under her torso, I started kicking hard for the beach, hauling her with me, fighting to keep her face above water.
I risked a quick glance shore-ward. Marcy was on her cell, giving directions to an ambulance. Then she tossed her phone aside and raced into the surf, coming out to help.
She met us at a sand bar where the lake was only chest-deep, and together we hauled the woman to the shore, lifeless as a sack of cement.
Easing her facedown on the sand, I tilted her jaw to open her airway, then compressed her lungs, once, twice. Some water burbled out of the corner of her mouth, but Marcy was holding a finger against her carotid to check for a pulse. She shook her head. No heartbeat.
We rolled her over and I started CPR as best I remembered it, pumping her chest for twelve strokes, then blowing air into her mouth to inflate her lungs. Her lips felt ice cold, with no more life than a bronze statue. I could taste secondhand booze. Her lungs deflated, technically exhaling, but I felt no other response. Not a gasp or even a shiver. Dead as a headstone. Damn it!
I ran through another compression series, then pressed my mouth on hers again, huffing away, forcing air into—she bucked beneath me, lurching upward so violently our foreheads banged together in a head-on collision!
I actually saw stars. She snapped bolt upright, her slim frame jerking like she’d been zapped with a cattle prod. Then she spewed, spraying my face and chest with lake water, snot, and everything she’d eaten for a week, a phlegmy mess streaked with bloody foam from her lungs.
I shook off my stunned surprise to the sound of applause. We were surrounded by a ring of bystanders, mostly kids, wide-eyed and grinning. And I realized the woman’s bra had slipped down around her waist. Marcy tugged it back into place as the EMT bus came rolling up the beach to us. Two uniformed medics scrambled out, and I rose and backed away, giving them room to work.
Wading into the shallows, I knelt, splashing water up into my face to rinse away the dreck, then I trudged back to the ambulance, leaning against it to catch my breath. Marcy came trotting up. She’d pulled on her own saffron sunsuit and had the woman’s clothes in her arms.
“Found these on top of the dune,” she said. “Didn’t see a purse.” She placed them at the foot of the metal gurney, then put both hands on my shoulders, scanning my face.
“Ray? Are you okay?”
I nodded. It was all I could manage; my bell was still ringing from the head butt. I’m in fair shape for a thirty-year-old attorney who spends most days behind a desk—muscle and bone and not much more—but I was definitely running on fumes now. I turned my face up to the noonday sun, content just to be alive and breathing. Marcy fetched my beach clothes—baggies and a T-shirt—and I pulled them on over my trunks.
One of the EMTs tapped my arm, a guy I knew from Merchant’s League hockey. Kraniak? Krawchek? Something like that.
“Mr. Beaumont? The woman’s conscious, but she’s not talking. Do you know her name?”
“What about drugs? She has tats on her arms that mask her veins. Do you know if she’s using?”
“No clue, pal. I tasted booze on her lips, but that’s it. I’ve never seen her before. I saw her wade into the surf and disappear, went after her. That’s really all I can tell you.”
“She’s in her underwear. Was it a suicide attempt?”
“Roger that. She’s asking for you, though.”
“She’s asking for the guy who saved her. That’s you, right? We’re going to transport her to Samaritan. It would help if you can get her name, we can call ahead for her records.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” I groaned, straightening up. I circled to the rear of the van. The woman was on a metal gurney now, pale as death, her lips bloodless. A good-looking woman, mid thirties, short dark hair, trim and fit. Pretty.
“Hey,” I said, kneeling beside her. “How are you doing?” Dumb question. Her gaze locked on mine a moment, as if memorizing my face.
“Ma’am? Can you tell me your name?”
She closed her eyes, perhaps the only answer she could manage, then gestured with her fingertips for me to come closer. I leaned in to hear better and—wham! She nailed me! Slapped my face so hard that my head snapped halfway around.
“Oookay, guess we’d better go,” the EMT said quickly, suppressing a grin as he and his buddy loaded the woman hastily into the ambulance. “Sorry about that, Mr. Beaumont.”
“No good deed is right,” Marcy cracked, also grinning, enjoying this way too much. “Are you okay, Ray?”
“I’m just ducky,” I mumbled, dabbing at the blood drooling down my chin. “And I’m definitely done with good deeds for today.”
But I was wrong about that.
We were in my summer runabout, a ’63 Corvette convertible, headed back to Marcy’s apartment, when my phone hummed. I frowned at the caller ID. Valhalla Police, Chief Marge Kazmarek. I switched on.
“This is Ray Beaumont.”
“Ray, it’s Chief Kaz. I’m calling from Samaritan Hospital. The woman you saved? She’s asking for you.”
“We’ve already talked, Chief. I’ve got a fat lip to prove it.”
“The medics told me what happened, but she seems more together now. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. The medic says it could have been a suicide attempt. If a victim’s a danger to herself, we can hold her for observation, but she’s demanding to be released, and wants a lawyer.”
“And you gave her my name? Thanks a lot, Marge.”
No comeback from Chief Kazmarek, and suddenly my alarm bells started going off.
“C’mon, Chief, what is it you’re not telling me?”
“Her name,” Chief Kazmarek sighed. “Her driver’s license says she’s Terri Prinz. But she claims to be Mrs. Leo Stefano.”
I blinked. “The labor boss? I thought he was dead.”
“Missing, presumed dead as Jimmy Hoffa and almost as famous. Walked out of a Detroit bar last year, hasn’t been seen since. The FBI, DEA, and organized-crime units have been digging up baseball fields and barnyards all over the country looking for him. But that’s Leo Senior. The lady claims she married Leo Junior a few weeks ago in Mexico. You know young Leo, right?”
“Sort of. His family has a summer house on the shore. I used to hit parties there back in high school.”
“You and every other underage kid in Valhalla. And from what the lady says, Leo Junior hasn’t grown up much. In any case, I gave her your name and she’s asking for you. If she’s a potential suicide I can’t cut her loose. But she claims it was an accident, that she caught a bad wave, and she seems—well. Rational. What’s your take?”
“I really don’t know, Marge. I didn’t actually see what happened, I saw her walking out, when I looked again she was gone. Sorry.”
“Then talk to her, Ray, please. You two saved her, but I think she might still be in trouble, especially if she’s Leo’s latest wife”
“Are you sure she is? I haven’t heard anything about Leo getting married again.”
“Nor have I, but if I order a psych evaluation, she’ll be in custody for forty-eight hours, and she’s already threatening to sue.”
“You understand that if I talk to her, our conversation will be privileged, Marge. Lawyer, client. I can’t be your snitch.”
“Just clear up the confusion. I’ll owe you one.”
“On my way,” I said, wheeling the Vette around in a tight U-turn.
“Where to?” Marcy asked.
“Samaritan Hospital. Our vic wants a lawyer.”
“Terrific,” she grinned. “Think she’ll smack you again?”
“Probably,” I said.
Samaritan Hospital is a Vale County showcase, five stories, a snow-white facade of sprayed concrete, a tiered entrance à la Frank Lloyd Wright. It was built to impress wealthy tourists and the nouveau riche newbies who’ve quadrupled the north shore’s population over the past decade. Internet money, mostly. If you can do business online, why not move your laptop to Valhalla? Summer beaches, hunting in the fall, skiing in winter, skydiving year round if you’re crazy enough.
Leo Stefano’s family moved up here from Detroit back in the nineties, one step ahead of an indictment for labor racketeering that faded after the old man disappeared. In the meantime, the family put down serious financial roots in Vale County. A bank, a hardboard plant, and a trucking firm, fully unionized, of course. International Brotherhood of Gangsters. And if my victim was really Leo Junior’s wife . . . ?
My day was about to get a lot more interesting.
Valhalla P.D. Chief Kazmarek was waiting for me at the Samaritan admittance desk. Marge is a queen-size woman, wide as a semi, nearly six feet tall, gray hair tightly permed as a Brillo pad. She was in her tan summer uniform, no badge or name tag necessary. Everybody in Valhalla knows Chief Kaz. We rode the elevator up to the third floor together.
“The detention wing?” I noted. “Do you think she’s mental?”
“I don’t know what she is, Ray. So far, all she’s given us is a name, Terri Lee Stefano, which doesn’t match her driver’s license, which says Prinz. We need to clear that up, for openers. If she’s a walk-away from a funny farm, hooray for us, problem solved. But to run that down, I’ll need to verify her name.”
“I’ll do my best.” Which was all I could promise. The only sure thing about head cases is that nothing’s sure about head cases.
The detention suite had a patrolman just outside the door and bars on the windows. It was a white room, acoustic-tiled ceilings, gleaming tiled walls, white sheets. Terri Lee whoever was a color match for the décor, pale as a wraith. Her face and lips were bloodless, her eyes looked bruised, with blue circles beneath them. Only her hair had color, dark as a deep forest. Her face was fine boned, almost patrician, but showing some mileage lines around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. I mentally revised her age upwards a tad, to forty. Older than Leo by a few years, but still, a fine-looking woman. Chief Kazmarek pointedly took up a post by the door, out of earshot, effectively giving us the room.
I eased down on a white plastic chair beside the bed. Terri didn’t notice me at first. She was awake, but her eyes were focused on something a long way off.
“Hey,” I said. “I’d ask how you’re doing, but the last time you smacked me in the mouth.”
She turned to face me, slowly, looking me over. Clear-eyed and dead serious.
“The chief said you wanted to talk to me?” I prompted.
“Not you, necessarily,” she said. “I’m in a situation here. I want to leave, but that Nazi with a badge wants to hold me for observation. I need a lawyer to make that go away. The chief said you could help me.”
“I’m not sure I should. What really happened out there?”
“When I slapped you? Sorry about that, I was groggy––”
“Stop right there, lady,” I said, waving her off. “No games, or I am so out of here. From now on, I get the truth and nothing but, or I’m gone. So, straight up, when you waded into the lake, were you trying to end your life?”
“Of course not. Why would you think that?”
“You were dressed in street clothes, staring out at the water a good half hour before you stripped to your skivvies and marched out into the surf.”
“You’ve never gone swimming in your underwear? You must lead a dull life. Why were you watching me, anyway? Trolling for a date?”
“You looked . . . troubled, to me. You still do. Before law school I did a tour in Afghanistan. I’ve seen a fair number of desperate folks up close and you definitely looked the part. So here’s the deal. If you like, I’ll be your lawyer long enough to get you out of here, and anything we discuss will be protected by attorney–client privilege. But if you want my help, you’d better tell me exactly what’s going on.”
“God,” she sighed. “If you knew that, you’d have thrown me an anchor. Look, maybe wading out there was—a lame decision. I was upset at the time, and ready for”—she shrugged—“whatever comes next. But since you blew up my big plan, I’ve been rethinking things . . .” Her voice was fading. I was losing her.
“Listen up, Terri,” I said, leaning in, trying to pull her back from the darkness. “As an attorney I’ve dealt with the aftermath of suicide. It may seem like an easy way out, but the ones you leave behind are saddled with the ache of it forever. It’s always a bad choice. If you’re jammed up, let’s talk it through. We’ll figure things out together, starting at square one. What’s your real name?”
“Terri Lee Stefano, nee Prinz. I’m Mrs. Leo Stefano.”
“Since . . . three weeks ago. We were married on a wild weekend in Cancún.”
“That sounds like Leo. How did you two hook up?”
“In Vegas. I was a showgirl till my boobs started drifting south. I could see the Dead End signs ahead, so I took some classes and became a croupier. I was dealing blackjack in a casino, Leo won big at my table. Burned the house for seventy-six grand and change.”
“Wow,” I whistled. “That’s a lot.”
“Not to Leo, he’s a whale, and a degenerate gambler. The pit bosses know he’ll lose it back soon enough. But after his big win, he took us all out to celebrate—me, the other players in the game. He chartered a plane, flew us down to Cancún. We partied nonstop for umpty tequila sunrises, and three days later, Leo and I woke up in bed. Married.”
“In a church, with a priest, and the other players as witnesses. The whole enchilada.”
“So it was legal?”
“Totally legit, all properly notarized. I know, it sounds like a madcap, romantic fling out of a movie, but Leo and I have both been married before, so in the cold, sober light of our hangovers, we naturally considered calling the crazy thing off, getting a divorce or an annulment.”
“Why didn’t you?”
She took a deep breath. “Because I was desperate to change my luck and my life. So I basically screwed my new husband into rolling the dice to see if it could work out.”
“And was Leo sober at any point in these—negotiations?”
“Sure. That first morning after. Since then, not so much.”
“Okay. It started out as a fling—”
“Excuse me,” Chief Kazmarek said, stepping in. “Mrs. Stefano? Your husband’s downstairs. With your daughter.”
“Oh my God,” Terri groaned. “Don’t let them see me like this—”
But it was too late. . . .
Copyright © 2021. Kiss of Life by Doug Allyn