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The Essence

Summary

A mystery writer battling a bad case of writer’s block encounters some bizarre and unexplainable occurrences on the last city of his book signing tour. The hard-boiled detective, from the writer’s mystery novels, appears from the pages of the writer’s latest book to help him make sense of these strange occurrences that seem to stem from an unsolved cold-case mystery.

Chapter 1 - San Francisco

Daniel was feeling like a damned fool sitting at the book signing table without a single person around him. He was used to crowds of adoring fans excited to meet him, clamoring for his autograph – he didn’t understand it. The signage in the store window clearly stated that he would be here today; there was a pyramid-shaped display of his latest book and a very handsome photo of him in plain view there. The bookstore manager had announced him with ample enthusiasm – what was the problem? All of these thoughts were running rampant through his mind as he sat there with pen in hand ready to write greetings, appreciations and ‘best of lucks’ to the inside cover page of his readers’ copies of his book.

He had the feeling that something strange was going on – he couldn’t put his finger on it, but something wasn’t right about this whole tour. The reception of his latest book, Daunted, had been lackluster at best in the last seven cities and sales were in the dumper. San Francisco was the last city on the tour and things weren’t looking very promising here, either.

And the fact he was under contract for three more books didn’t help the situation - the Murphy’s Law proverb, ‘whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way,’ certainly applied to Daniel at this point – because on top of all this, a nasty case of writer’s block had paralyzed him of any creative thought whatsoever.

He needed a good idea for a story and he needed it now.

Daniel’s eyes wandered about the bookstore searching for someone to make eye contact with him – as though he could will someone to the table just by staring into their eyes. He fixed his eyes on a few unluckies who had inadvertently met his gaze and stared intently at them without blinking – this clearly didn’t work as the creepiness of his facial expression put people off and they hurried away even more swiftly from the table – in his distorted imagination he pictured them actually running from him - this left him feeling utterly ridiculous in his efforts to captivate them and draw them in. Thereby, his other idea to jump on top of the table and do a jig for attention was promptly squelched – besides singing for his supper wasn’t in his DNA and he really wasn’t feeling all that well. He popped a couple of bluish tablets into his mouth and followed them down with a swig of water to calm his jumpy stomach.

Then, at last, one female reader approached the table and pushed her copy of Daunted in front of him.

“I really love the series,” she said.

“Thank you very much. What’s your name, Miss?” he asked baffled, thinking what was different about her that drew her to the table? He opened her book and lifted his pen to write.

“Courtney,” she said, with a nervous laugh. “Dick Sunday is my all-time favorite detective. So what’s the next book going to be like? Will it be a gruesome stabbing or maybe a strangulation case?”

Daniel stopped writing; his stomach did a somersault. “I’m working on it now, you’ll just have to wait and see,” he answered, completing his signature.

It wasn’t like Daniel to lie to his readers like that, but he couldn’t let on that he didn’t even have a next book in his head.

Daniel had never experienced writer’s block in his entire writing career and he really didn’t know how to handle it. He likened his endless reservoir of ideas to a once flourishing lake bed drying up in a drought.

Then just as he was about to give up, a few readers started approaching his table in dribs and drabs. Maybe Courtney had brought him some luck in that others had seen how she had come to the table and left with a smile on her face. A sort of testing of the waters, as it were, that Daniel was approachable and he was okay. He signed their copies; a half-hearted smile was all he could muster up in his deteriorating state of mind. He took no solace in their accolades of his past works; the praise only impressed upon him that his accomplishments really were behind him.

Daniel took a short break from the signing table as the line of people seemed to have abruptly dwindled down to nothing. He walked out of the bookstore and stepped into the beautiful San Francisco afternoon. The sky was bright blue with just a smattering of cumulous clouds. He inhaled the fresh air and caught an unexpected scent of rose riding on the breeze.

It was good to get out and stretch his legs, he thought, as he stopped to watch the cable car drivers turn the cable cars around at the end of the line. This was Daniel’s first time in the city and he found it just as rich in art, culture and great restaurants as he had always heard it was.

But as he walked past some of the boutiques and shops, he sensed something odd about the look of them. There were displays of form shaping lava lamps, weird psychedelic art and a wig shop touting the ‘shag look’ as new. Men’s shop mannequins’ sported disco jumpsuits, out-of-date polyester flair bottom pants with butterfly collar disco shirts in the wildest colors and patterns Daniel had ever seen. He found it amusing that ‘disco’ and ‘groovy’ were the words most used to describe the styles and themes for almost everything.

Daniel’s eyes followed a pretty girl as she passed by him wearing a micro-mini go-go skirt with white knee-high vinyl boots, the hem of her faded tie died top was tied off in a knot showing off her sexy midriff. He was so busy gawking at her that he didn’t see the couple coming towards him sporting some serious ‘his and hers’ afros. He collided with the man, full force, his face bounced off the man’s chest full of gold chains.

“Hey man, you wanna watch where you’re going?” the man scowled, pushing him aside and almost knocking him to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” Daniel apologized, trying to be as sincere as possible. “What the hell is all this?” he muttered to himself, thinking he had stepped into a sort of retro 1970’s renaissance fair where all the clientele actually came dressed in all this bad taste.

When he regained his balance, he found himself standing in the doorway of a store that specialized in used vinyl collectible albums, 45’s and eight track tapes. He went inside. The place was like a time-warp of 70’s music, media and posters. There were reel-to-reel decks, eight-track players and belt-drive stereo turntables the like of which he had never seen before.

He sorted through a stack of 45’s and eight-track tapes. He was fascinated by this old stuff but he couldn’t get over how new everything looked. He thought that the previous owners must have taken very good care of this stuff because everything in the store was in such pristine condition. And the prices were too good to be true - he was no expert but classics and collectibles such as these, in this kind of condition, would have to be worth a king’s ransom more than what they were asking.

The full-length version of ‘Nights in White Satin’ welled to a crescendo from the store’s sound system. Daniel stopped browsing as his whole body bristled with goose bumps - the sweet lament of unrequited love had touched his soul.

A loud bang from a car backfire cruelly snatched him out of the moment. He looked toward the sound just outside the storefront window. A fire engine red, 1960 Plymouth Valiant was pulling away from the curb; he ran to the window to get a better look. To his amazement, even this old Valiant was in super clean condition. Daniel was a car enthusiast and if there was one thing he knew a lot about, it was automobiles, classics in particular. And in his opinion, this was the finest specimen of a 60’s Valiant he’d ever seen. But before he could get over the spotlessness of the Valiant, a Ford Woody went tooling by complete with gleaming white walls and a windshield visor. Daniel’s trained eyes scanned the wood body for any age discolorations (he knew what to look for) and there just weren’t any to be found - its wood was in amazing condition for being over three decades old. “Now there’s a restoration,” he thought, out loud.

A Ford Pinto hatchback cruised by followed by an AMC Hornet, the Sportabout model. He knew he wasn’t dreaming because he was wide awake. The whole street was lined with nothing but cars from the 1970’s or older and all were in mint condition.

He rushed to the front door and watched as a parade of classic cars cruised past.

“What the hell?” He pushed the door open and stepped outside the store, but as his foot hit the pavement, the surroundings snapped back to present day. “Oh, this is just crazy!”

Daniel didn’t know what to think. He headed back in the direction of the bookstore; his senses were on high alert. He wondered if the bookstore was still going to be there when he got back or if he would encounter something else on the way. He was walking fast surveying everything and everyone he passed; cognizant of every detail around him.

When he finally reached the bookstore, he was so relieved that it was still there – he felt he could kiss its brick and mortar exterior. He hurried through the main aisle of the store; was he seeing things or were there more people standing around in the vicinity of the signing table? He rushed to his seat - his mind was still reeling from the whole experience as he sat down. Then an amazing thing happened; the group of people who had been standing nearby began to approach him at the table.

He blew out a breath, picked up his pen and began to sign autographs – now this was more like it, he thought. When he first began to sign their copies, he was able to pause and look at each person and get a sense of his or her face, but the more autographs he signed the longer the line of people became and soon he had to speed things up and compose his messages faster and faster to keep the line moving. Right before his eyes, the original group of people had turned into a steady stream of people until a pretty impressive line had formed. My God! Daniel gasped. He estimated there had to be at least a hundred and fifty people in the queue – wow!

His mood brightened and with it his posture; he was suddenly sitting straight up in his chair - the events of the earlier incident suddenly faded to the back of his consciousness.

“Maybe San Francisco will be different after all,” he exclaimed, with a genuine smile.

Daniel’s diverse and eclectic mix of fans never ceased to amuse him. Take Ron and Don, who arrived at the table wearing matching pastel Oxford shirts with turned up collars and Khaki’s with rolled up pant legs. They looked a lot alike and very Ivy League with the exception that one had thick golden locks and the other one had a head of thick, wavy, black hair sort of mirror opposites of each other.

Daniel surmised that they could be brothers, but he wasn’t absolutely sure. It wasn’t like him to pass any judgment, but he wondered why two grown men would dress alike at their age – they had to be pushing thirty, if a day. He couldn’t help but thinking that theirs must be a most interesting story to say the least.

“It’s so good to see you in person,” said Ron, pulling a copy of Daunted from a large shoulder bag and handing it off to Daniel.

“Why thank you,” Daniel said politely, opening it to the cover page.

“We’ve read everything you’ve ever written,” said Don.

“We keep one of your books by the bedside at all times,” said Ron, bumping elbows with Don.

Daniel wasn’t quite sure how to react to that so he didn’t, but it did shoot down the brothers’ theory.

“Could you make a separate note for each of us?” Ron requested.

“My pleasure,” said Daniel.

“I’m Ron, he’s Don,” Ron said, to differentiate between the two of them.

Daniel pondered a moment, assessing what he would write to the two of them. Then with a smile and a sweeping motion of the pen, he composed their separate notes and scribbled out his signature at the end.

The two men took turns reading their notes.

“Wow! Thanks,” said Ron.

“Hey, we’re looking forward to seeing you at the party later,” Don added. He was referring to, “An Evening with Daniel Taylor,” a black tie affair in honor of the mystery writer to be held later that evening at the Fairmont Hotel.

Daunted marked a milestone seventh book in his Sunday’s Law series of mystery novels. And Daniel had been looking forward to this milestone tribute of his work for some time. But in light of the dismal turnout of this book tour and the inexplicable loss of his artistic faculties, he wasn’t feeling any of the love.

Chapter 2 - Helena

It was an elegant soirée. The richly decorated ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel was alive with a notable assemblage of mystery aficionados and Daniel Taylor devotees all hobnobbing with the upper crust of San Francisco’s elite society. They were all there to see and be seen with Daniel Taylor.

Music swelled from a ballroom sound system, champagne was popping and there was dancing; lots of dancing. Daniel was one of the most sought after dance partners on the floor. He obliged and swept the dozens of ladies, of all ages, across the floor.

When he wasn’t on the dance floor, Daniel was being corralled by swarms of adoring women – Daniel was considered quite a catch. Like a group of excited magpies, they chattered noisily around him, each one vying for his undivided attention. He peeked above the heads of the ‘Magpie’ clump of ladies and caught sight of Ron and Don, wearing matching tuxedos, socializing a few guest-clumps away. He ducked down amongst the elegant hem-lines of the Magpie set pretending to be tying his shoelace, but it was too late – they’d already spotted him.

Within seconds, Daniel’s eyes fell upon two pairs of dressy European lace-ups pressing themselves into the group of well dressed ‘Magpie’ feet. Daniel stood up, put on his show-biz grin and pretended to be totally surprised to see them. “Well look who’s here!”

“Why if it’s not our favorite author,” said Ron.

“Now you weren’t trying to hide from us down there, were you?” Don asked, straightening the bow in Daniel’s tie.

“Me? Hide? Course not!” Daniel lied. Daniel wasn’t usually in the habit of avoiding his reading public, but at the moment his mind was elsewhere – it was out on the terrace catching a smoke on a Macanudo Cru Royale, a blue banded cigar from Santiago one of two that he had stuffed into the inside pocket of his tux. The sudden craving for its peppery full-bodied taste was calling and he was anxious to slip away to satisfy it.

Ron and Don positioned themselves, like a pair of bookends, on either side of Daniel. They intertwined their arms with his. He was trapped between the two of them with no way to get away. Dammit.

“Oh, you won’t mind if we borrow him a moment do you, ladies?” Ron’s question was more of a notice of intent rather than a request for permission.

Daniel reacted with a shrug and a smile. He made his excuses to the ladies and was led off by the flamboyant pair.

It wasn’t long before Daniel was able to shed the clutches of Ron and Don. The couple’s favorite song began to play and the two rushed excitedly off to the dance floor. As soon as they were gone, Daniel took this as his chance to make a hasty escape out onto the terrace.

Standing at the terrace railing, Daniel blew circles with his ‘o’-shaped lips forming perfectly fashioned rings of smoke that floated one after the other out on the cool night air. After a few puffs on his Cru Royale, the body mellowed down to a rich sweetness that he was enjoying to a near blissful state as he took in a most amazing view of the shimmering San Francisco skyline.

In his blissful state, he soon became oblivious to the music and chatter that filtered out from the ballroom.

He was content just puffing circles of cigar smoke into the air. He thought he was alone; his mind began to drift.

“The nights are beautiful here,” a woman’s voice declared out of nowhere.

Daniel bristled. He was all set to be annoyed by the intrusion; but that all changed when he saw who the voice belonged to.

A beautiful young woman stepped out from a shadowy area on the terrace. From the look of her, he anticipated this was going to be a most pleasant intrusion.

“Hello,” she said, moving; almost floating next to him at the railing.

Daniel couldn’t believe his eyes. She was a vision in an exquisite white, beaded cocktail dress. Her fragrance was likened to that of a rose garden, sweet, intoxicating and in some way familiar.

She can’t be more than twenty-five; twenty-six at the most, he thought. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“Well, hello,” he said.

She didn’t speak; she didn’t have to. There was something very sensual and coquettish about her expression. She pulled a gold and jeweled cigarette case from her dainty, white beaded purse.

Daniel was drawn in by her magnetism as he watched her pluck a cigarette from the case and slowly raised it to her lips.

He reached into the inside pocket of his tux and pulled out his lighter. He opened it and struck a flame.

Her face glowed in the light as she leaned in and touched her cigarette to it. Her features were ethereal, classic.

Daniel forgot to kill the flame after her cigarette was lit.

“You can put that out now,” she said.

Daniel extinguished the flame. “Oh, sorry!” he apologized, embarrassed.

She giggled. “Don’t be. I get that reaction all the time. I’m Helena. Helena Foxworth,” she said, extending her hand.

Daniel took it, “I’m...”

“I know who you are,” she interrupted. “You’re the author, Daniel Taylor.”

“Guilty.” He said, trying to be amusing.

“I’ve read your books,” she said, watching him lift her hand to his lips.

He could tell from the three-tiered diamond bracelet hanging from her wrist that she came from some serious money. “What’d you think?”

“I liked them,” she answered.

“Have you read, Daunted?”

“Yes.”

“You have?” Daniel was both impressed and surprised. “And-?”

Helena smiled and took a long draw off her cigarette – she turned her head slightly and closed her eyes, her long lashes lay like silk fans on her perfect face – she breathed out a long stream of cigarette smoke careful to aim it away from Daniel.

“I found it a bit, Arsenic and Old Lace,” she whispered.

“Arsenic and Old lace?”

“Oh, don’t get so defensive,” she said. “I still liked it.”

“Yeah, but it’s not supposed to be anything resembling ‘Arsenic and Old’...”

Helena cut in and gently took his hand. “I didn’t really read it,” she teased and let out a playful laugh.

“Well, why not?” Daniel acted hurt and disappointed; but he wasn’t.

“Not my style,” she said.

Her comment hung there a long moment like the curls of smoke clouds from her cigarette still hanging suspended in the air.

“You’re messing with me, right?”

“I like that you’re quick Mr. Taylor. Actually, I have quite a fascination for mysteries and suspense. And you’re something of an enigma.”

“How so?”

Helena looked into his eyes in a way that gave him the feeling that she could see through him to his soul.

“You’re a very charming man, especially with the ladies. You have a passion for a good cigar and judging by your appearance, you have a penchant for the finer things in life. You don’t strike me as someone who likes to get his hands dirty – you’re not a tough guy by any stretch of the imagination; you’re much too sensitive. Yet you have this incredible ability to write about a well-seasoned, hard-boiled detective who has the intellect to analyze and interpret motives, clues and evidence. That’s got to come from somewhere Mr. Taylor,” she concluded her keen evaluation with a smartly arched brow.

“Wow. You got all that from this brief encounter?”

“I’m very observant, Mr. Taylor.”

Daniel was bowled over by how accurately she was able to read him.

Their conversation went on for quite some time. Daniel didn’t notice. As far as he was concerned, all time had stopped moving and he was suspended into this one unbelievable moment. Daniel found out that she was the great-granddaughter of the late shipping tycoon, Henry J. Foxworth, patriarch of the San Francisco Foxworths. Her ample trust fund afforded her the luxurious lifestyle of a high-society, San Francisco socialite.

She was a published author and had a series of successful romance novels to her credit. And she was an accomplished artist with a passion for water-colors. She loved beautiful flowers and gardens and from the way she told it, Daniel figured that she probably had a great big green thumb to prove it.

He found her flighty and romantic, yet whimsical and funny. They talked about a journal she kept and Daniel surmised from the passionate way she spoke about the things she wrote in her journal, that she was simply in love with love. She seemed to be pretty open about what she wrote in it and he wondered why she would confide in him like that - not that he minded. He could listen to her all night.

He was pleased that she was a writer. “I would love to read some of your work.”

Helena smiled. “Are you going to be in the city long?” she asked, changing the subject.

“A few more days, I guess. I might take in a few sights.” He wondered where she was going with this.

“Oh, fresh meat.” she said, dropping her cigarette on the ground and squashing it out with her foot.

“What?” He asked.

“I just meant that you’re untouched by our charm; untainted by our history.”

Daniel nodded. “That I am.”

Helena leaned in closer, “Would you like a tour guide?”

Was she kidding? It was just the question he was hoping she would ask. “I’d love one.”

Just then, a noisy clump of guests spilled out onto the terrace - spoiling what could’ve been a highly seductive moment. The guests barged in between the couple, separating Daniel and Helena from each other. The rowdy crowd however, only saw Daniel. They were not even aware of Helena.

Helena tried to speak over the racket as she and Daniel were pried further apart.

“Meet me tomorrow afternoon at-” she was abruptly cut off.

Daniel found himself surrounded by the crowd. A couple of tipsy male guests clumsily bumped into him sending him stumbling backwards. Luckily, the two inebriated gentlemen managed to catch Daniel under his armpits before he fell.

“Sorry, mate,” one of them apologized.

Daniel paid them no mind. He was concerned about Helena. He had lost track of her. He looked around and couldn’t find her anywhere. Time must have started moving forward again because Daniel suddenly felt tired and drained. He started to call out to her. “Helena! Where did you say to meet?”

He didn’t see that Helena had stepped away from the boisterous crowd and retreated back into the shadows. He called out to her again, and again, but to no avail. A wave of desperation came over him and a sinking feeling made him sick to his stomach. He pushed his way out of the clutches of the crowd and tromped off to the ballroom alone.

Chapter 3 - The Dream

Daniel went directly to his suite; he was beside himself. In desperation, he scoured through the pages of a thick San Francisco telephone book but couldn’t find her listed.

It was a little past three a.m. He had been up all night and he looked like hell. The telephone book lay opened, sprawled recklessly on his rumpled sheets. He was still dressed in his formal attire, except that now he was in his stocking feet. His tie hung loose around his neck and his shirt tail hung all wrinkled out of his trousers. A short stub of a cigar was poked in his face. And as he paced the suite, swirls of cigar smoke followed him around the room.

He could not get Helena out of his mind. Exhausted, he fell into a big easy chair and buried his face in his hands. As he leaned back, he closed his eyes. He saw her face. Then he drifted off into a fitful sleep and began to dream.

He dreamt he was falling through an impenetrable mist. The roar of pounding surf filled his head. A woman’s horrifying scream pierced through the crashing sound of the surf. It was as though the woman was careening helplessly through an abyss. The scream grew louder and louder, it advanced closer and closer to Daniel. Then suddenly, the screamer hurtled past him – the wake sent him spinning through the mist. And just as suddenly as the scream came – it faded away leaving behind an ill-fated silence.

Eight A.M. Daniel awoke with a start. He was clutching the arms of the chair where he had fallen asleep. He had to raise his hands to shield his eyes from a laser intense stream of morning sun. It had been a long night. He was rumpled and weary. He staggered to the mini bar where he found a container of orange juice. He opened it and threw back a big slug of juice right from the bottle.

Then out of his peripheral vision he saw a fancy white envelope lying on the floor in the entryway – someone had slipped it under the door.

He picked it up. ‘DANIEL’ was elegantly written on the front. His eyes got big. He threw open the door and rushed out into the hallway. His feet landed on the morning newspaper lying just outside the door. He ignored the paper at first – instead, his eyes swept up and down the hallway. Not a soul was in sight. Then noticing the newspaper under his feet, he reached down to pick it up and headed back into the suite. Oblivious to the headline and more importantly, to the fact that the event in the headline wasn’t to occur for several more days in the future, Daniel tossed the newspaper haphazardly onto a table. The front page opened out to reveal a gruesome caption: ‘Yvonne Kopelli has been brutally beaten - the Fashion Diva clings to life.’

Daniel tore open the fancy envelope still in his hand. The message inside brought a big smile to his weary face.