Good Read Mysteries
The Death Contingency - Browse

    Signs every few yards along the cliff edges warned that they were dangerous and unstable. But he'd had a few beers and needed to relieve himself. If the cliffs were unstable, why hadn't the signs fallen into the ocean, he sniggered with intoxicated logic?
    An impish grin crept across his face; he was seventeen, invincible master of the world. He moved to the very edge of the cliff and stood, feet spread, hand tauntingly on a warning sign, head thrown back crowing at the sky as he sent his stream arching into the ocean below.
    He was stunned by the suddenness of the fall.
    He didn't cry out for help as he plummeted. There was no time.
    He plunged deep into the ocean. Frigid water slammed his body, contracted his muscles, and forced the air from his lungs.
    He strained for the surface, battling his emptied lungs that were desperate for oxygen, struggling against the urgent need to take a killing breath.
    He surfaced with a gasp, gulping air until his lungs hurt less than his skin.
    He wasn't afraid. Just shaken and angry. Sobered. This was the Pacific. The ocean was warm where he came from near San Diego. How could it be so cold here? He was partying just north of Santa Cruz, home base to so many world-class surfers; how could they surf in this water?
    He shivered violently. His entire body felt like it was being slashed by tiny, sharp razors. Except for the long pants and the tightly zipped sweatshirt that covered him, he half-expected he would see his blood oozing from a thousand cuts.
    The plunge left him disoriented. By the time he turned to face the cliffs, he was surprised how far he had drifted out to sea.
    Not a problem. He was a strong swimmer. He kicked and paddled hard in the direction of the cliffs. But despite his efforts, after a few minutes they seemed farther away, not closer. The music from the party was growing fainter. Not good.
    The cliff face was sheer where he dropped into the ocean. He was going to need help getting back to the top. By now, some of his friends should be climbing down with flashlights, calling his name, ready to lend a hand when he got near land. Why didn't he see lights moving down the cliff face?
    He rubbed his ears - they must be affected by the cold - he could hardly hear the sounds of the party anymore. And he was getting tired fast. He took as deep a breath as he could manage and called to his friends. No response...
    His arms and legs didn't feel like they belonged to him any longer. They were heavy and stiff - his joints almost old-man arthritic in the cold sea. It took real determination to kick his legs and reach out his arms to paddle.
    Maybe taking off his shoes would make swimming easier, less tiring. He stopped his ineffective strokes to reach down and take them off. But his fingers were numb and lacked strength; he couldn't be certain when he grasped the Velcro tabs on his shoes. A task that should have taken a few seconds stretched into exhausting minutes.
    Finally one of his shoes popped to the surface behind his head. He didn't notice it...
    At least the water wasn't as cold anymore. He felt prickles - pinpoints of pain rather than the overwhelming agony of razor-cut cold.
    As he struggled with his shoes, the sounds of the party faded more and more, growing softer and farther away until he couldn't hear them at all. The beacon of light given off by the party bonfire on the cliffs had become very faint, more a memory of warmth than luminosity.
    Perhaps he should have been concerned, but he wasn't. He was comfortable in the water now. The moon came out from behind a passing cloud and shone brightly. Cool silver light reflected off little lapping waves all around him. The sounds they made were soothing...restful. And he was so tired...
    He had no fear of sinking; the salt water buoyed him up. Maybe he'd turn on his back, close his eyes, and just rest for a few minutes, enjoying the warm Pacific and the lapping of the waves before he got back to the hard task of swimming to shore.

    Another man was resting momentarily in the ocean, too, well beneath the young partygoer. He hadn't expected rescue when he went into the sea. He never struggled to return to the surface after his drop into the Pacific. His breathing had been regular and deep. His lungs had filled with water as naturally as they had with the air that would have buoyed his body and kept him afloat in the dense, salty sea. Instead, the weight of the water in his lungs had quickly sent him to the ocean bottom.
    A school of surfperch swam around him near the marine floor. They were small fish in a vast ocean, but the unified movement of their silvery bodies caused a slight ripple in the dark underwater world. Caught in the flow, the man gave up resting and swam, his arms and legs lacking coordination and purpose, on his random undersea journey.


    Kaivan arrived precisely at 10:00 for his Thursday morning appointment, encouraged into the escrow company lobby by a strong burst of wind against his back. He ran his hand lightly over his head to return any stray hairs to their proper place and gave the knot on his tie a quick wiggle to make sure it was perfectly positioned.
    Realtors are trained to dress up at least one level from their clients. In the laid-back beach community of Santa Cruz, Kaivan could have met that standard with khakis, a shirt open at the collar, and because of the February chill, a casual zippered jacket. But he was always conscious of what he wore and how he looked. He knew he was an attractive man, and by dressing well, he could count on being favorably noticed by women. He liked that.
    Besides, it was a signoff, and realtors always upped it a notch for a signoff. It was an important occasion for their clients, and for them, too - they were close to a job completed and to a paycheck.
    Even so, it didn't seem fitting to wear one of his designer-label suits today. Instead he chose charcoal flannel slacks, a well cut custom-made navy cashmere blazer, an Egyptian cotton shirt, and a navy and dusky blue silk tie. Expensive classic clothing: his trademark.
    Kaivan left the lobby and walked through the employee work area. He walked slowly, showing off, strutting his stuff for the benefit of the women working there. He noted their glances and approving smiles. He made it a point to catch each woman's eye in turn and offer a returned smile. Perfect, he thought.
    He stuck his head into Arlene's cubicle. "I'm here," he said jauntily. "Where have you put my client?"
    "He's not here yet," the escrow officer replied.
    "Sorry about that. He's usually right on time." Kaivan grinned sheepishly and raised his eyebrows in apology.
    "There's a lot of traffic on Highway 1 this morning. They closed another exit for the widening project and the road was backed up when I came in. Everyone's running a little late."
    "That's probably what's happened to him. He doesn't have a mobile, but let me try him at home one more time." Kaivan pushed the appropriate speed dial on his cell phone, held it to his ear, waited a few seconds, and announced, "No answer. He must be on his way, inching through the backup as we speak. I'll wait for him in the lobby."

    Kaivan checked the time on his watch again. The watch wasn't top-of-the-line, but it was a genuine Rolex, purchased and registered at Dell Williams Jewelers, a reputable store on Pacific Avenue that had been in business for generations. 10:14. His seller was almost fifteen minutes late.
    When the sale closed, his client, who was also his favorite uncle, would net well over half a million dollars in profit, even after all the taxes and commissions were deducted from the proceeds. But first there were papers to sign, and his uncle still hadn't arrived.
    Arlene came out of her cubicle at 10:23, her arms full of documents, and went to the lobby. She glimpsed Kaivan checking his watch.
    Cyrus Ansari, Kaivan's uncle, was now very late. Mr. Ansari's tardiness, understandable if he was caught in unexpected traffic, was going to mean she'd be running late for the rest of the morning. She might even have to forgo some of her lunch break to catch up. His fault or not, Arlene was less than pleased with Mr. Ansari.
    Regan arrived just as Arlene reached the lobby. A nippy gust of wind caught her before she made it all the way through the entry door. She came in with a shiver.
    Her clients weren't due to arrive until 10:30, but she had come a little early to review their escrow summary pages, just to make sure Arlene got everything right. Regan was thorough. She paid attention. Even though Arlene was very good at her job, Regan always double-checked all the details.
    Her clients were young, enthused, very pregnant, and like most first-time buyers, nervous. Signoffs were an exciting but also an anxious time for buyers, so she often liked to break her clients' tension with a little lighthearted jesting. One of her favorite devices was telling buyers that the small print on the documents they were initialing said they agreed to give the lender their first-born if a mortgage payment was more than two days late.
    Parents of teenagers normally enjoyed that gag and feigned enthusiasm. Most hastily asked, "Where do I sign?" But she planned to skip that line today, considering her buyer's condition.
    Regan spotted Kaivan and noted what he was wearing. Like other women had done that morning, she smiled at him, although her smile was more than just one of approval. He was a friend, that was part of it, but the main reason for her smile was some self-directed amusement at how predictably she reacted to Kaivan's expensive custom-tailored clothing.
    She wore clothes well. She had willowy long legs and was tall enough to be a model, but his impeccable wardrobe always made her feel disappointingly turned out, like a poor relation.
    Nothing she wore, probably nothing she owned, was in his league. Case in point - today's outfit: knee-high brown suede boots, worn against the chill rather than as a fashion statement, a simple brown wool skirt and jacket, and a three- year-old turquoise-colored angora turtleneck sweater. All very ordinary and off the rack.

(to be continued ...)