Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

Off Pebble Beach (4)

Off Pebble Beach, Part Four : Ring of Fire

Go here for Part One: Off Pebble Beach: Darkening Waters

Go here for Part Two: Off Pebble Beach: Distraction

Go here for Part Three: Off Pebble Beach: Schooner Jake’s


Johnny Cash came on, and Joy began to warble, “And it burns, burns, burns … ”

I yelled, ” Turn that shit off.”

“You’re right, Davy.” Michael said. “Hick crap. Not opera. But you know what? I frigging love this song.” He joined in, ” …that ring of fire, that ring of fire.”

“You do not like country,” I said.

They sang louder. When I reached for the dial, Michael shoved my hand away and yelled, “Stop being such a queer!”

I slammed my fist into his chest.

“Hit me again, little girl!”

I did and he slapped me. My eyes blurred with the sting, and I shrank against the door and let my face cool against the tuck-and-roll of the seat, inhaling new leather.
They sang, ”And it burns, burns, burns … ”

The slap and the harshness of queer sank me into a black funk, so when Joy took the dirt rode down to a cove off San Gregorio public beach, I didn’t notice.

When she threw open the door, the boom and bang of the waves brought me back. She ran down to the water. Michael followed.

I only heard the waves and the gulls, but then a sharp, short cry startled me. I ran from the car towards the jutting of a cliff out into the waves, thinking the scream had come from the other side.

Just then, Michael, rounded the rock, pants rolled, wading in the surf. He said, “She’s waiting.”

I ran around the rock and found her, her skirt up and panties around one ankle.

I turned and ran to the car and held my breath, deafened by the sound of my own heart.


In the car, we were surrounded by the sour, salty smell of sex.

I wanted her dead. My fist pounded against the seat. My feet pressed hard into the floor. Then Michael’s large hand covered mine to stop its frantic beating. He squeezed gently, letting me know it was OK.

Joy drove towards home and when we hit the first curve of Devil’s Slide, and the precipice dropped two hundred feet to the granite below, I knew I could reach across Michael’s chest, grab the steering wheel and yank it free of Joy’s grip.

Instead, settling into the curve, I tried to shove open my door. Physics kept it shut. I jammed hard with my shoulder. Air caught the door, I was lifted from my seat, and the wind chilled my hot face.

“Don’t you fucking wig out on us!” Michael screamed. He grabbed my belt loops, pulled, and I landed on his lap.

Joy kept driving, and the Pacific roared.


I woke from the nightmare of Joy reaching beneath her mini to pull her panties, wet with Michael’s seed, from her crotch.

“Ring of Fire” was playing, and when I sat up on the bed, it was still playing. Then I remembered the party, the song was part of the Pacific Rim theme. I was back in the year 2000.

By the time I had showered and dressed, the year 1963, San Gregorio, and me inside that black galleon of a Buick curled in on myself had almost faded. What remained was the certainty that night Joy had forced my life to take another, less happy, trajectory.

Determined to be her victim no longer, I went down to the fake luau, with Don Ho hokiness, hula, and spiked Hawaiian punch.

I kicked off my shoes. My feet sank into the sand, and I saw Gabriel sitting near the bar pushing back his shades, party-perfect in white surfer togs and a blue Hawaiian shirt.

I, on the other hand, had rolled up my suit pants, wore a button-down oxford, and dangled cordovan wingtips from one hand. Opposite of cool, I felt I had all the self-possession of a clerk.

When he saw me, he shouted out, “What are you? An East Coast refugee?”

“This is all I had. I crammed everything into my carry-on.”

“Well come on over here.”

I flopped in the beach chair next to him and undid three buttons, then tried to cover the pale paunch I had exposed.

“You need a drink, my friend. I’ll send the boy back for another.”

On cue, coming round the plaster volcano with 70s lava lamps, was my pink-eared cherub carrying Gabriel’s drink. Instead of blazer and tie, he was shirtless and his trunks had dropped to reveal the first hint of blonde pubes. When he reached us, he said to me, “Oh, I remember you.”
His curls glowed against his tan.

I said, “And I remember you.”

“Gorgeous, go get our friend a vodka and lime, neat,” Gabriel said.

What games was Gabriel playing? Gorgeous? I said, “I’m going to walk around a bit. I’ll take you up on the drink later.”

“Is your Nemesis here? Missy?” Gabriel asked.

“She wouldn’t come to this. She . . . ”

But Gabriel wasn’t listening. He had turned to the boy and was trailing one finger down the boy’s stomach.

I snapped. “For Christ’s sake, Gabriel! Leave the boy alone. I thought you weren’t queer.”

“I told you I was curious. Maybe we could share?”

The boy was unfazed. What the hell was his gig? I wondered. “Don’t be an asshole, Gabriel. You’ll get the kid fired.”

“I thought you liked him.”

“This is such bullshit.” I had to get out of there. I bolted from my chair.

The sprint to the water left me bent forward, panting for air.

When I straightened, the breeze cooling my face, I saw Joy down the strand, circling the rocks where earlier I had watched the otters play.


She stood, barefoot in the spume. She paced, weaving in and out of the wash, retracing her steps in looped chains.

I walked towards her. She was on her cell. Her laugh rippled in and out of the breeze, then closer, I heard “I love you too. Tomorrow we’ll have all day to talk.” She hung up and when she turned, I was there.

“David? That was my . . . ”

“I don’t care!” I screamed. “Why are you here?” The wind, the waves, the kelp’s stink embraced me, warping time, making my thirty-year-old hurt new. I could still see Michael beckoning her to spread beneath the cliff. The hurt, the rage, was new, was now. “What the fuck Joy!”

She stepped back, afraid.

“You remember?” she asked.

“Yes, Goddamn it. I remember!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“When I saw you that first day. I thought maybe we could talk. Maybe make some of the hurt go away. It hurt me too, you know?”

“Nice of you to have a daughter and to never let Michael know he was a father. Did you ever think how much you may have hurt him?”

“I never mentioned her. You couldn’t know.”

“All the Bebe bags from your shopping spree? Not a style you can pull off, and too many purchases for even a doting aunt. Remember, I’m a smart boy.”

She stood, didn’t answer. I didn’t tell her I had called a friend at Microsoft in HR. Easy to find out she had a dependent daughter. Like I said I was a smart boy.

My rage had cooled. I enjoyed her discomfort, but wanted justice and said, “You just had to get between Michael and me.”

“There was no Michael and you.”

“Not with you around.”

“You had no problem with me driving you everywhere. What did you think? I was going to drive around forever, watching you try to guilt Michael with all your neediness into being queer?”

“We had no problem when you weren’t around.”

“Michael was one horny boy. I suppose he could make do with you.”

“Bitch.”

“I can be. But David, what I want to know is, if you and Michael were all you make it out to be, why aren’t you two together now?”

My toes curled and drove down into the sand. I wanted to tear her head off. Instead, I forced a laugh, so shrill it sliced through the gathering fog.

I saw her clearly, the bravado fading from her stance.

I had hit the jugular and now I didn’t know what to do with her bleeding before me. I asked, “Are you o.k.?”

“Fine. Just fine. Let’s go back to the party.”

“Fine? What do you mean fine?”

She started to walk past me, up to the party, now more crowded, and louder as the requisite limbo had began and chants of lower drifted down to us.

Next to me, I put my hand on her arm and stopped her. I tried to be gentle, but when she flinched and tried to pull away, my grip tightened.

She let her arm go limp in my grasp. “What is it David?” She was all resignation, as if she knew our lives had brought us to this moment.

Then, drawing upon an entire life of unresolved pain, I asked, “How can you be fine? Now he’s dead.”

I watched her face empty, then twist. I fell back, then turned and ran.

My bare feet kicked up sand, a storm of sand behind me as I rushed down to where the sand merged with rock and the sea eddied in those crevices where otters slipped into sunset shadows.

I heard her scream, “What do you mean dead?” I faced the waves. Then heard, “No, God! No.”

The wind brought her wail to me, standing at the edge, where granite shards — ramparts in a war against the waves — were polished and slimed with algae.

A scream, a sob, followed. I inhaled the sea, disconnected, saw — amused at my mind’s fertility — bodies sloshing back and forth in the tide.

Then she was behind me. “David?”

I didn’t turn.

She asked, “When?”

Not answering, I said. “He had heard you were pregnant.”

“He couldn’t have heard. No one knew.”

“But you disappeared, Joy. You just left him. In his mind, you must have been carrying his baby. When the rumors started that you were in the Haight, even though Stanford was about to start, he came looking for you.

“Then when school started, he kept looking. At first just on weekends. Then he began skipping days of class. I told him he was crazy, that he was risking everything.”

“Well he didn’t find me. He must have gone back to classes again. I don’t understand.”

“He kept looking. When he dropped out, no one could convince him. Even Stanford offered to give him a year’s grace, even holding his scholarship, but soon he even stopped taking my calls.”

“He didn’t go to Stanford?”

“He didn’t. Later his Mom told me he had gone back east. He was dead more than a year before I found out. My junior year had just started. He’d overdosed shooting meth, or at least those were the rumors.”

“So! Only rumors. Maybe … ”

“Joy! It’s been thirty years. He would have made contact with one of us … by now, you think?”

She stared. Her eyes wide. Her mouth contorted.

“But then, of course,” I said, “you know better than anyone what it means to move on, right? I have John, and I’m certain you have someone?”

Her moan engulfed me and I stepped back. The cold of the water soaked into the rolled up cuff of my pant.

Her arms flayed. She rushed forward. I stepped, ready to shove her aside.

Her bare feet hit the slimed rock. I was transfixed, as if behind the wheel watching another car careen towards me, and time slowed. Her legs splayed. Her head dove towards the rocks.

And then, my hand shot out and clutched her back, seizing blouse and bra. With one yank, she was upright and then in my arms. I cradled her. I hushed her, whispering, “I know. I know. I love him too.”

I rocked her. The frantic beat of her sobs slowed until they softened and merged with the flow of the waves.

When she lay still, I asked if she wanted to go back to her room, and she nodded.

We walked back toward the party. Gabriel, on watch, saw us. He ran down to meet us.

What had I done? I had had one chance to be free and instead became this reluctant hero.

It was too much. I had to have her away from me, gone. I asked Gabriel, “Could you make sure she gets back to her room?”

Gabriel took her arm and said to me, “Take this. It’s the kid’s number. He said to give him a call.”

I put the note in my pocket and watched them walk away. Had I done something good?


My phone rang. Still lost in what had happened, I answered.

She said, “David? David! Finally.”

I cut her off. Before I made it down the hall to my room, she called two more times. I’d talk to her later, but not now. I was still too raw.

She had become so needy since Dad died. Enthroned in her bed, surrounded by her framed putti and stacks of novels, she could no longer ignore the man who had lay next to her for forty years.

When I got to the room, I flopped on the bed and pressed back against the tuck and roll of the headboard, then got out my cell and dialed.

When he picked up, I said, “Michael, it’s me. … I know, it’s been too long … Remember Joy Remington? … Yes, that Joy. Was that a mess? Anyway damnedest thing. They had a party tonight to close out the conference here in Monterey … Yeah, I did go back to Cannery Row. Nothing like when we were there … Anyway, Joy? She slipped on some rocks on the beach … No, not o.k. She fucking died … I didn’t talk to her, not really. Nothing but long time no see … It is a shame. How’s Linda and the kids? … Excellent. Well you know I love you? … Good and always will.”

After I hung up I grabbed the TV’s remote. It came on to PBS about to air the opera Manon Lescaut.

A chill ran through me. I grabbed the edge of the bed cover and pulled it around me. My jaw still shuddered.

My Dad first met my Mom at this same opera in Brussels. The war had been over for a month and they had just enough time to get married before my father was shipped back stateside.

I loved the music. I loved the story of the working girl and her knight, but as the overture began, I thought, I can’t, I have to call Mom. I have to.

Instead I called John and told him I couldn’t wait to get home the next day.

“You know I love you, don’t you? … Good. And always will.”

I thought about going back to the opera and letting myself be transported through sentiment and tears to a good night’s sleep.

Instead, I took the slip from my pocket and called the kid, “Hey angel boy. It’s room 263. Come on up.”

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2 Replies

  1. Lori

    Called the kid… No!!!

  2. chris

    umm….some pretty life-changing misunderstandings spiraling around like A DNA STRAND IN THOSE last paragraphs. which of the characters actually had the full view of the situation? Everybody held a part of it. I want you to to tell us about the catharsis.

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